Of Mentors & Momentous Occasions

Recently I was watching an interview with pastor Glenn Packiam wherein the interviewer mentioned worship wars, that old conflict between the guitar and the organ. 

Yawn. 

I started to hit the fast-forward button, but then I realized what the interviewer was saying; it was backward. He was talking about how to navigate the conflict when the younger generation is demanding hymns and the old guard wants their electric guitars. It seems that in the area of worship style, American evangelicalism has come full circle. The generation that fought for contemporary music is giving way to a new generation for whom contemporary things are contemptible. They want liturgy and ritual and ancient forms. 

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise us. Now that our cultural progress has separated us from many of our most primal tribal ceremonies, it’s natural that we should start to cast about for something to replace them. In postmodern America, a boy can pass from birth to adulthood with no ceremony. He’ll have a graduation exercise where he won’t know how to act because he’s never encountered solemnity. If he comes to faith, he’ll have a baptism ceremony as well. And if he finds a girl to marry, he’ll stand at an altar, wobbly-kneed, mostly because of the beauty at his side, but also, in no small part, because he’s not visited altars before. 

Between those events, he’ll suffer long years without the steadying hand of a mentor, or the compelling trust of a father, or the reassuring words, “This is my son whom I love. In him I am well pleased.” Sadly, not only is such an un-encouraged life possible in our day, it’s the norm. A young lady can pass from infancy to preschool to adolescence to adulthood without anyone marking her progress, without any meaningful rhythm of pruning and growth.

Last month I spent a night out with three younger men from my church. One of them is a watchmaker; or more precisely, a watchmaker-in-training. It will take him two years to finish his apprenticeship, after which he will face another 10 years before he can leave the knee of his mentor and be considered a “master”. When he explained the system, there was a palpable, collective sigh among us. The other two men long for such tutelage. So do I.

For most of our ancestors, our modern unceremonious approach to life would have been unthinkable. Ancient people of almost every tribe, including the early church, marked out seasons and milestones with ceremony. A boy knew when he became a man; there was a ceremony to mark the occasion. A boy knew when he was old enough to work, to apprentice, to fight, to drink, and to lead. The whole community knew. They marked the occasion with him. And such ceremonies coincided with seasonal celebrations: harvests and new moons, maydays and yuletides. 

Perhaps, this new generation of church-goers only wants what they don’t have. Perhaps it’s immaturity or petulance that drives the new worship wars. Or perhaps there is something deeper: a thirst for rhythms of gathering and scattering, work and sabbath, holy days and ordinary time, contemplation and celebration, with other members of a tribe. 

Two decades ago, I was fully devoted to the idea of modernizing worship. And I’m still glad we did. A thrumming acoustic guitar has led me into adoration of God more often than an organ ever could. But what we hadn’t considered two decades ago — what we didn’t see coming — was a cultural loss that made relevance and reliability inferior values for modern worshippers who crave liturgy, ceremony, stability, and beauty. 

Ryan SandersComment