Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Remember when. . .
The decline in Mass attendance and the drop in numbers for non-Roman parishes also began with Vatican II but were not simply due to the abandonment of Latin as the normative language of worship or to the introduction of revised forms of the liturgy. Yes, these did have a small part to play but the shift was more than merely a face on Sunday morning. It was a growing fear that what we believed may not be true or exclusively true, in any case. It was the willingness to insert doubt where confidence once lived. It was the shift not exclusive to worship in which the central focus was no longer of God alone but on self and the new found arena of personal choice, preference, and unashamed desire.
Rome has its folks who believe that it all happened when Latin and the EF Mass all but disappeared and for Lutherans (especially those of Missouri type) when TLH was replaced by new books or the whatever of the copier and the whim of the worship leader. Yes, these things did have an impact but they were mere reflections of other things happening within Christendom that shook the foundations of the faith and distanced the faithful from the confidence they once had in the questions and answers raised by the faith and answered by that faith. Just as Rome cannot be fixed by simply restoring the Latin and EF as normative for Sunday morning, neither can the LCMS be fixed by imposing the hymnal and a few thees and thous.
We live in an age of minimal catechesis. Too many of our people are only slightly schooled in the faith, in Scripture, and in the catechism. When asked the familiar questions, they have no answers except feelings, opinions, and doubts. When faced with Sunday morning, they wonder what is relevant about the structure of the Mass (which Lutherans preserve) or the Scriptures themselves. Sermons have for too long sought to do other things besides teach the faith and so they walk away disappointed if their interest has not been piqued by something new and different, their quest for relevance left unsatisfied with advice on how to have a better, happier, more successful life, and their personal preferences of style and music left unfulfilled. It is not a problem that can be solved by changing only what happens on Sunday morning. It is a crying need for certainty in the faith into which they have been catechized -- a lifelong catechesis that happens in overt words and in the more subtle realm of symbol and sign.
Our people are not really so different from the folks in the generations who went before (the folks who filled the churches on Sunday morning and whose sons filled the seminaries as well). We face the same grave questions about life and its meaning and purpose and death and its natural or unnatural end -- and, of course, what God has to say about it all. Yet that is precisely the problem. We live in a culture in which death is no longer the problem and meaning and purpose have shifted from the realm of God to pleasure. As long as our culture sees death as normal, natural, and is willing to settle for this brief life, Christ's death and resurrection are the answer to that which is no longer a big problem. Choice and abortion and even euthanasia are seen as the lesser evils than a life not well lived (that means filled with personally satisfying experiences). Having made peace with death as long it is prolonged until life is deemed not worth living, the focus is left to self, to pleasure, and to pursuit of desire. Even Christians have fallen into the trap of defining ourselves by our desires instead of God's creative purpose and intent (to which Christ has redeemed us and restored us).
The liturgical change is the result of a deeper change -- a focus on life instead of God, on self instead of Christ, and on desire instead of righteousness. We can change Sunday morning all we want to and it will make no difference unless we address the underlying issues of a life defined by pleasure and desire rather than creative purpose and intent and death that has become friendly instead of our enemy. What was once the strength of Lutheranism (and Rome) is that our people knew who we were, what we were here for, and found in the Divine Service (Mass) the liturgical expression of that faith. It was certainly not a perfect era nor was it without its own fallacies and faults that tried to obscure the Word and Sacraments. It is not our goal and purpose to repristinate another time or place but to do the faithful job of catechesis and liturgical leadership consistent with that catechesis that will bear fruit in the lives of the faithful living out their baptismal vocation of worship, witness, prayer, and mercy works. It will certainly help if architecturally and liturgically Sunday morning is consistent with this confession but changing the drapes and dinner table alone cannot undo the damage already done and restore our robust understanding of the Word and the vibrant life of faith lived around the font and table of the Lord.