Monday, August 31, 2009

Traditional or Contemporary?

It’s always nice to hear that something you said was helpful to another Christian. When that Christian is an Episcopalian, it’s wonderful. While the Rev. Bennett doesn’t say all that could be said on the debate of “contemporary vs. traditional” in Christian worship, it was interesting to see her Anglican perspective on the worship of the church.
G. K. Chesterton once said that being a "traditionalist" means a determination not to automatically dismiss any man's opinion outright just because he happens to be your father.

The buzz these days in the church is whether you attend a church that has "traditional" or "contemporary" worship.

William Willimon, former chaplain at Duke University and newly elected Methodist Bishop of Alabama, (not known to be a curmudgeon) writes this: "I was recently at a church of my own denomination, and I came away frightened, thinking, have I seen the future of the church? The hymns (songs really), anthems, everything had jettisoned the tradition, our language, our metaphors, and our stuff in favor of something called contemporary Christian music. And in my humble opinion, what I heard that day, I just don't think will lift the luggage in the future. As people were singing, praising some vague thing called 'God' who, as far as I could tell, had never done anything in particular, as we were bouncing along praising, I wanted to say, 'you know there are people out there today who just found out that their cancer is not responding to treatment, or who found out their kids won't do right, that their marriage won't survive, or that they ca n’t keep their jobs, and here we are just bouncing along, grinning, praising God. We've got some good stuff for that kind of thing -- where is it?'"

Willimon speaks of running into a preacher who said his church had had contemporary worship for 12 years. "When does the contemporary stop being contemporary? When we go into our second decade of this stuff." The preacher said, "You mark my word, you've heard it here first; you're going to drive by some Baptist church in Atlanta, and they're going to have, out there on the lawn, an amplifier, a set of drums, and a guitar for sale. We will have moved on to some other infatuation."

Willimon reports that he heard an (ELCA) Lutheran pastor say recently, "We are starting to form new churches that have, as part of their mission, the aggressive, loving nurturance of traditional Christian worship."

The fact is, there is something to be said for using words that have been used in Christian worship for 2000 years, something to be said for using prayers that St. Augustine and St. Basil and countless others handed on to us like the precious gems they are. There are 2000 years of Christians who have pressed them to their hearts, stained them with their tears, and carried them to their deaths. The core of our Christian worship is filled with the life blood of Israel as well. The truth is, not many people realize how ancient are the prayers that we pray and the substance that fills them or how ancient is much of our music. This is not to negate that there is some bad theology in traditional hymns nor the need to bring a freshness to worship or a spontaneous voice to prayer.

It IS to say that what traditional worship gives us is something that is not only unique, but something holy, something that has bubbled up from thousands of years of Hebrew-Christian experience.

There are contemporary hymns I love, that bring me fresh insight into God and my relationship with God. But I will never stop breaking out in goose bumps when the choir sings an "Aye Verum Corpus" or a Gregorian chant that suddenly brings the world of my Christian ancestors so close I can almost reach out and touch them; those who felt that God was worthy of the deepest reverence they could offer.

A student asked Willimon, "How come we always sing these old hymns in Duke Chapel? I don't know any of these hymns." Willimon replied, in love, "Well you'll notice that you won't hear any of this kind of music on MTV. This is different kind of music. You had to get up, get dressed, and come down here at an inconvenient hour of the day to hear music like this. Check out the Ten Commandments. It says that thing about 'honor your father and your mother.' This is our attempt to do that in a small way. To be a Christian is to find yourself moving to a different rhythm, a different beat."

So yes, this year in our church you will hear the ancient words again and you will hear the ancient music again and the reason it will touch you is because it has woven its way into your soul as it did those before us. No doubt, there are things that are new, both tunes and words that will ultimately weave their way into our hearts and souls as well. In the meantime, perhaps the test of whether they stay or leave should be do they give you goose bumps! If not that, then at least it should be something that doesn't just make you feel good, but something that pulls back the veil between God, you, and the rest of the community, so that we are able to perceive just Who it is we come before and worship.

-- The Rev. Virginia L. Bennett, St. Andrew's, Episcopal Church, Edwardsville, Illinois

(From The Anglican Digest, Easter A.D. 2005.)

Will Willimon

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

We Are Fine

A few of you may have recently gotten a "very urgent" and distressful email from my wife Patsy's personal yahoo email account. It appears that Patsy's yahoo email account has been compromised and a "spam" email was sent. Please know that the email is false. Both Patsy and I are fine. We appreciate then many calls of concerns we have received. If others inquire, please help spread the word that the Willimons are well and that the email is false.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Thinking Like Christians about Health Care

Brother Rowe Wren recently wrote to say, “I would like your thoughts on…the present Health Care Bill.” In my travels around the Conference, I have heard much discussion on this pressing issue before our nation.

I personally find the bill being debated and proposed to be fearfully complicated but it is an attempt to solve a complicated and expensive problem. Yet we must not be deterred by the complexity. Above all, we are enjoined to think about this issue, and any others, like Christians. (If you are interested in a thoughtful response to health care by some of the leaders of our church, then log into

I’m not sure that I have special light to spread on this subject other than my own attempts to think about this issue in a Christian way. Here, for what they are worth, are some of my responses:

  1. I hear that most Americans are “happy with their health insurance.” I sure am. Our church provides our elders with the most generous of health care programs. Our Conference heavily subsidizes the health insurance of our retired elders. I am deeply grateful for such support. However, we can’t leave it at that. The most underserved group in our society, when it comes to health care, are poor children. Alabama leads the nation in the number of children who are untouched by medical care, making us also a leader in childhood malnutrition and illness. As the church, Jesus has given us responsibility for the “least of these.” Saying that “I am happy with my health care” is not saying enough. Our concern should not be to protect our entitlements but rather our Jesus-assigned concern is, “Am I happy with my neighbor’s health care?”
  2. Scripture tells us that we are “not to bear false witness.” It is tough enough to have a national debate over an issue of this complexity without deliberate misinformation being put out on the airways to muddy the conversation and spread unwarranted fear.
  3. I am so disappointed by our state’s Senators and Representatives, most of whom have contributed nothing to this debate and show a callous disregard for the welfare of their poorest constituents. Let’s urge our elected officials to get in the debate and craft good legislation. We have the most expensive health care system in the world that leaves out millions because, while it is not government run, it is dominated by the insurance companies. I’m glad that our elected representatives have health care; thousands of their constituents don’t.

  4. I fully trust the American Medical Association and our doctors to worry about health care and they say we need dramatic reform. Methodists should care about those who can’t get health care as the much as the AMA is concerned. I visit church after church were the congregation is having to pull together and provide funds (thank goodness!) for people in their congregation or community who have suffered catastrophic financial loss due to huge medical bills. Some of our health care professionals volunteer every year to go work in medical missions where Christians are trying to help those who are left out of our health care system. Why? We think about these issues with scripture, with Luke 10 where, in one of Jesus’ favorite stories, the Samaritan says, “take care of the wounded man and when I return I will repay you whatever it costs.

It would be great for every pastor and church to explore how your congregation can prayerfully, thoughtfully respond to this issue. Surely we can do better than the likes of TV’s Glen Beck and Joe Scarborough. Of course, they have no desire to think about this issue with Jesus, and it shows. But we do! Read Luke 10:25-35! Then, “go and do likewise.

Rowe, I hope this is helpful.

Will Willimon

Monday, August 17, 2009

Claiborne’s Call to Young Christians

This year’s Annual Conference focused on reaching and empowering a new generation of Christians. At Conference our churches received some great ideas about how to reach out to the "Under Forty" generations; generations that we appear to have (unintentionally) excluded from too many of our congregations.

Some of our younger clergy like Carrie Kramer Vasa, following up on the energy ignited at Conference, have invited one of the most exciting spokespersons for a new generation of Christians – Shane Claiborne. Shane will be with us on August 29. I’ve worked with Shane and have found him a fascinating new mix of evangelical passion and good old Wesleyan concern for “practical Christianity.” Shane keeps focusing on Jesus and the radical, life-changing, world-changing power that flows from ordinary people (like us!) taking Jesus seriously. His books Jesus for President and The Irresistible Revolution are just great.

I could say more about Shane but I will let him speak for himself. Here are some Claiborne quotes that I’ve collected:

"Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived."
(Ouch! As somebody who does lots of talking, it’s good to get this Wesleyan reminder that the truth about Jesus is meant to be lived!)

"I think that's what our world is desperately in need of - lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about."
(Everything we know about attracting young adults to the church says that they must be engaged in face-to-face, hands on mission.)

“I need to be born again,…. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy, too. But I guess that's why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest."
(Isn’t it curious which scripture we ignore and which we notice?)

""How ironic is it to see a bumper sticker that says 'Jesus is the answer' next to a bumper sticker supporting the war in Iraq, as if to says 'Jesus is the answer - but not in the real world.'"
(Shane really stresses taking Jesus seriously.)

"It is a dangerous day when we can take the cross out of the church more easily than the flag. No wonder it is hard for seekers to find God nowadays."
(We’ve got to make sure that when we attract people to the church we, in Wesley’s words, “offer them Christ,” not some gospel substitute.)

(Shane says of his own young adult years….)
"But as I pursued that dream of upward mobility preparing for college, things just didn't fit together. As I read Scriptures about how the last will be first, I started wondering why I was working so hard to be first."

"I asked participants who claimed to be 'strong followers of Jesus' whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor."
(I see John Wesley smiling.)

And this…
"Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful."

Get the young adults in your church together and join Shane on Saturday, August 29, 9-4, at Trinity UMC in Huntsville for the Live It! event.

Will Willimon