Jared Witt - November 12, 2018
I typically like to occupy my mind (and blog) with more interesting and complex ideas than this one. I figure, if it’s not an idea that most would find novel or surprising, then why bother writing about it?
But sometimes a simple thing (and by "simple" I mean so simple as to be uninteresting), is nonetheless so frequently misunderstood, that it’s still worth mentioning. One such thing is the coolness:theology paradox in churches.
You could also call it the style:substance paradox, and it goes like this: the style-savvy packaging or cool factor in the worship of your average North American congregation tends to be inversely proportional to the progressiveness of the theology.
No one in the insider circles of mainstream denominations is unaware of this (by whom I mean, seminarians, pastors, regional council members or anyone else who spends a lot of time thinking about church), but I find more often than not that normal people outside those small circles tend to expect that it’s just the opposite: that the progressiveness of theology would tend to increase as trendiness or so-called “relevance” of the presentation increases.
It’s an understandable assumption. If I walk into a shopping mall, and the décor is dated, I tend to assume that that mall isn’t going to have the trendiest stores. If I go to a restaurant that hasn’t gotten on board with serving more expensive coffee, I’m going to assume that they tend to cater to an older demographic who likes a weaker coffee. So it makes sense. I assume that one thing intuitively signals another, whether or not there is an actual causal relationship. And often enough, I’m right.
It just happens to be that that’s not the case with churches by and large.
Again, what I’m saying is not some minority perspective nor is it a particularly original insight, and putting aside the rare exceptions, it’s not really up for debate. If anything, I apologize if you already take this information for granted.
But I still think it bears repeating, because I continue to find many who are surprised to find that it is more often the small “high church” mainstream congregation, whose music comes from a pipe organ and whose pastor wears a cassock, that is actually the most open and accepting of LGBTQ people or that it is the hip megachurch with stellar graphic art and a pastor in skinny jeans that insists on biblical literalism.
I’m not qualified to comment on all of the complex sociological reasons why it became this way. I’m only stating that it is. I’m not even trying to prove that more progressive is better, though I’m sure pretty much everyone would say I tend to be more progressive in my theology.
The problems occur when people look for a progressive option in American Christianity, the majority of which is overwhelmingly conservative, and they don’t know what clues to look for. Invariably, they end up walking into the church with the coolest style, presuming that something of the substance is indicated.
Then they leave dejectedly thinking, “If that’s as progressive as Christianity gets, then I guess I’m a Buddhist.” Nothing wrong with being a Buddhist, by the way. It’s just that a lot of things about Jesus jive pretty well with everything you love about Buddhism. In fact, sometimes it sounds like they’re straight up channeling each other (e.g. Whoever tries to save his/her life will lose it; whoever loses his/her life, will save it). But you’d never know it if all you’d been exposed to was that one church with the professional grade sound stage.
I don’t have space to write about all the more complex cultural and historical reasons why I think so few churches decide to have their cake (professionalism/emotional resonance) and eat it too (good theology) even though they could in theory. There are other blogs for that.
I just mean to say that, if you checkout a church, and they seem down as far as the style, but then you hear something really backwards in the substance. Don’t quit looking. There are other churches that validate your feeling that Jesus is different and better than the dogmas and ideologies we’ve attached to his name. You might have to tolerate a less polished service and some more plodding organ music to get there. But you might also discover in those esoteric words and rituals something that connects you to the God “behind the God” of our churches.
Cheers and Peace,
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