Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Individualism steals the season. . .

The ordinary character of Lent is is that is a community experience, a common walk to the cross, and a walk together shaped by ceremony and piety shared.  Since we have just come out of Lent it is good for us to reflect for a moment on how Lent has changed in the mind of our people and whether or not that is a good change.

“The cultural rituals of individualism have transformed even the communal rituals of the church, making it difficult to observe Lent today. As a result, we’ve effectively industrialized Lent and, ironically, turned it into a kind of Pelagian exercise in will-power. The point of Lent isn’t to prove I can deny myself; the point is to feel the hunger of longing. We’ve lost the ethos that makes this possible. Lenten practices are lost the moment I choose “what to give up.” I need the cafeteria to stop serving meat instead.”  (read more here)

The modern individualism has so thoroughly embedded itself into our thinking and our lives that we find it almost impossible to conceive of this common walk and common life together.  Just as it is impossible to define or place boundaries on religious orthodoxy when the determiner of what is believed remains with the individual, so liturgy, piety, ceremony, and practice no longer are the marks of community but merely the personal preferences of some who like them.

There is less and less that we do together in Lent.  What we give up is not a community ideal or value and giving up anything is itself optional to the individual.  The additional worship services of Lent are less and less attended and when they are it is a reflection more of personal preference than the nature of our common life as the baptized people of God in this place.  The practices of our piety in almsgiving and prayer are likewise the individual choices of some and not the characteristic marks of a community.

“‘Liturgy’ is often less about common worship than it is about personal aesthetics.”  The interest among Millenials in ceremony and liturgy has prompted some churches to rediscover these things but the inherent flaw is that these are practices that are shaped by and flow out of doctrine (content) and not simply things does to appeal to individuals.  The liturgy is not a preference of the person but the shape of the faith on Sunday morning.  In the same way, the living out of the church year is not some personal decision because one finds such piety shaped by the seasonal flow of the church year and its appointed lection meaningful.  This is the shape of time for the community of the baptized.  It flows from the community to the individual and not from the individual preference into the community.  There is a difference.

The use of traditional liturgy (even in Roman Catholicism) has become suffused with individualism, with personal preference, and choice.  Even the renewed interest in Orthodoxy is not without those who are drawn to the form because they like it rather than those who are shaped by the faith of the community and identify the liturgy with that faith lived out. In the same way that individualism and personal preference have transformed and individualized society the church and the liturgy have not escaped the same influences.  Indeed many congregations cater to those individual preferences with many different modes of contemporary, blended, and traditional styled services as if the faith itself had no expression inherent in its confession, doctrine, and identity.

What has happened is that liturgical renewal itself has been hijacked along the way and the forms are more parodies of the church's practice than the real expression of its faith, a re-enactment instead of a real liturgical recovery.  Again, the issue here is that what happens on Sunday morning has become exclusively the domain of what people want or like or choose instead of the expression of the communal life, doctrine, and practice of the Church.  In a sense, the liturgy has become no different than a seder meal practiced by Christians.  We do it because we like it, we find it interesting or meaningful, or it is different rather than seeing the church year, the liturgy, and the piety of the faithful flowing from their common confession. So it is entirely possible that a church body and a confession lack any distinguishing marks for the community of faith on Sunday morning.  Many Protestants are all over the page here and then wonder why their "brand" is less understood or seen as largely irrelevant to the individual Christian, what is believed, or how this belief is expressed in worship.  Lutherans are far from immune from this and suffer deeply the loss of a liturgical identity that flows from our confession instead of one designed to satisfy consumer preference.

In the end we notice this more in Lent than any other season of the church year.  Lent has always marked our life together with things both added and things taken away from our life together and our individual lives of faith.  What shaped this was the community of faith to which we belonged, the doctrine and confession of that community, and its consonant liturgical expression.  Now we find ourselves trying to interest individuals in things as personal choices or preferences to what was once a given.  The danger of selling Lent, for example, is that we have already sold our soul to the marketplace before we even convince one person to buy the product and enter the door of the church.  On top of it one of the real complaints of those consumers is that there is no authentic sense of community left to the faith.
our performance of traditional liturgies has become suffused with individualism. The same modes of contemporary self-formation that I describe have infected the modes of receiving and performing traditional liturgies, yielding a parody of the historical Church’s practice rather than a recovery. - See more at:

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