Leading Through Generational Divides
THE COFFEE SHOP
The accommodation of preferences is rooted in the cultural values of consumerism and individualism. Of course the generations are divided; we all prefer different things. And despite the good intentions of leaders to attract worshipers by making them feel comfortable and undistracted, catering to their culturally-formed personal preferences is at cross-purposes with the gospel. The gospel calls us to lay down our own preferences and to prefer others instead (Mark 8-10). Christian worship is all about deference, not preference, modeled for us in our sacrificial Savior Jesus Christ himself (Philip. 2). Worship at its best is a rehearsal of the sacrificial life, and yet in many cases it has become another provider of goods and services. Nothing has contributed to generational division more than this.
LIFE AND LITURGY
As I narrated in the story above, our everyday lives are intergenerational. Every generation plays an important role in human formation and flourishing. Before we receive an individual identity, we inherit a familial identity. Extended families are made up of three or four, sometimes five, living generations supporting one another and carrying on family traditions and stories. As Christians, we are extended families on mission with God. We need the active presence of all generations in order to be the family God has called us to be, to embody the Faith, and to carry on our Story in the world. Christian worship is the gathering, equipping, feeding, and sending of families to do life together on mission with God.
I am part of a liturgical church. Liturgy simply means “service of the people.” Paul uses it in Romans 12 to describe the spiritual “service” of offering our bodies as living sacrifices to God. Liturgical practices offer tangible means by which the generations are united in worship. One of my favorite moments of our liturgy is when my children run up to the communion rail to join me in receiving the body and blood of Christ. One Sunday my son knelt down, extended his hands to receive, and said, “Look dad, I’m making a manger.” The old woman to my left started chuckling, and I was inspired by the incarnation illustration my son had just unknowingly given us.
The liturgy brings out the physical nature of our worship, without which our worship can become a strictly cognitive or abstract exercise. Physical symbols and actions ensure that our bodies are engaged. Kneeling, praying, and singing in unison draws us into communion with one another and with God. This is especially important for children. Jesus was clear with his disciples to let the children come to him (Mark 10). When the children are left out, kingdom values go away. When kingdom values go away, cultural values take over. We begin to conform our worship to the things of the world, which is the antithesis of spiritual liturgy (Rom. 12). So Paul urges us, children included, to offer our bodies together in sacrificial life and liturgy.
Music is vital to Christian worship. It’s no wonder, then, that music is near the heart of the worship wars. The generations divide along fault lines of stylistic preference. When music is commodified to serve the people, it becomes entertainment. Music is supposed to be a service of the people, not a service to the people. This paradigm shift will help us defer our own musical tastes in worship and to consider what makes others sing. It will take a willingness for mutual appreciation, but in time our hearts will blend into one. A church may even discover its own unique musical expression!
Life is a bell curve of simplicity and complexity. The most unifying songs and rhythms noticeably engage the youngest and oldest among us. If we aim for the people in the middle, those whose lives are most cluttered and noisy, they may connect with the music, but it will be hard for everyone else to participate. Familiarity is the way to go with liturgical music. Familiar doesn’t mean that we need to dumb it down; it means we’re bringing it down to earth, making the music more accessible and the work of the people more doable.
What this looks like at All Saints Dallas is children, parents, empty nesters, singles, and students all singing alongside one another. We usually sing thirteen songs per service, including ancient hymns, contemporary choruses, folk spirituals, and new service music. Each song supports the liturgy in some way. Key signatures and melodic ranges are intentionally chosen to enable ease of congregational singing. Rhythms and arrangements are contextualized to what best engages our people, especially the old and young. And we have indeed discovered our own unique sound as a church.
Our music, which we call Liturgical Folk, is a truly intergenerational project. You can read all about it in the Dallas Morning News article, “Let us bow our heads in poetry,” and you can hear what it sounds like on our albums, Liturgical Folk, Vols. 1 & 2. Volume 1 is called Table settings, and consists of singable settings of historic prayers for churches and families. My wife and kids sing on it. Volume 2 is called Edenland and consists of new hymns written by a seventy-five year old in our church and myself. He wrote the words, and I wrote the tunes.
Robert Webber said that the greatest internal threat to Christian worship is cultural accommodation. When churches become providers of goods and services, generations divide and intergenerational relationships suffer. There is much more we could talk about, such as the dwindling percentage of churchgoing college students who grew up in age-segregated churches. I have chosen to highlight from my own experiences how liturgy and music can help bridge the generational divides. There really shouldn’t be a disconnect between our church life and our everyday life. What we do in worship should train us in our everyday lives, helping us carry on the Story of God in flourishing intergenerational relationships.
Originally posted at SING! The Center For Congregational Song