For a time I was fascinated by traditional Presbyterian worship. There was just something majestic, dignified and deliciously predictable about it. That fascination slowly wore off, and for a time I could not tell why that was, and I found that troubling. I’m referring to the kind of Reformed Presbyterian worship on a typical Sunday morning in a 19th century traditional stone building, with uncomfortable pews, strange smell, pipe organs, massive communion table, elevated pulpit and sometimes a choir.
Coming from an Eastern European context where order is an exotic word, this type of worship was like a magnet to me. It is beautiful and dignified. It has a lot going for it. If I were to build a new form of worship, that’s where I would probably start. But it is not where I would end up. Not anymore.
It took me awhile to figure out why it just failed to satisfy. It just wasn’t buzzing for me anymore. What I initially regarded as different and refreshing soon became restrictive and oppressive. Trying to tinker with it as a minister lead to backlashes that shocked and disturbed me. That also contributed to my disenchantment.
For awhile I used to call this “19th Century Worship”, but in a discussion with a friend, he used a better term: “Victorian Worship”. Yes, that’s it. That’s what it is. The whole Victorian paradigm comes with its own values and presuppositions, cultural dogmas and expectations. Victorian worship is directly linked to Victorian models of education. How did I miss that? The connection between education and worship is so relevant.
The worldwide education crisis – there is such a thing – has a lot to teach us about the worship crisis – we have that too – if we pay attention. Most schooling systems in the West were started by the church, mostly to teach children to read the Bible. The Victorians headed a revolution in extending education to every child, regardless of income and social status, in order to sustain and develop the industrial revolution, by producing workers to feed the bureaucratic machine. That is why most educational systems today value mathematics and literacy above all other disciplines. They still teach adding and subtracting, and they still teach calligraphy. Why? We now have calculators and computers. The system was designed for a world that no longer exists.
According to Sir Ken Robinson our educational systems are based on three main values: Conformity, Compliance and Standardisation. These are Victorian values, and most of world wide education still operates on this paradigm. Robinson proposes a radical paradigm shift from Conformity to Diversity, from Compliance to Curiosity, from Standardisation to Creativity. He argues that a reformation of the system is not enough; what is needed is a revolution – a paradigm shift. He quotes statistics about the drop-out rate of kids from the schools in the United States being 60%, while in the Native American high-schools is 80%. I believe this situation is relevant for most of traditional Reformed churches and their decline in membership, and I will attempt to look at each of the three values in terms of their relevance to Victorian worship.
1. Conformity to Diversity
In the educational system conformity is sadly still a huge value. Children are taught science and mathematics above all other disciplines. They are important, but not sufficient. Arts and physical education don’t count as much, because they ‘won’t get you a job’, presumably. This thinking does not account for the huge diversity of children, and it attempts to put them in a straight jacket. As Ken Robinson said in a TED talk: “If you put kids in a classroom doing hour after hour of low grade clerical work, don’t be surprised if they start to fidget!” What he proposes is a diverse and broad curriculum, where we take into account the diversity of skills and talents of children. This is how children thrive, because diversity is natural, conformity is not.
Think of the way Victorian worship works. Is it not the same? People come dressed in virtually the same way, they sit in rows, doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same way. What we value is modesty, sameness and conformity. We expect children to sit quietly like everybody else, and not fidget. We sometimes smile at mothers of fidgeting children, and we are so pleased with ourselves that we are understanding of them. We are not understanding; we are politely annoyed, because our (Victorian) value of conformity is being disturbed by a non-conforming child.
I heard some people praising this value, extolling its disciplinarian qualities in educating children to be still and pay attention. I heard them deploring the short attention spans. Yes, because it worked wonders in adults: Ask any congregation to be still and quiet for anything more than two minutes, and see what happens. People are terrified of silence and stillness.
Tinkering with the system is not going to help, in my opinion. We need a radical shift away from that value: away from conformity and towards diversity. We need a worship pattern that accommodates children and adults in their diversity. Instead of sitting people in rows facing forwards, why not have them sitting around tables, or not sitting at all, or on bean bags, working out their faith in different ways: through words, sound, images, beauty, dance, movement, relationships etc.
2. Compliance to Curiosity
This value is more about the role of teachers, and in our case ministers. It has to do with the obsession of testing and algorithms of learning. Teachers are forced to operate with a culture of compliance to standards, rather than teaching children by stimulating their imagination and curiosity.
How much of Victorian worship is based on stimulating people’s imagination and curiosity? You can’t do those things by giving people intellectual lectures. The type of preaching expected is aimed at their heads. It is disembodied. It is based on the false premise of Enlightenment and Modernity that thinking and reason are the most important aspects of our humanity. They are important, but they are not sufficient or exclusively important. It is not enough to stuff people’s heads with good ideas. (The devil knows the Bible and all orthodoxy.) You have to excite, enthuse and move hearts as well. This is true in education, and it is even more significant in worship.
Again, tinkering with the current system is not enough. The typical classroom arrangement of Victorian buildings restricts the worship experience to a compliant intellectual exercise that does not satisfy and does not inspire. Something radically different is needed. We need a paradigm shift into a way of engaging in worship that is holistic, that involves body and mind, emotions, curiosity and imagination. You can’t do that with a hymn sandwich and a lecture.
Preaching has to change radically as well. As Peter Rollins said, “Preaching should’t SAY something; it should DO something… Preaching is performative.” We need to move away from the idea that preaching is about dumping orthodox ideas in people’s heads. We’ll end up with holy heads. Nice, but insufficient. “It will make religious people, and not wise people”, in the words of Richard Rohr. Preaching should stimulate imagination and curiosity. We can learn from the master in this kind of preaching: His name is Jesus. And he used parables. Prophets preached that way too: often doing (radically embarrassing) stuff, rather than saying stuff.
3. Standardisation to Creativity
The third value relates to how education approaches the diversity of children, by applying standardised methods to achieve a uniform result. This does not work anymore. Ken Robinson shows how the highest achieving educational systems in the world value the children’s individuality and creativity, by placing equal value on the arts and humanities as they do on science and mathematics. The result is that they achieve better in the latter categories as well.
The standardised method was another Victorian value that fed the industrial machine by creating standardised workers. It made sense. It was what was needed. That is not the case anymore. The world is changed. Authenticity, individuality and creativity were not needed in the Victorian paradigm, and were viewed with suspicion because they threatened the balanced machine.
Think of our Victorian churches: do they value individuality, authenticity and creativity? Or do they value conformity, compliance and standardisation? What happens when a worship leader proposes listening to music one Sunday instead of singing hymns? Oh no! What happens when a minister shares a personal story of vulnerability and failure, instead of already known stories about other people? It makes people uncomfortable. What happens if a minister uses a creative dramatic performance instead of a sermon? Stupefaction! Why? Because all these things go against the fray of Victorian values on which Victorian worship is built. It makes sense, does it not?
Sir Ken Robinson said in another TED talk that kids drop out of education because it doesn’t feed their spirit. My conclusion is that this is the same reason why people are dropping out of the church. You cannot feed someone’s spirit through conformity, compliance and standardisation, because human beings are not like that. What comes naturally to people is diversity, curiosity and creativity.
So, do I see a future for Victorian worship? I am not sure. But that’s mostly because I can’t predict the future. The fact is that Victorian worship has a glorious past and it has a present. It is the reality of most mainline protestant churches. What they also have in common as a result is decline, because it is not working anymore. This is why I believe a radical paradigm shift is needed. Tinkering won’t do, because the foundations are outdated and cannot support a new structure. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the gospel is not outdated. It has been covered by too much cultural dust of a particular kind, instead of being incarnated into the ever evolving human culture, as it should do constantly. The gospel is as relevant today as it ever was, and more needed today than ever. Everyone needs to know they are radically loved and accepted by God, and that it is a gift of grace, and not a prize for good behaviour and agreement with orthodox ideas. This is why we are compelled to not confuse the gospel with any worship style or form, lest we end up worshipping a dead form rather than a living God.
The other bad news is we can no longer keep doing the same thing over and over again, hoping that somewhere down the line it will work again. We need to change, and cosmetic changes won’t do. We need radical change. We need a paradigm shift. In some strands of the church the green sprouts of change are rising, and they are beautiful! And they are working! They’re not perfect, but they are growing. That’s good news. (See Fresh Expressions, Messy Church etc.)
Is there still a place for Victorian worship in the 21st century? Yes, I think there is, but certainly not at the expense of new forms. There are still people who live and operate from the Victorian paradigm and mindset. Even if all worship would change over night and spring from a new paradigm, I would still do Victorian worship for the people who still live very much in that mindset. I would do both. I actually do that in my own parish. Because of this, I still think it has a place. And it is not an age thing. I know 20 year olds who are more Victorian than 80 year olds in their thinking and approach to life, even if, by and large, the X and Y generations are further away from the Victorian mindset than Boomers and Builders. I am often shocked to hear mothers in their late 30s educating their children in Victorian values. It baffles me, but it’s still there to a certain extent.
Perhaps the reason for that is we have not yet found an alternative. When I ask young people if they like Victorian churches and their buildings, some say they do. But they don’t come to worship. They like it for weddings, Christmas and sometimes Easter. They like it, I think, because there is an innate need for ritual, gravitas and ceremony in human beings. Victorian worship does these well. Whatever new paradigm will emerge will need to find ways of nurturing ritual, gravitas and ceremony in significant ways, based on the new values instead of the old. Maybe when we have this figured out we will be able to leave the old paradigm behind, and a new reformation will be more easily imagined and embraced. Maybe we will discover that we don’t need to figure everything out before we step out in faith, and dare to make mistakes and try new wineskins.