Smells and bells and relevance

I already wrote about how I’m a High Church fan; I love the structure and the ceremony, the tradition-heavy words and full silences, the sensory engagement (well, choir and loads of incense aren’t always the best combination, but…). Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I don’t think so. Remember: I scored in the Millennial category on that PEW quiz!

A lot of denominations or churches or retreats that try to appeal to young adults do so by changing the service. Apparently people of my generation find High Church services too stuffy. They don’t like organs or old hymns or chanted liturgy or choral music—none of those old-fashioned churchy sorts of things. No, my generation likes praise & worship music (heavy on the guitars and drums), casual clothing, laid-back services and settings, lots and lots of multimodal material, and young, hipster, “relevant” ministers.

David A. Roozen via Faith Communities Today recently published a study titled, “A Decade of Change in American Congregations 2000-2010,” a look at changing demographics and preferences of members of a number of American denominations. It’s actually a sort of dismal study: the bottom line is that despite efforts to the contrary, faith communities as a whole are in steady decline.

One of Roozen’s emphases is the staggering oldness of Oldline congregations (“Oldline” is, apparently, the new “Mainline”) He writes, “Half of the congregations could lose one-third of their members in 15 years.” According to the study, “Over half (53 percent) of Oldine Protestant congregations consists of seniors 65 years old or older, and 75 percent of these churches said that 18-34 year olds make up less than 10 percent of their membership.” Roozen also noted that Oldline churches are “losing older members to disabilities or death and there are no young adults to take their place.”

Well, I don’t know about no young adults…

One visual I found especially interesting was look at contemporary and/or innovative worship. As you can see, the innovative services have the highest spiritual vitality score. Worship that’s both innovative and contemporary scores the highest, and there’s another chart that shows the two “contemporary” categories as being biggest in terms of congregational growth—but my heart lies with the “Innovative, Not Contemporary” bar, and I’m pleased to see that innovation seems key.

One really striking example of an “Innovative, Not Contemporary” church is Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS), recently profiled on the blog for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. The title of the profile is telling: “Ancient liturgy for scruffy hipsters with smartphones.”

The profile is… beautiful. Powerful. I could just paste the entire thing here, but this is going to be a long post as is (so you should go read it on your own).

Nadia Bolz-Weber, from her website. You wish you were this cool.

One of the most telling quotes for me is Bolz-Weber stating, “You have to be rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.” Yes.

HFASS is a Lutheran church (planted by Bolz-Weber in 2008) that’s very liberal and very traditional at once, something Bolz-Weber embodies in a way as she m ixes her elaborate tattoos and traditional clerical collar. She pronounces absolution and chants the Eucharistic liturgy weekly, yet she encourages collaboration and lay involvement. A vital part of HFASS’s mission (and something of its innovation) is LGBT inclusion, and the church has been successful in reaching many that even other “gay-inclusive” churches failed to reach. Social media is a ubiquitous aspect of parish life (though apparently used in very wise and thoughtful ways).

The theme of the profile isn’t that HFASS does lots of cool stuff. It’s that HFASS is able to mesh plenty of contemporary, forward-thinking, liberal ideas with a remarkable Christocentrism and a focus on human failings and God’s overwhelming grace.

I’m sure HFASS is as broken as any church, and Bolz-Weber would probably be the first to say so, but I’m so inspired by this example of a church that can be innovative without losing the richness of tradition.

Apparently there’s a name for this: “Traditioned Innovation.” Duke Divinity School defines it: “An inner-biblical way of thinking theologically about the texture of human life in the context of God’s gracious and redemptive self-disclosure.” It’s “a way of thinking and being that holds the past and future in tension, not in opposition,” which DDS sees as integral to church vitality and success—and I agree.

Westerkerk, AmsterdamSo I like tradition. I like the “stuff” of traditional Anglican worship. My love affair with liturgy is much of what drew me to TEC. I don’t deny that great change is coming, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t change. Change is important. It’s necessary. It’s a clear and vital marker of life. But it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in the context of tradition. And just as not all change is bad, not all tradition is bad. In fact, a lot of it is really good, and became tradition because it worked.

I actually think a variety of denominations and worship styles is a good thing. There are so many ways to worship God; no one church does it better than another. Some of us are drawn more to particular forms and styles than others, and while there’s some correlation to culture, ethnicity, age, etc., this correlation isn’t everything.

What I’m saying is that that there isn’t any one Millennial style of worship, and trying to develop one to promote and enforce isn’t the way to get young people excited about going to church. The draw is about what God’s doing in the church—how the congregation is embodying Christ’s love in their interactions and the world around them. And this happens in High Church congregations just as it does in any other.


Have you attended a truly innovative church? Was it also contemporary in its style? What sort of worship style do you prefer? What sort of innovations would you like to see in your congregations (present or past)? How do you mesh tradition and innovation in your own life?


9 thoughts on “Smells and bells and relevance

  1. ‘Bolz-Weber explains that many of her fellow social progressives want to jettison the Bible and Jesus in order to be more inclusive. “But why should we jettison the only things we have going for us?” she asks.’

    I like her already!

  2. And also: ‘Another man named Asher recently transitioned from female to male. “We had a naming rite for him at Baptism of the Lord Sunday,” Bolz–Weber tells me. “It was beautiful.” ‘

    Mad respect. This is so cool.

  3. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. Some background…I came to the Episcopal Church because I, too was drawn to liturgy. I think that it just clicks with me. My own church has 3 different Sunday services: a traditional, straight out of the 1928 BCP; a “contemporary” service, if by contemporary, you think 1970’s; and an 11:11 service with a band (I play bass guitar). The band is used not only for songs of celebration but also liturgy (Confession, Holy Holy, Eucharist, etc.) The 11:11 was originally designed to draw younger folks in who may be put off by the “stuffiness” of the other services. But I am surprised at two things: 1) how many older adults (people without kids around) make the 11:11 the only service they attend. 2) how many people attend a different service on any given Sunday!

    I think it goes to show that offering a variety of worship styles under one roof works for my church…that’s the innovation that has worked for us.

    Thank you for your posts. I look forward to reading more of them as I have just discovered your blog.

    • Hi, Terry! Nice to meet another lover of liturgy. I’ve never been to a Eucharist where the service music was played by a band — it sounds neat (much as I love the organ). As a young person who likes traditional service styles, I sometimes forget that there are also older adults who like contemporary styles.

      Because I get so stuck in my rut of what I like to do in worship, I don’t always take the opportunity to get out and do something different — though good things always seem to happen when I do. This past summer I went to my diocese’s young adult retreat, and our Eucharist was super laid-back (we had a conversational homily, and one of our hymns was “Pharaoh, Pharaoh”) — the sort of thing I’d normally dismiss, yet in that instance it was SO spiritually nourishing.

      Thanks for reading!

      • You’re most certainly welcome. It is obvious that you care as I do about the future health of TEC. Not ready to call for last rites but something has to be done and your blog is a great place to start a conversation that can lead to action. Thanks again and happy blogging!

  4. I’ve heard of HFASS before, though it fell off my radar for some reason; thanks for the reminder of this exciting new-yet-liturgical church!

    For something similar within the Episcopal Church, I’d recommend looking at San Francisco’s St. Gregory of Nyssa; alas, I’ve not visited it so my experience comes only from their website, podcast and Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion.

    (Found this blog from The Lead’s recent article on declining membership – fascinating, keep it up!)

    • Thanks for visiting, Michel! I haven’t been to St. Gregory of Nyssa either — I even visited San Fran a few years ago, and set foot in Grace Cathedral, but visiting innovative Episcopal churches was so not on my radar then (unfortunately). I have really appreciated some of Paul Fromburg’s contributions to Daily Episcopalian, and Take This Bread has been on my to-read pile since Sara Miles came to my college years ago. Your recommendation may be just what I need to bump it to the top of the pile — thanks!

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