Style vs. substance

The Lutheran Zephyr has a great post on style vs. substance over here. His main observation is that many people choose churches based on the style of worship and the community rather than theology, ecclesiology, etc. And he suggests that denominations such as the ELCA, which predominantly offers one "traditional" worship style, are making a mistake limiting solid theology to one or two predominant styles. He notes:
Style is what catches the eye of many potential churchgoers, but our denominations are overwhelmingly offering only one way of ministry.

If you believe (like me) that the substance of our tradition can be authentically expressed, experienced, portrayed and conveyed in a variety of ways, then the unholy, monogamous marriage of our tradition to one particular style of ministry is simiply unevangelical, artificial and lacking vision. Our denominations need variety - not necessarily within individual congregations - but within the denomination, between parishes. Not only will this variety draw in people of different backgrounds, interests and walks of life, but this variety will more greatly contribute to our experience of God, the church's mission in the world, and our relevance in this new century.

Read his post and the comments. There's some good food for thought there. Here's what I wrote:

Amen. It only makes sense that people are drawn to a style first. People new to faith are going to be pulled by an inner stirring of the Spirit, but that usually doesn't come with a whole lot of theology or dogma -- the appreciation of theology comes as one grows in faith. And de-churched people are likely focused on avoiding what wounded them. The substance, important as it is, only attracts the churched and relocated (or shopping).

In Christendom we could expect people to come with a predisposition for a certain flavor of substance. In post-Christendom, we have to earn the right to talk substance with people, and that comes through our contextual engagement with their lives, including the style of worship/discussion/etc.

There's nothing wrong with "traditional" worship or a century old style of education if it works for some people, and it does, for *some*. The lack of diversity that you describe, and that I have experienced, says pretty clearly that others need not apply, that we're not interested in them enough to be with them where they are...we want them to be like us first. How unlike how God comes along side us in Jesus!

You're right -- we've got a problem! We seem happy to let people who don't like "our" style wander off into other places, where if they hang out they will be formed by other theologies and practices. If this keeps happening, will Lutheran theology be anything more than an historical footnote? I hope this never happens, but we're going to have to explore contextual styles if we're going to avoid it!

What do you think?


Lutheran Zephyr said...

Hey Bob,
Thanks for the comments on my post. Something which I'm going to clarify and explore further on a future post is an assumption that not many folks commented upon:

"If you believe (like me) that the substance of our tradition can be authentically expressed, experienced, portrayed and conveyed in a variety of ways, then . . . "

This is a crucially important issue. If the faith truly and authentically can be articulated in a variety of ways - if there is not just one inherent shape or style of ministry - then there is no excuse for not having a variety of ministry (not just worship, but total ministry) shapes and styles.

erin_m said...

OK - so coming at this from a different angle.

I agree that there is some definate valiidity to "style" but I have a hard time with putting style up against substance. Can't the two co-exsist? I think that the folks at Mercy Seat, in Northeast Minneapolis, MN have a good thing going. Although this may be a little intellectual for some (they maybe appeal to the acedemic). And what about COTA. I think that when we start feeling like style is more important we lose some of our integrity.

There is a lot we can do as Lutherans to creatively think about style, and to innovate our worship times.

As for me - starting a church in San Diego - it is nice to be able to refer people to other churches that might help them with programs and aid. I would prefer to send people to churches that I would go to myself, and it is frustrating that I have to choose between subtance and style. That's just not right.

Bob said...

Erin - I don't think it's a conflict at all; I think style and substance have to go hand-in-hand. Zephyr's point is that we don't innovate our worship times, to use your phrase. We overthink this and get into situations where either style or substance has to be more important, when in fact they are both important. And if we say substance is more important we lose some of our ability to communicate with people who aren't already convinced of our substance.

With a number of Lutherans I know I sense a reluctance to think outside the box stylistically. It seems that if it doesn't work for them it can't work for anyone. Now I don't think that very traditional leaders and churches should put on a hip style that isn't theirs, they should find folks who do that naturally. But I think a lot of innovation gets nipped in the bud because it won't work for the people who are already there, and that's a formula for, well, staying the same.

I find that sad, because there is a lot we can do as Lutherans, as Karen is doing at COTA. I visited Mercy Seat a while back, and the edgy intellectual thing isn't where I am spiritually. But I applaud what they're trying to do contextually, especially going back to hardcore liturgy in a new way when they sense that a lot of people have moved away from it.

Hope things are going well in San Diego.