Worship style appears to drive appointments

8/15/2006

By Lamar Massingill
Columnist 

“We are older and grayer, and many are dismayed at having to implement liturgical practices that conflict with our pastoral expertise and considered study of the ritual of the church.”

                                                                                           --The Rev. Brian Massengale

The more I reflect I can’t deflect the truth that many transitions are taking place in our particular communion of the church. I confess that the decision for me to finally send this column (and its follow-up)  was difficult, as they have been in my file for well over a year. I decided then that next year, there won’t be as many wounded in the appointment process. It has not been so. So, I suppose now is the time to raise some questions. 

There are many controversies among us, to some of which the answer is “leave the judgment to God, and love people.” But one controversy that has as much potential of splitting our church as others is in the way we worship. 

Regarding this issue, we quote and use John Wesley’s theology when it’s convenient, but regarding his form of worship, we seem too lazy to do the work to implement it. So we axe our Anglican roots and start an entertaining, easy new sort of worship we loosely call “contemporary” in the name of marketing our church to not only reflect culture, but to reach a younger and richer set from the “X” generation. This is disappointing and dangerous. Ego collaborating with entertainment grows an extremely unhealthy spirituality, not to mention losing our Anglican roots. 

I first noticed this last year during the appointment process, when the salaries of seasoned Baby Boomer thinkers and solid liturgical worship leaders were being cut, in favor of younger, more charismatic personalities who are sure to entertain, yet don’t have the experience to be senior ministers to the particular churches to which they were being sent.    

This year, nothing has changed, and in fact seems to be worse. Some are even being sent to large churches without ever having been a senior pastor anywhere. The Cabinet is not doing them any favors. This appointment year, at least from what I’ve witnessed in friends who have been wounded in the process yet again and made to take a few thousand and in many cases, much more in salary cuts, is grievous. I have literally held two clergymen who were in tears over the way they had been treated by what they thought was their connection, too.   

I would also add that at the bottom of this transition, I believe, is technology, the offspring of which is entertainment, increased mobility and decreased attention spans; the inevitable end of which is an exchange of the historic and sacred liturgy that Wesley used in worship, which is participatory, to a sort of “make me feel good, entertain me” mentality. More and more people, including clergy, do not want to participate in worship, but only want to feel a “warm fuzzy,” sort of like cotton candy, sweet for one delicious second then gone. 

“Contemporary” worship is neither contemporary nor novel. I would prefer the word “alternative” if United Methodist conferences keep sliding this way. One thing it’s not is Wesleyan. My feeling when sitting in these services is a nostalgia that goes way back to my early spiritual beginnings. We did this in the late 1960s in our youth activities! John Claypool once called it an “adolescent spirituality” in which many people simply get stuck in over the long term. Also, as a Baptist pastor in the late 1970s, I did a form of “contemporary” every Sunday. This is all to say that “contemporary worship” is useless to those of us who have to say, “Been there, done that, grew past it to a more ‘meaty’ liturgy.” 

While knowing that such a statement, let alone this column, puts me in a vulnerable position, I know also that among clergy, vulnerability is all we have to begin healing. However, we hardly ever experience it, because on a deeper level we are competing with one another. Our entire appointive system lends itself to corporate competition, which is not a popular forum for honesty. So, knowing that vulnerability is the first step to trust and compassion, I would say that, at least if I/we had become Episcopalian, we would never be in doubt as to worship. It would be Rite I or II. 

For instance, when I was appointed from an extremely liturgical church to one with a basically Baptist form of worship, I felt for the first time that the United Methodist Church was not only becoming less Wesleyan in worship, but also becoming like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: “you never know what you’re going to get.” I didn’t last but a year and a half in that appointment. 

This is sad, and makes for a stressful situation for clergy whose growth is leading them to the glad mysteries the liturgy and ritual does for their spiritual journey, and also those like myself who came from former communions with no liturgy or ritual hoping to find it in an Anglican tradition such as ours, if we can even justify calling it that anymore. And really, I indeed hope that we can come once more to call it that. 

Massingill is an author, freelance columnist, and pastor of the United Methodist Church of Richton. He is also the religion editor of “The Magnolia Gazette.”