Monday, May 01, 2006

Rad Trad

I'm incredibly blessed to have been called as pastor to the congregation I serve. When I first visited this church, I was inspired by its rootedness in the community, and its history. Churches that know and cherish their history have always appealed to me. It's at least one reason why I consider myself to be an evangelical catholic. I am inspired by the continuing, multi-generational witness to the gospel of which we are the current living beneficiaries.

At the same time, I consider myself traditional but not conservative, or at least not conservative in the modern American political sense. I wish to conserve our history and tradition, but also believe that some things the conservatives wish to preserve are not faithful developments of the faith once delivered to the saints. Conservatives tend to be millenialists, apocalyptic, creationists, and nationalists. I am none of these things.

What I would like to conserve is life, a preferential option for the poor, care of creation, and love. In these ways, I consider myself progressive, or radically traditional.

By listing these things, I do not mean to imply that the rural church, or my church, is predominately any of these things. What I do mean to clarify is what I mean when I say that I value the tradition, and wish to conserve it. I do not intend to challenge conservatism by abandoning the tradition. I intend to address conservatism from within the bounds of the tradition itself. I wish to out-conserve the conservatives.

Which is why I am also interested in the "emergent" conversation currently going on in the ELCA and other contexts. Although much of the outward face of emerging ministries is in the urban/suburban context, and considers itself post-modern in approach and appeal, I believe it is a conversation worth bringing into creative tension with the conversation going on in the ELCA and elsewhere re: rural ministry.

My participation in both of these conversations is just one example of how I feel like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character at times. Rural emergents? Another example is my love for liturgy and traditional music (hymnody, chant, plainsong), coupled with a concomitant joy in praise music.

Ok, I confess. I understand and even agree with some of the theological complaints about praise and worship music. Nevertheless, I find the singing of praise refrains to be exhilirating and faithful, at least at times. True worship, I would argue, includes both the intellectual and beautiful aspect (Bach being a great example of this), as well as the invigorating and simply emotional (contemporary praise worship and the psalms).

I wish I could find a hegelian synthesis of these two formulae, but alas.

Ok, so the ev-cath in me likes the green hymnal, old school hymns, even some of the stuff I never sang as a youth because it's simple too strange for contemporary audiences, all tha plainsong and chant that none of us sang when we were growing up, we just paged past it to sing "A Mighty Fortress" and "For All the Saints."

But the guitar player in me loves those repeated refrains like "Breathe", "My Jesus, My Savior."

And the radically traditional person in me thinks that some of the emergent stuff is really, really cool- the Nicene Creed sung to a heavy metal beat and style, the kyrie and hymn of praise done to bluegrass, or a, can it be, JAZZ liturgy? I'd love to be able to do some of that music, to worship in that kind of context. It's very appealing.

Nevertheless, not all of those idioms would work in our church. Some folks in our congregation like jazz, but most of us don't play it well enough to lead it in worship. Some of us like bluegrass, but again, actually launching such a style would be difficult.

We have an organ and organists, so the ev-cath in me can have a hey-day, and whenever we want to get into the praise and camp songs, a simple guitar is ready to hand.

So, style often gives way to gifts, abilities, and availability of equipment.

Which is a long descriptive way of saying that these ideals, of ev-cath substance and style, or emergent, or whatever, always end up playing in the context of a congregation that has a history, has been going in a direction, and will continue to go in a direction, that is only in part influenced by any of these abstract ideals.

One last example. My tradition has been, to a considerable degree, clerico-centric. Translation: the pastor does the ministry, the parishioners attend or "go to" church. This is a long-standing tradition in the Lutheran community, as well as the catholic context. Ordained ministry has a kind of gravitas , at times even a sacramental status.

But on this point, although I value how and in what ways the pastoral ministry has functioned over time in our congregations, I tend to think that it has been to the detriment of the ministry of the whole people of God.

On this point, I think I do have a synthesis of sorts. It is best illuminated using an image. Currently, as pastor, I usually wear a clerical collar. One solution some Protestants have had to the over-clericalization of the church, is to jettison the collar, and begin wearing normal street clothes. The ev-cath in me doesn't like this.

Instead, what I think should happen, as a kind of wedding between emergent and traditional substance, is that everybody should start wearing a collar, clergy and laity. Let's stop making a distinction between clergy and lay, and instead through the very clothes we wear distinguish ourselves as Christian witnesses in the world.

This, I believe, is an emergent concept. It is, to borrow a phrase, the new monasticism.


  1. If I were ever to come back to the Lutheran church, it would have to be led by a pastor such as yourself.

    When I left, it was because my wife (fiance at the time) did not want to go to a Lutheran church (more specifically, the LC that I went to).

    Since we have been married (seven years now), we have been to a variety of churches and just last year discovered the emergent church movement and started going to a church ( that was pastored by Brian McLaren - one of the founders of the emergent church.

    We have finally found a place that seems to get "it".

    It is my prayer that people will discover the emergent movement for themselves as I believe that it addresses the issues in our society that tend to marginalize the poor, the needy...the least of these. And that is who Jesus ministered to.

  2. Interesting meditation. I know I've brought up my community equity class in recent comments before, but I see another analogy, or parallel thread.

    In my class we've been talking about how the history of access to capital has affected urban areas, first in disinvestment in favor of suburbanization, and now in predatory lending. A major force in all this is the amorphous market. Recently though, I've been thinking about how attempts to mitigate market effects are most likely to happen in cities, yet the devistating effects of economic markets also affect rural communities. Ultimately, it's the same amorphus force affecting urban and rural communities, often to the benefit of suburban areas (I hesitate calling them communities).

    Likewise, in faith, ethics and politics, the amorphous force of "culture" has huge impacts on us. Like our economy, I feel there is a strong suburban tendency, in as far as US culture has devolved into consuming rather than history, tradition, craft, civil society and what not.

  3. Anonymous11:41 AM

    Collar the laity and you constrain their freedom and make them public in ways that they aren't and won't. You've got the collar. Use it.

    -The Northfield Knight

  4. Apparently this last commenter values their anonymity, and so posts anonymously. I'm not convinced that anonymity is "freedom". I believe I am "using" my collar by calling all Christians into the public vocation of faithfulness to Christ.

    Sam, thanks for reading this post through an urbanization/social force lens.

    And Craig, I'm glad you've found a church in which you can participate fully in the ministry of the gospel.