Funny White Man

A number of years ago I worked with a brilliant Christian Union in London. They were loving, evangelistic, prayerful, and dynamic. But the thing I will always remember most fondly was that they were all Nigerian pentecostal women. For those who don't know me I am not a Nigerian pentecostal woman. In one of his movies Kevin Costner's character is given the Indian name "he-dances-with-wolves". I was similarly given a name by this group: "funny-white-man-who-can't-dance". Never a truer word has been spoken.

The lesson I really learnt from my sisters was how foolish it is to confuse the content of worship (or worse still the aim of worship) with the musical and cultural form worship takes. This instantly leads us to assume that proper worship is done the way I am familiar with. Worse, that anything musically or culturally different is instantly suspect. If we are not used to dealing with difference it is so easy to instantly assume that the culturally alien is immaturity. 

At our church it would be fair to say we face some issues of generational change at the moment. One area of difficulty is two generations finding it difficult to relate to each other's preferred cultural patterns of worship, especially the accompanying music. Yesterday I had a conversation with a good friend who sometimes finds himself feeling alienated by musical style that is a long way from his preference. He made some points that I don't agree with but that I, and those at the other end of the spectrum, really need to hear:

1. That he, and a good number of other people in the church originally came to our church a long time ago precisely out of being wounded in worship wars elsewhere. Being able to establish a worship style free from previous conflict was a very important feature for them. As is trying to make sure that never changes. Well change is inevitable when a new generation arises if a church is not to split or to die, but the important thing to note is that worship style is a vital pastoral issue for these folk as well as a theological and musical issue. If we think it is only theological or musical we won't understand theirlarger underlying concerns and won't love them well through transition. What they feel is happening is not a musical change, it is that a crucial foundation for them being in the church and building the church over a long period is being taken from them

2. That a younger generation easily assumes that because the worship style of the older is less affective, that therefore they aren't worshipping. In some cases I think this is accurate, but certainly not all. What the younger therefore need to understand is that, in bringing a different take on worship culture, it is possible that what the older feel they are losing is not merely a musical tradition or a particular worship vocabulary or a set of hymns that they appreciate. It is their whole ability to worship. The framework can be so changed that they feel dislocated not just from a younger generation but from the act of corporate worship itself.

Hence the pain that my friend feels at the introduction of different style and more modern material is far, far greater than just a concern about style and culture. If the church assumes that the pain is simply a massive over-reaction to music that he doesn't like it misses the point completely. 

I don't think there are easy answers to questions like these. Clearly not all the older people in our church feel as my friend does. Lots feel the opposite and love to see forms changing to be relevant to a next generation, thoroughly participating themselves. Others might not 100% feel that cultural changes are their preferred style, but easily let their theology and their desire to encourage their children and grandchildren in the gospel hold sway over their musical preference.

But some simply don't and their pain is obvious. They feel disenfranchised by a church that has, at least partly, allowed them to avoid questions like these for 30 years. It would be tragic for them to feel they need to leave, but painful for them to stay feeling that their context for worshipping has been taken from them. And I think they are unlikely to have a change of heart, barring a miracle of sovereign grace (and we believe in those!).

Change will happen, it is inevitable. And, in our context, I am persuaded is good and right and godly (and VERY far from being radical by any realistic measure!). But let all agents of change, especially the younger, think about what it means to love well those who find it most difficult:

  • They probably aren't just being difficult for the sake of it. Some may be, but not all
  • What looks like an over-reaction to something small probably masks much deeper levels of pain and perceived alienation behind it. Complaining about drums is only ever a symptom, not the underlying malady
  • Those who will, finally, get what they want had better be extremely loving and kind to those who won't, especially if the latter served and led well in the church for many years. Don't work to get what seems to you to be a godly and right approach to worship either by subversive means or by brutal ones. God hates that
  • Never assume that the people who aren't like you weren't really worshipping properly before you came along. You might be right, but you just can't tell. Only God knows the heart

Basically the biggest category that has to control our thinking in all contentious matters of worship style in churches is love. Love, love, love. Love each other well. 

And let the content of worship take preference over style and form at every possible opportunity.