Count me among those who believe that the church has to be in the world and not of it. Count me among those who believe that Christians have to dance with the now without abandoning what brought them to the dance floor in the first place. Count me among those who believe that a living church should have one foot firmly planted in the past, and another in the heart of the marketplace of today's ideas.
Having said all of that, let me make an argument for the past.
Here's a stanza of unforgettable lyrics from a famous Lenten hymn:
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
"When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," is something gadzillions of Christians know by heart. Isaac Watts' words reflect his 19th century poetic style: sorrow is running from Jesus head and hands and feet, as is love. He's talking about blood, of course--but he's also talking about love and sorrow. "Did e'er such love and sorrow meet?" Chew on that line for a while, for a lifetime. Charles Wesley once said that he'd trade having written every hymn he ever scribbled down for "When I Survey."
The argument some make is that rich hymnody creates the opportunity for thoughtfulness about our faith. When we only sing lyrics we understand right away, we're not led into any deeper waters. Ever. In the last six months I've been in too many churches where what is sung lacks not only complexity but substance, in a well-meant attempt to meet people's needs. I'm not dissing fast food, but if all you eat is Whoppers and fries, you're missing a healthy diet.
Thomas Bergler's Juvenilization of American Christianity argues that the contemporary church has kept faith vibrant by trying to keep up with the times, by trying to be what people want it to be; but in the process, he says, the church risks something as sometimes childish as the fads it mimics.
I live juxtaposed between two extraordinary Sioux County fellowships. One is St. Mary's Church, here in Alton, an incredible cathedral so immensely ornate and beautiful that it hushes me everytime I walk in. In design, both inside and out, it visually defines the faith aspirations of the community who built it and sustain it.
Just about as far away in another direction stands an ex-used car showroom where Sioux County's most vibrant church meets every Sunday. It has absolutely nothing of St. Mary's grandeur. It takes great pride in not being a church. It too represents the aspirations of the community who built it and sustain it.
Those two churches are the two sides of a coin. St. Mary's has things to learn from Living Water, but Living Water also has things to learn from St. Mary's.
But all of us, methinks, can learn from Isaac Watts.