I first came across Gregorian Chants when I was 18 years of age. I was studying first year music at university. Straight away I became entranced by the sounds of these monastic choirs. I similarly appreciate the Cantatas of J.S Bach. Although composed 300 years ago, these are beautiful sonnets to God. It is one thing to listen to the Cantatas on my Spotify playlist, but it is quite another experience to sit in a cathedral and hear a choir and orchestra sing in front of you.
At the same time, I wouldn’t want my local church using these musical forms during our Sunday services, for a variety of both theological and pragmatic reasons. For starters, we don’t speak or understand either Latin or German; if we can’t understand the words we shouldn’t sing them.
The ABC has published a revealing article this weekend, noting a surge of young adults turning away from contemporary churches and toward more traditional church.
“Gregorian chants, renaissance choral music and incense wafting from a metallic censer.
And they’re not just resonating with older generations, either.
Younger people are flocking to late-night Latin Mass — at least they were pre-COVID — and embracing Christian orthodoxy in online spaces.
So says Tara Isabella Burton, America-based author of the forthcoming book Strange Rites and a member of the self-proclaimed “Weird Christian” movement.
The allure of Weird Christianity goes beyond an espousal of the Bible. Burton says the otherworldly nature of religious rituals are also appealing to the young and disillusioned.
“There’s a sense of enchantment that often comes with the pageantry,” says Burton, who attends St Ignatius of Antioch in New York City, part of the Episcopalian or Anglo-Catholic tradition.
“It’s that sense that this is a sacred place and not just another thing you do in your week, the same way you might go to a SoulCycle class or you might go out to dinner with friends.”
I have witnessed first hand a few young adults who are thinking this way. They believe older equals authentic, and tradition indicates genuine Christianity. The logic is, if we can work our way back to the past we somehow become more like the early churches and therefore we are having a genuine Christian experience. The way to be really close to God is to embrace the old. This phenomenon isn’t only about embracing the old, it is about turning off the new. There are millennials seeing through popular Christianity with its accommodation of mainstream culture and its compromise on Christian teachings that don’t suit a consumer audience.
There is something astute about this revelation. The historian Tom Holland, who isn’t a Christian, has made a similar observation although about English Bishops,
“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.
Like giving Coke away to kids, the caffeine and sugar in some of the trending churches is addictive, but it leaves you hungry and needing to pay a visit to the Dentist. It’s one thing to recognise a weakness in one presentation of church, but jumping from one unhelpful extreme to another is not the answer.
It is a truism that churches focusing on contemporary production can be theologically shallow and even spiritually misleading. At the same time, many traditional churches give similar attention to production quality and can also be doctrinally unorthodox.
Reverend Dries, of Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney, advocates for an ‘older’ style of church. He highlights (perhaps unwittingly) a crucial flaw in what these young people are wanting in a church.
“It’s not theatre, but there’s certainly an element of drama,” he says, pointing to the candles, incense and elaborate liturgical wear that feature in services.
“We sing music here that goes back to the Middle Ages — Gregorian chants — and renaissance choral music, so we rely on young people, who are very involved in those things.”
Reverend Dries believes that Anglo-Catholicism has an “element of mystery about it” that can be missing from everyday life or other religious practices.
“Some of our young people come from a more evangelical tradition, which is sort of word-based and very long sermons or improvised prayers,” he explains.
“I think for some people … there sometimes comes a point where they can’t deal with words anymore, and there’s this genuine desire to enter into silence, mystery, music and ritual.”
One of the issues here is that Christianity is a word based religion. Jesus is the Word made flesh. Jesus reveals God. The written word of God reveals God. God is not found in the silence but in his word. The Bible itself calls on churches to make the ministry of the word central to its life.
“devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” ( 1 Timothy 4:13)
“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)
Also, the separation of music from word ministry is a false dichotomy. According to the New Testament, music is a part of the ministry of the word, not separate from it. If you believe a certain musical style connects you to God in a more authentic experience, and the preaching of the word does not, then it’s not Christianity you are holding onto but a form of neo-gnosticism.
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16)
As I read the piece on the ABC and have spoken with several young people wrestling with these issues, the question is, are we looking for a religious experience or are we worshipping God? Are we determining the efficacy of the experience by what appeals to our senses or by what God has spoken in his word?
Of course, no single style of church fits all, but a 19th or 13th century version of doing church is no more Christian than is the church who adopts the latest pop genres. This may sound strange to some readers who belong to evangelical churches but the point needs stating: You can be a truly orthodox Christian without being a member of the orthodox church. You can be a truly catholic Christian without joining Rome. In fact, believing older is closer to the original is a dangerous misnomer. Assuming that tradition equates to a more full version of Christianity can lean toward gnosticism and to a disconnecting from the head (Col 2:19).
And if one is to join one of these historical denominations, which version of older is more authentic? Do we choose Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox or Ethiopian Orthodox or Roman Catholic? And among each of these options which type of orthodox or Catholicism will we choose, for there are many and varied branches belonging to each of these tribes?
For hundreds of years churches never sang Gregorian Chants, the clergy didn’t wear vestments and there were no high altars or gothic structures. Incense and candles were used in Old Testament cultic services but they didn’t feature in the earliest churches, and there is certainly no instruction for their use in the New Testament. What these millennials assume is authentic church is, in fact, a product of the slow development of medieval Christianity.
I am encouraged to hear that there are many young adults recognising a superficiality in some contemporary expressions of Christian Church. They are right to resist the consumer menu that is found in these places that worship ‘trend’. It is, however, a mistake to conclude that older is necessarily better.
There is one exception to this, the old which is The Tradition, the Scriptures.
- Is the Bible read, taught faithfully, and believed among the Church? Is the whole counsel of God explained?
- Is prayer to God the Father a regular part of church life?
- Is the focus on Jesus Christ and glorifying God, or is the attention given to me?
- Is the object of spiritual experience faith in Christ or does it depend on some extra biblical human tradition, whether that tradition is brand new or a 1000 years old?
- Are the ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) faithfully administered?
- Does the Church practice believers’ membership and are the members growing in unity, maturity, and love?
- Are visitors, Christian and unbeliever alike, welcomed and befriended, and encouraged to know the Gospel?
Looking for an authentic experience of God is a worthwhile pursuit. Indeed, is it not the highest and most rewarding of goals? This is however only successful when we encounter the Christ of Scripture, who is the living, reigning, saving, and judging, God over all things.
At Mentone Baptist, we are currently preaching through Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The central idea in this letter is sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ. Paul is at pains to remind the Church that they have believed the real Gospel, but now they need to remain in this Gospel. Why? Paul notes that there are always other ideas and practices that become attractive and popular, but they are not necessarily of God.
“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:6-8)
I am not arguing that all older styled churches adhere to such ‘human traditions’ any more than I’m suggesting all contemporary churches are somehow more faithful. The answer is of course, both and neither! However, Paul’s appeal is incredibly important. We ought to assess what is taught and what is practised according to the measure God has given us, namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Too often, when I’ve heard someone say that they want to become Orthodox or Catholic, it’s because they are convinced that those traditions somehow lead to a more full or experientially complete encounter with God. Such think not only insults the people of God who constitute the local church that you’re leaving, but it is also an assault on Christ who is the head of the church. Again, I’m not arguing against all tradition here, but I am repudiating the idea that older means closer proximity to God and to being a real church.
The principles of church that I’ve listed above will find free expression in various cultures and times, and that is part of the curious success of Christianity. This faith can be known and experienced across time and places. There is no single style of church, both the cathedral and the home church can be equal and real expressions of the body of Christ. The megachurch and the small community church can likewise be equal representations of Christ’s church.
My encouragement to churches is, be biblical and keep things simple. We can learn from history without replicating it in the present. We can discard old fashions and do meaningful church while avoiding the unhealthy proclivity toward individual consumerism. One of the wonderful things about Christianity is its cultural adaptability. The one Gospel can be faithfully transmitted across cultures and time. While the Bible is clear about what constitutes a church and while the Bible prescribes which elements are necessary for church, the in-practice reality of these things is not dependent upon a single expression.
I don’t want my church looking like either Hillsong or the Catholic Cathedral. We are not required to reject the past in order to reach the future, and neither am I bound to take on and use every latest whim that captures our culture’s attention. If the church is constantly reaching into God’s word and letting the rule Christ govern us, we will continue in being faithful, knowing the fulness of God, and communicating the Gospel in ways that are understandable and attractive to the community around.
“For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ, 10 and you have been filled by Him, who is the head over every ruler and authority. (Colossians 2:9-10)