Adolescent Ecclesiology

Girl with HeadphonesIn The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson makes the observation that  our culture is “unwell in a new way.”  In contrast to previous generations, where older generations passed their values and wisdom down to younger ones, it appears that in our generation the direction of influence has been reversed.  Peterson writes,

“There was a time when idea and living styles were initiated in the adult world and filtered down to youth.  Now the movement goes the other way: lifestyles are generated at the youth level and pushed upward.  Dress fashions, hair styles, music, and moral that are adopted by youth are evangelically pushed on an adult world, which seems eager to be converted.”[1]

One of the manifestations of this adolescent culture in the church today is through the loss of the historical.  The adolescent has little sense of history beyond what is experienced in childhood.  Perspective for making judgments is lacking.  The result, Peterson observes, “is that they begin every problem from scratch.”[2]  This has given rise to what we might call an “adolescent ecclesiology.”

There was a time when I felt compelled to re-invent the liturgical wheel every week to “keep things fresh” and “help people express themselves.”  But this emphasis on self-expression is an adolescent move and is destructive to community.  It ends up being burdensome to all, resulting in a constant need to be doing church (the way of the Law) instead of being church (being nurtured by the Gospel in the Divine Service).  Rather than emphasize the means of grace, a fascination with all things juvenile drives the service.  Thankfully, younger generations have little interest in these services.  They see them for what they are: phony baloney.  The more the older generations try to make the church appear “hip”, the less interested the younger generations become. Though “contemporary worship” is supposedly targeted toward younger generations, it’s really catering to the Boomers.  The St. Louis Center for Christian Study has made the following observation:

[Under the influence of Baby Boomers], worship services became upbeat, high-energy, dynamic, contemporary and spontaneous.  At least they were carefully engineered by worship teams to look and feel spontaneous.  The engineered worship experience became a the hallmark of Boomer worship… What was once called contemporary worship is now being re-named Boomer worship.  By contrast, the fastest growing worship style among the younger generations–Generation X (20s & 30s) and the rising Generation Y  (today’s college students)–is liturgical worship [emphasis original].[3]

An adolescent ecclesiology also yields a highly individualistic approach to Christianity.  Though we believe in the “communion of saints”, the wholesale rejection of history and tradition (whether intentional or not) leaves the Church impoverished.  There is little consciousness today of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the pew right next to us, much less our connection to the saints throughout the ages.  Many see church in terms of “what’s in it for me” and generally have little concept of how their presence or absence in church, bible class, Sunday school, etc., affects the faith of their neighbor.

As our Synod has recently emphasized (following the cue of Bonhoeffer and others), Christianity is about doing life togetherWe– the una sancta, the whole Church on earth– worship together with angels, archangels, and the whole company of heaven.  As we sing in the Te Deum, “the holy Church throughout all the world” praises God right alongside “the glorious company of the apostles,” “the goodly fellowship of the prophets”, and “the noble army of martyrs.”[4]  The communion of saints extends all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  Unfortunately, the rejection of history and liturgy in the pursuit of adolescent ideals obscures any sense of communion with the saints of old.

Liturgy and history remind us that the Church is bigger than ourselves.  They guard against the perpetual adolescent desire for self expression and remind us that Christianity is about Christ and His gifts for us.  They keep the Church focused on Her Lord rather than Herself.  As St. John said, “I must decrease, but He must increase,” (John 3:30).

Additionally, those who have gone before us have struggled with many of the same problems we face today.  The mask may be new, but it’s the same old sin hiding beneath.  As Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  If we are willing to listen to those who have gone before us, we may just learn something helpful for life today.  The liturgy and history of the Church is a treasure filled with riches of wisdom, guidance, comfort, and communion.  Those who have gone before us were sinners and erred at times, but this gives us even more reason to sit at their feet.  We can learn from what they got right (by the grace of God) and from their errors.  As the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (article XXI) teaches, we remember the saints so that we may 1) thank God for giving faithful servants to His Church; 2) have our faith strengthened as we see the mercy that God extended to His saints of old; 3) provide us with examples by which we may imitate both their faith and their holy living according to our calling in life.

[1] Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989 (121–122).

[4] cf. Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: CPH, 2006), 223.

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