Saturday, May 13, 2023

Lowest common denominator. . .

Math and I did not part on good terms.  I can do everything I need to do but my interest waned at equations.  Algebra is the part of math I love to hate though, to be sure, in my day in public school both algebra and advanced algebra were required of all students.  Fractions were helped by my interest in cooking where the meaning of these things some how began to make sense.  What never caught my attention was the idea of the lowest common denominator.  Apparently the rest of the world found this the most compelling of all concepts.

We live in a lowest common denominator world.  Everything is reduced to the minimum that we all hold in common.  We no longer sing in parts in school but we all sing melody with prefab accompaniment.  In this way we are all stars -- even those who cannot carry a tune. We put everything at a base reading level -- even Scripture -- so that no one will be excluded.  In this way we make the Word of God accessible to everyone but we also make sure that the more complicated words and concepts disappear.  We give out participation trophies to make sure no one feels excluded or unappreciated and in so doing render the victory hollow indeed. We give out academic degrees in a way sure to cheapen their value and we reduce the requirements of those degrees until it is sure that they mean little if anything consequential.  We love the idea of equal pay but somehow have lost the value of equal work.  We are quiet quitters who do as little as we must to cash the paycheck and get the benefits.

None of this is as big a problem as how this has come to relate to the things of God and His Church.  When we climbed on the bandwagon of everyone a minister, we certainly got rid of the pedestal and the Herr Pastor who stood on it.  But we also ended up cheapening the office and now we no longer urge the brightest and best among us to be pastors.  I am not meaning to diminish those now in seminary but the smaller numbers of first career pastors and the small numbers overall of those in seminary seems to be adequate evidence that either we do not esteem the office of the ministry very high nor do we bother to encourage our best to seek it.  Our quest for a cheap and easy route to ordination is also reflective of the idea that being a pastor is not so hard and just about anyone can do it with a little training.

Then there is the idea that worship should meet us all at that lowest common denominator instead of being something difficult worth striving for.  Music should be easy enough so that everyone can sing it if they want to.  We surely do not need to bother with a choir or a decent instrument (pipe organ or grand piano) as long as we have a keyboard and some wicked speakers.  I used to say that if you cannot play well, at least play loud. Given the volume level of most praise bands, the axiom has proven itself over and over again.  The make do attitude has allowed us to be dulled by CDs to accompany hymns and liturgy or all spoken services.  We no longer build buildings of substance and presence but have given into the metal structures that could be warehouses but work just fine for a hard edged worship space.  Beauty is now the image on the screen that is cheap and easy and a manufactured image sold rather than a work of art.  But it works because we have given into the idea of the lowest common denominator.  Whatever works.

When we look at the structures erected by our ancestors in hard times (depression anyone) and see how they sacrificed to provide the best for God's house and His glory, it says a great deal about who we are now and our minimalistic attitudes.  The stenciled handiwork and elaborate painting may not be the style on HGTV but it reflected a willingness to do more rather than settle for less.  It has also spilled over into what happens on Sunday morning.  Not only is the setting less but what we do in it is less.  We think it too much to expect people to stand and sit and kneel so we keep them seated and passive.  We think it too much to sing many hymns or all the stanzas so we sing in soundbites laughing at the 27 stanza hymns of old.  We dare not ask or even expect folks to dress up so whatever beer logo t-shirt or ragged jeans we find is good enough for God and for the man who sits on his bar stool up front leading them.  We would not think to tell someone that once a month is not the regular our Lord had in mind when He said "Do this often in remembrance of Me."  The end result of our lowest common denominator approach to the things of God is evident in the decline of Christianity and those on the forefront of this minimalism have experienced the same empty seats as everyone else.  The answer to our woes is not the lowest common denominator.  It never was and it never is.

Our most for His glory.  Maybe if we tried that more often, things might improve.  I remember visiting my present parish some 30 years ago.  They had called me and I came to see who they were.  When leaders asked if I had a vision or plan for the future, I was not sure what to say.  I ended up saying Everyone in worship and Bible study every week.  The response was laughter.  No one should really expect that.  But
God does.  Our best for His glory.  It sounds rather foolish except to Him who did that for us.  Think about it.  I think about it all the time.

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