Dumb Liturgical Americans

Imagine, if you will, the Ultimate Dumb American. You know, the big, loud guy in a Hawaiian shirt and plaid shorts, with black socks and sandals. Now imagine the UDA in a foreign, non-western country such as Japan, where he does not know the language or the culture, and he doesn’t care to learn them either. He travels to Japan and the trouble begins as soon as he’s off the plane (or before, if it’s a Japanese airline). He expects everyone to speak English, to have burgers and fries or pizza at every restaurant, and to have gigantic, American-size everything: hotel rooms, Big Gulps, etc.

Now imagine that the Japanese oblige the UDA. They learn English, they take on Western/American “customs,” they give him everything he wants in the way he wants it and on his schedule. If you can imagine this (admittedly crazy) scenario, you can imagine the state of (formerly) liturgical congregations in the United States.

The culture of the Church is a culture unto itself. Of course, like every culture, it is not static or unchanged by outside influences. But it does not take unreflectingly (or shouldn’t–why do I have to qualify every assertion in light of the American situation?) from the surrounding cultures, nor does it automatically morph into a clone of the surrounding culture. The culture of the Church is not a gecko.

The culture of the Church has its own language, customs, appropriate behaviors, expectations, and base of knowledge–all of which can be difficult to understand for someone unfamiliar with the culture. Some of these who are unfamiliar with the culture will politely observe, attempting to gain a handle on the often foreign culture into which they have entered. But many, many others–and often those who should be familiar with the culture of the Church are the worst offenders–are the equivalent of the stereotypical dumb American: they are Dumb Liturgical Americans (DLAs). These DLAs come into the foreign culture of the Church (and let’s admit that the culture of the Church is nearly as foreign to most people as Japan would be to me) and they expect it to mirror the culture to which they are already accustomed. They want everything as it would be “back home.” They want the Church to cater to them as individuals. They want the Church to speak their idiom and common language, rather than them learning the language of the Church. They want the Church to put up with their customs (shorts and Hawaiian shirts in the presence of the Almighty?). They want to be served the Food of the Church when and how they want, or they’ll get upset. If you are a professor of the culture of the Church and you do not serve DLAs at the Lord’s Table, even if they have no idea what it’s for or why they come, you will experience their loud wrath and snide comments.

Where is the politeness in a foreign culture and an unwillingness to assume that one’s own ways are better than the long- and battle-tested ways of the culture one enters? The arrogance of DLAs is everywhere, and it infects not only visitors and members; often it is exhibited by the very ones entrusted with the care and propagation of the culture. Ignorant pastors are worse than ignorant visitors. Where is the humility that takes for granted that an individual cannot just go anywhere he wants and demand to be accommodated in the exact manner to which he is accustomed? How juvenile to demand to be given the holy Food, no matter what the individual believes, as if it were hot dogs and apple pie!

The fact that the Church has a culture at all is unknown to our modern DLAs, and the concept is as foreign as learning Japanese to the UDA. So congregations adopt cultural idioms foreign to their essence and theology and expect their essence and theology to remain unchanged. But that is impossible. Would Japan be Japan if they spoke perfect English and served American food and did everything the way that Americans do things?

The solution to this clash of cultures is not to change the language and culture of the Church to make foreigners feel comfortable. That would be as absurd as the Japanese accommodating the UDA. Rather, it is necessary for those foreign to the culture of the Church to learn humbly and patiently those things that make the Church what it is. And it is up to those versed in the culture not to assume that everyone will know what is going on and to arrogantly refuse to help the uninitiated. Rather, those who are at home in the culture should humbly and patiently bring the foreigners in, to answer their questions, and to help them when they need it.

This process of cultural immersion will be sometimes uncomfortable and even shocking. It will take time and it will be challenging to those who are culturally illiterate–just as challenging as getting off a plane by yourself in a foreign country, not knowing anyone else and not knowing the language. But such a thought is perhaps beyond most people who are at home in a culture of instant gratification. Our ADD society may be unwilling to do what it takes to be assimilated into a new culture. That is why you see churches adopting every custom and idiom of surrounding cultures, however base they may be. That is why you see churches looking like K-Marts, like restaurants, like shopping malls. They have taken the worst consumerism of the American cultural milieu and made it their own. But they should not expect that the foundational culture of the Church, which is meant to support and uphold the essence and theology of the Church, to be unaffected and unchanged.

Churches are allowed to do whatever they want. But let them do it fully aware that they are changing the essence of the distinctly Christian culture. Let there be no tolerance for DLAs.



9 thoughts on “Dumb Liturgical Americans

  1. Very well done. I’ve been listening to some Issues, Etc. podcasts lately, and this and they all make some very good points regarding modern American culture and the Church. We can say of these newer churches, “Is nothing sacred?” Nothing really helpful in this reply of mine, but I wholeheartedly agree with what has been said.

  2. I agree with what you say, mostly. And that’s a nice analogy to use a foreign country, especially one that is non-European. But I have a question. Let’s use the culture of the Roman Catholic church prior to Vatican II, as an example. Was that liturgical culture, based in a time period far removed from the twentieth century, appropriate to teach and reach the lost in the twentieth century? Isn’t the present “traditional” culture of the church merely a culture spawned in medieval Europe? I think God’s Word should have a stable “culture” (if you will) from which to preach and teach, and I agree that it should not mirror the current culture just for the sake of being “relevant,” but I’m not sure that the culture of the church needs to be contextualized as of 14th, or 15th, or 16th century Europe.

  3. I’d agree with Jim that you don’t want to get stuck in any particular time period with the liturgy, but I’m not sure that’s what we’ve done. If you are talking about the hymns sung during “traditional” services, a point can be made that many of them come from the middle ages, and that the organ is a middle-aged instrument. Fine, point taken, and I think that might be a good debate among even those who like the “traditional” service.

    But I think that’s a separate argument than speaking of the liturgy itself, whose parts come from before the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries. (Obviously we recognize that many of the statements in the liturgy are biblical quotes.) Creed, Kyrie, Sanctus, etc, and especially preaching and the Lord’s Supper were around in the mass well before Luther or Vatican II. And I think is one of the strengths, and arguments for Tim’s post—that the liturgical elements that make up what we see in the middle age’s mass, as well as the “traditional” service found today, have been tested down through many centuries, and across the globe, from the earliest Christian times.

    I’m not sure they speak more or less to today’s culture than they did to the culture back in Roman times—or to the cultures of Europe, Africa, or the mid-east, where we know Christians were from the beginning of the church. I think the mass probably sounded different to their ears, just as it does to those visiting the church today.

  4. Scott,
    I was mostly talking about the liturgy apart from the traditional hymns. (I generally think that those traditional hymns have some mighty fine words in them. Some more recent hymns also have beautiful language and music.) Yes, the liturgy is largely taken from the Bible, but it is often chanted in a peculiarly European middle ages kind of fashion. Again, is there something about that time or place that is uniquely able to communicate the Gospel? I don’t think so, and I think we should be wary of elevating a certain time or place to be the only, or at least the primary, vehicle for worship services.

    I also do not mean to denigrate ritual. Ritual can be very meaningful when the underlying basis for the ritual is understood. But, again, ritual in the hands of human beings can deteriorate without constant focus on the real meaning behind the ritual. And, of course, those who are unfamiliar with both the ritual and the meaning, are essentially lost, at least at the beginning. So, perhaps some careful mixture of old and new is appropriate.

  5. The question at issue is what belongs to the culture of the Church proper, and what can be changed or expanded or limited in light of the essence of the Christian culture. I certainly don’t have the whole answer to that question, but it’s worth pursuing.

    The culture of the Church universal is in some ways like any other culture, and in other ways different. When I say the language of the Church, I don’t mean English or Latin or German. The language of the Church can be spoken in any language, because the language of salvation and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus is universal. Some things can fitly be adapted or assimilated by the Church in whatever culture it exists; other things cannot.

    “But, again, ritual in the hands of human beings can deteriorate without constant focus on the real meaning behind the ritual. And, of course, those who are unfamiliar with both the ritual and the meaning, are essentially lost, at least at the beginning. So, perhaps some careful mixture of old and new is appropriate.”

    Anything in the hands of sinful human beings can and will deteriorate. Absolutely; vigilance is necessary. (Not a rigid legalism–perhaps there is no other kind–but a humble vigilance, sympathetic to what is necessary and what is not.) I am not sure it is bad that people unfamiliar with the liturgical, churchly culture are lost at the beginning. They will likely be lost when they encounter the Scriptures as well. My point is not that they should wander around, forever lost, but that they should humbly come in and find what is there to find. And we who are familiar with the culture should humbly help them. “Come into the Lord’s house/and come in a mile.” The riches are there for those who will take the time to search them out. The price of time and energy is worth it for the one willing to pay it.

    I would contend that the liturgy is always, and cannot help but be, a careful mixture of old and new. Hence, we have a new hymnal in the Missouri Synod, which is an attempt to incorporate the best of old and new. In some places it succeeds and in some places it fails. Nevertheless, it has some great new hymns, and some equally bad old hymns. Time is not the determining factor. It was only 75-100 years ago that our predecessors moved from German to English in their worship. Some things change, slowly, but some things stay the same.

    As with anyone new to a culture, translation is sometimes necessary. But for those who actually want to become part of the culture, they don’t want to be translating constantly. It’s a mark of fluency when one thinks and dreams within the new language. So while translation is necessary at the beginning, the goal is not to remain at that point, but to move further up and farther in.


  6. Jim, I’d agree that there’s no reason the setting of the liturgy has to be based in Middle-Age type chant. (But maybe any type of chanting falls into that category, just because chanting isn’t used much anymore—and it brings up images of monks.) But I think there may be ways around that. The newer hymnals put out by the LCMS have both included new settings, and the newest (LSB) includes a setting (Divine Service IV) that has a more hymn-like setting. Also, there’s always the option of just speaking the parts, which I think is found in a lot of places, often times during the non-Sunday service (Friday or Saturday night services are many times more casual, I’ve found).

    I’d agree that there is nothing that requires chanting to be the main vehicle for the liturgy. But perhaps chanting can fit in with Tim’s idea of setting the church apart from the world’s culture. I think he was mainly talking about Christian language, culture, and the way the service is conducted itself, but I think a case could be made that chanting sets the church culture apart in a way that marks it as something different, yet recognizable. (Although I would never say that it needed to be done, or that it was a mark of a true church, or anything like that.) I think people hear chanting and think “church”, whether they are members or not (at least in the West, I don’t know for other places). And if someone attends a service where chanting takes place, I think they would find it easy enough to follow along, even if they couldn’t participate yet—meaning that they can read and recognize the words being said, even if they don’t know the setting well enough to sing along. It’s different, but I don’t think it requires the type of leap Tim is talking about with the English/Japanese comparison.

    I think chanting might fit similarly in peoples’ minds as cathedrals—it looks and sounds like church (again, I’m speaking of the West). I saw this story recently, and it kind of made me nod in agreement:


    Now, I’m not one for saying that the church should take cues from the non-churched as to how they should act, but I think a story like this backs up the idea that churches should go on with their churchly culture exactly because it is different, and those differences make it recognizable as church. Most of the culture has an idea of what the church is and does (it may be wrong or severely twisted, but they have one). And I think that churches that look like churches, and liturgies that include chanting (and preaching and the Lord’s Supper) fit that image.

    And when someone outside the church feels a need for the spiritual, or, for whatever reason, wants to go to church, I think that a place that looks and sounds like a traditional church may be a good thing precisely because it is different, and that’s what they’re looking for. But Tim is right—it is a different culture and will take time to learn and be able to participate.

  7. I agree that the “essence of the Christian culture” is worth pursuing.

    Interesting article that you linked to, Scott.

  8. The element I see missing today (which brother Tim does very well to illuminate) is the culture of patience. Since the 1960’s when the move to prolong our youth became the dominate religion of the boomer generation, it has had a collateral damage. Just as in physics when we see that a line which is in tension is moved by an unequal force, the line crosses over primarily into the region from which the force originated. The same is true for the boomers and subsequent generations as well. The pull towards maintaining a prolonged youth has collaterally caused a retardation of maturity. By “refusing to grow up” the boomers have relegated themselves to a life of immaturity. When you look at the “NOW! NOW! NOW!” mentality held by so many of every generation beginning with the boomers, it is pretty clear that children are making decisions and children hate to wait… so they don’t:
    1. Wait for marriage to have sex
    2. Wait for the many storms in marriage to pass by so they divorce.
    3. Wait to have enough money to purchase things (Enter: Easy credit)
    etc… etc… These are how a child thinks.
    What makes us think they are going to be any different when it comes to understanding worship. Have you noticed how many contemporary services sound like they are playing children’s music? Simple notes… simple lyrics… It’s what they understand. Worship is lost on them because they are children who are missing a father to guide them.
    The concept of this not being our grandfathers’ church is a clear indicator that the sense of history has been lost along with patience. The patient observer does not see the church in terms of this generation or one or even two generations prior to it. The mature view of the Church is a view of God’s work on behalf of His people throughout all time and all generations. This is also a reason for seeing an almost unaltered “ordo” in worship over the last 2 millenia.
    I only have about 200 more pages on this… 🙂 I appreciate your post, Tim. God bless you.


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