Okay, this may ruffle a few feathers, but hear me out:
Sometimes the “contemporary vs. traditional” debate makes me laugh a little. Many “contemporary” songs were written before I was born, so to me, they’re old. And most “traditional” songs were written 1,700 years after Jesus’s earthly ministry, so in the grand scheme of things, they’re brand new. To get specific, “Amazing Grace” is only 230 years old, while “Shout to the Lord” came out while I was in kindergarten, but in the eyes of a 2,000 year old Church, they’re both very recent innovations. The whole debate ultimately boils down to which part of a 300-year span of time we’ve most romanticized, and to use a theological term, that’s just downright silly. Yet churches all over America continue to fight and split over this issue.
For me, the absurdity of this whole thing came to a head when Mars Hill Church in Seattle started using the tagline “It’s not your mom’s church.” For now, let’s set aside the implied sexism of that statement and focus on the age factor. The implication is that old-fashioned Christianity is not welcome there, even though every song they sing is a traditional hymn reset to guitar and drums, communion is a part of every worship service, verses are regularly read from a 2000-year-old book, and their church planting system is straight out of Acts. Exactly what part of that makes it not my mom’s church? Christians have been doing all of that for ages and should continue to do so! It’s not exactly innovative, but that’s a good thing.
Similarly, there was a lot of fuss last year when poet-evangelist Jefferson Bethke released a youtube video titled “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus,” which currently sits at 24.5 million views. The video’s goal was to critique Christian legalism and encourage reform, but it ultimately just came off as an attempt by young Christians to rebrand ourselves as something different from our parents and grandparents (as if the problems of the modern church could somehow be solved through branding). The video has largely been forgotten, but similar attempts at “making Christianity relevant” continue. Ultimately, these examples point us to a difficult confession: in a world where 16 billion texts are sent, 2 million blogs are published, 300 million photos are uploaded to facebook, and 300 billion emails are sent every single day, we’re terrified of looking old-fashioned or irrelevant. Instead, we’re desperate to be the next big thing (even though the next big thing already happened 2,000 years ago on a cross).
I’d like to suggest an unorthodox approach: maybe we just have the wrong idea about what “old” really is. When we hear the phrase “old time religion”, what immediately jumps to mind is probably a scene at a revival in the Old South sometime before the advent of air conditioning. We probably think of seersucker suits, paddle fans, and a bellowing preacher shouting over a sea of amens. For American Christians who really know their history, “old time religion” might go as far back as the Great Awakening or even to Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other Protestant reformers. This is about as far as most of us are willing to go though, and it’s very much apparent in how we do church today (especially in our music).
The problem is that there is a significant chunk of time missing between the nails in Jesus’ hands and the nails in the Wittenberg door. Between Paul and the Protestants, there are about 1,500 years of church history that we sort of ignore. We claim to embrace a faith that is 2,000 years old and spans the entire globe, but we only really acknowledge the last few centuries of it, and even these we treat with trepidation for fear of looking old-fashioned.
So, is Christianity old-fashioned? Absolutely, but our particular flavor of it may not be old-fashioned enough. What could the Church look like if we constantly thanked God for our two millennia of discipleship? What would happen if we started defining “old time religion” by the New Testament and the first few centuries of the Church instead of by hymns that are only 300 years young? As my church history professor was fond of pointing out, “As a member of Christ’s body, I am not 25 years old or 50 years old or 100 years old; I am 2,000 years old.” Let’s enjoy the fact that, for a 2,000 year old, we’re surprisingly innovative.
Culture wars will come and go. Contemporary music will eventually become traditional. A new generation of young whippersnappers will inevitably rise up to challenge every new status quo that the previous generation’s innovators have established. This is standard operating procedure all over the world except in one place: The Church.
The Church should be an anomaly– a meeting ground for young and old, innovative and ancient, contemporary and traditional. Paul writes of the Church as being a body, and as science teaches us more about the human body, we learn what a perfect metaphor this is. The human body sheds and replaces over a million skin cells a day. Red blood cells only hang around for about four months, and white blood cells live about a year before being replaced. The cells in your colon are particularly short-lived, changing over every four days. The human body is constantly replenishing and reinventing itself, much as the Church has throughout its 2,000 years. There is one notable exception: Brain cells are irreplaceable. How appropriate then that, in Ephesians 4:15, Paul writes of Christ as our head– the one part of the body that is steadfast and eternal no matter how much the rest changes.
So whether you like the music from 300 years ago or 25 years ago or last week, remember this: these things are all fairly recent in the grand scheme of things, and they too shall pass. They’re nothing to get hung up about or obsess over; they’re just part of God’s bigger picture. As Christians, we get to live in a beautiful balance of innovation and tradition, and we need never fear looking old-fashioned. New things will come along as they are supposed to, and we must be comfortable with our course being set not by our own understanding –either our comfort in tradition or our thirst for novelty–, but by the unchanging head of this body who has already guided us successfully for 2,000 years: Jesus Christ.
Grace and Peace,