Change 2/3: Those Were the Days

This article is the second in my series about negotiating change in worship. This week, I continue our conversation with a look at our relationship with our histories. In my workshop called “The Politics of Change” in the Worship Design Studio, I often take folks on a little interactive walking tour of 3,000 years of worship history–only the highlights! Why talk about history in relationship to change? Because the most common retort when faced with change is “But we’ve always done it this way!” Most of the time, “always” really only means about two generations-worth of memory. And of course, change is contested in every generation of church traditions.

The Scope of Worship History

The only way we can really understand the role of change is to step back and get a broader view of history. So in my interactive history tour, we start with Miriam and the women dancing and drumming in worship at the Red Sea, then we go to worship in the temple, then the Babylonian exile, early Christianity, medieval worship, the Reformation and finally to various influences in early American worship. All along the way we see that, no, we haven’t always done it “this” way. In fact, the constant element along the way IS change. But here is the important point–change doesn’t happen just because something “groovier” came along. Change happens in order to keep the story alive from generation to generation, from context to context. And that is a faithful thing to do.

In one of Anne Lamott’s early books, she recounts a time when she was expressing consternation over something to her father, going on and on about it. Finally, her father said to her, “Whoa, hold on! In a hundred years, all new people!” Sometimes we need a little perspective about our little spot in the great scope of history. In a hundred years, not one of us (even the youngest of us) will be standing in our sanctuaries. Will we have “handed on” (the literal meaning of the Latin traditio) the Transforming Story so that the next generation is empowered to tell it in ways that can be heard by new ears?

The Scope of Personal History

The other aspect of our histories that I want to share here is that we are all reacting to present worship based on past experiences of worship. We might be looking for a sentimental match for our good memories of worship. Getting upset that we are using a different Advent wreath this year could be wrapped up in the fact that this new one doesn’t look like what we are “used to.” Our underlying discomfort makes us forget that it is the actual light, not the holder, that is the root of the symbol.

On the other hand, if we were oppressed by forms or messages of worship in our younger years, anything that “smacks” of that memory will cause conscious or sub-conscious reactions in us. For example, my spouse grew up in a very strict, theologically-punitive religion. Now, no matter how liberating the message by a preacher, if there is a floppy Bible involved, the gut reaction is negative. Apply this to other reactions... something that feels “too Catholic” or “too Pentecostal” or “too touchy-feely” or “too stodgy.”

Examining history is important. Any good therapist would tell you that. And sometimes in the midst of conflicts about worship, a good therapist’s advice is what we need. Dig deeper. What’s really going on? Is our fear of change trumping the call to spread the Gospel in all the ways we can to all the people we can? Are we more interested in keeping comfortable than examining the things that hold us, or others, back from really flying?

These Are the Days

The little rural church where I grew up supported me as a young artist and encouraged me to do mime, drama, dance, and play all sorts of instruments. Years later I learned that not everyone in that congregation was exactly comfortable with some of the “edgier” art forms of drama and dance but their desire to support the youth of the church was stronger than their personal discomfort. I give thanks to God for them because that history of positive reinforcement shaped my entire ministry of resourcing ritual artists.

Let’s keep moving from “those were the days” to “these ARE the days!” as we embrace the best of what was, what is and what is to come!

Join me next week to hear about the “feel” of the holy””how we know what resonates with us and what just doesn’t quite fit.