New World Order of Worship
Marquand Chapel has been described as the heart of Yale Divinity School. During the semester, it is host to a busy schedule of weekday worship services that feature liturgical diversity, world-music innovation, and traditional forms. It has a dual worship and educational purpose: It embodies the School’s Christian worship values and also allows students to learn details of liturgical leadership. Each academic year a student team of chapel ministers is chosen to organize the worship programs, in collaboration with the chapel dean. Their duties include enlisting choirs, musicians, faculty, staff, and other students for services ranging from Lutheran vespers to Nigerian liturgies to Pentecostal praise to Catholic foot-washing. As the YDS website declares: “Marquand Chapel serves as a nexus of Christian spirit past, present, and future, giving students a glimpse of local liturgical possibility, a deeper sense of tradition, and an experience of world Christian solidarity.” Reflections invited this year’s four YDS chapel ministers to offer impressions about church and spirit, present and future.
Rolling Up Our Sleeves
by Katie McNeal
A palpable sense of foreboding fills many churches today. There is a fear of decline, especially in regards to the supposed exodus of young people from the church. Some meet this anxiety with blind optimism, some with bitter pessimism. However, I think the way forward is with a realistic hope and a readiness to roll up our sleeves for the demands ahead.
It is impossible to generalize about the church’s current strengths and weaknesses. For every congregation doing good work in a field, there is another that is indifferent or counterproductive. However, these mixed results can be a good thing. As we continue to sharpen dialogues between churches, denominations, and seminaries, we can learn from each other’s strengths and help each other grow out of our weaknesses. Through this mutually beneficial process, I believe the church will revitalize itself into a genuine, loving, worshiping 21st-century community.
But we’re not there yet. I often wonder if the biggest hindrance comes from within. It is all too easy for us to get wrapped up in logistics and particulars; sometimes we see other churches as competitors instead of allies in learning. But I think a shift is occurring. I think we are slowly coming to focus on the one thing we can all agree upon: We are called to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors, fully.
Similarly, there is no one solution for the reported exodus of young people, which might be exaggerated. But before we blame contemporary trends and conditions, I encourage us to look at how we classify and treat young people at church. Do they have equal ownership with the older members? Or are they ignored or corralled into a separate worship experience? Younger people are not merely the abstract future of the church. They are the current church as much as older members are.
I am happy to report there are churches where high school students are welcomed on council, not as the token young people, but because they provide valuable insight into the mission of the church. I have seen congregations where all confirmed members are welcomed in the same Bible studies and discussion groups. I see an openness to create genuine and meaningful worship, whether through scripted liturgies of the denomination or unscripted experiences.
So I maintain a realistic hope. It will take imagination and creativity. There will be failures. There will be periods of stagnation. Yet through it all there is potential and promise for healing and revitalization. So let us roll up our sleeves and, together, as the Church, get to work.
Katie McNeal ’15 M.Div. is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She plans to work with congregations and the wider church on issues of vitality through traditional and creative methods.
Drinking from Many Wells
by Randall Spaulding
Most youth and young adults I talk to are candid about the great diversity of 21st-century worship. So much is on the table: disparate theologies, language, gender and sexuality concerns, a crowded menu of musical styles, the importance or unimportance of denominational identity, shrinking church attendance in the northern hemisphere. When it comes to worship, we are drinking from many wells.
Some might see this as chaos. But I am not discouraged.
Every day I witness young people seeking deeper relationships with one another and with God. They are insisting on authenticity in their worship experiences and in their connection to the faith community. With declines in denominational loyalty, young people are embracing the common ground that unites rather than characteristics that divide.
I see a healthy winnowing at work. Declining churches will need to adapt, grow leaner and healthier, or they will not survive. I do not hear young people lamenting this. The lament comes from an older generation comfortable with the status quo and nervous about disrupting it.
Despite the diversity and tensions of the worship scene, young people still seek unity in the Way of Jesus. Nevertheless, there’s a clear need for worship that is relevant to 21st-century sensibilities. Young people are closely examining worship patterns and assumptions in order to renew, affirm, or if necessary reject them. They are looking for spiritually vibrant worship expressions. They are insisting on intellectual integrity. Many are reclaiming ancient worship rituals. They’re assessing God language, traditional gender boundaries, new discoveries in the sciences, and the adaptation of non-Christians rituals and practices for Christian worship.
Like the early church, we are living in an era of great political, economic, and religious instability and possibility. We could let our anxiety overwhelm us, make us afraid, and turn inward and defensive in our worship practices. But I trust in the adaptability of young people. I see them looking deeper, with eyes and hearts and minds that seek bridges, that seek the spirit of God in others, and find that we are walking the same journey in different ways in worship – the journey that is love, peace, kindness, helpfulness, healing, and hope. Our parents did not do church in the exact same way as their parents and grandparents. I expect nothing less from new generations of churchgoers. And that’s good news.
Randall Spaulding ’14 M.Div. will begin a chaplain residency program at Yale-New Haven Hospital in the fall. He hopes to be ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.
Music’s the Thing
by Porsha Williams
As a young adult in ministry, I see a wave of younger people joining the church. I notice this occurring across several denominations. What is happening? I believe many young adults have the desire to feel connected, and at church they sense community and closeness. At worship they experience a level of personal intimacy. I see an increase in the number of young adults entering ministry, either directly after undergrad or only a few years removed.
Many young adults are coming to church with a burning passion and desire. And for many churches, this is a challenge – the challenge of understanding that fire and passion. In essence, there is a generational gap. More churches should consider creating a staff position for young adult ministry to nurture the numbers of young adults in their midst. Some traditions are essential, but congregations could find ways to bring newness to them. Some popular traditional hymns could be placed in newer musical settings or arranged to provide a contemporary feel.
To me, music is central. It’s the thing that brings me closer to God in worship. I first encountered the Holy Spirit as a young child, and the encounter happened through the music and the voices of a choir. Music is an art that transcends time, culture, and generations. I honestly believe that music during worship can bring people together. I have seen generations of people unite through music in the worship space. When we raise our voices to God in song, all on one accord, we become one voice in the spirit.
Churches bring a particular strength to 21st-century culture – the power of prophetic witness. With so many injustices in the world, many younger people are looking to the church for an answer, a protest of conscience. With pastors preaching the Gospel of Jesus as well as the texts of the prophets, my hope is a prophetic movement will gather that mobilizes the attention of young adults. May the church become the church that Christ desired us to become.
Originally from Bridgeport, CT., Porsha Williams ’15 M.Div. plans to pursue an S.T.M. degree, doctoral studies, and ordination in the Baptist tradition.
The Widening Search
by Joe Brewer
People’s ideas of spiritual communities are changing. In previous decades, churchgoers would belong to a particular denomination and congregation. Worshipers now – especially those about 45 and younger – tend to search for a particular experience that speaks to them. They may not know what they’re looking for – they’ll “know when they find it” – but the search continues until they think their spiritual needs are met.
These needs might touch on any number of things. Some yearn for a better connection with God. Others long to reconnect with their childhood religious experiences. Some are looking for spiritual peace. Some left the church years ago and now want to recommit to Christ in a more inclusive, modern environment.
If the searchers are a couple or a family, they might keep looking until they find a worship experience that touches the entire family. That can be a lot of moves.
Once they find a congregational home, they might not stay there forever. In a mobile and highly consumer culture, people will remain as long as they feel welcome and happy and fed spiritually. When there is community conflict, people are not as eager to stay and work through it. They may simply look for a new place to worship. As leaders, we need to understand this new dynamic and provide support. The most disheartening result of a conflict is not when we lose a member to another congregation but when a Christian loses faith entirely over the matter.
As searchers, people might belong to multiple spiritual communities. Again, this is the inevitable result of consumer options and expectations, an expansion of available worship styles. I know people who go to Sunday services at one church, mid-week Taizé for prayer and reflection at another, and Saturday centering prayer at another.
I think this is all a good thing! It means people’s spiritual needs are being fed. As a future pastor, I don’t think it means my congregations have to be everything to everyone. I need to be secure in the fact that I may be sharing members with other congregations. I need to stay alert to a person’s or family’s changing spiritual needs.
The goal is to bring people closer to Christ. I believe healthy ministers and congregations realize that they themselves might not be able to fulfill that goal entirely for every person. The world of this spiritual search is bigger now than it used to be.
Joe Brewer, a second-year M.Div., has 20 years’ experience in the private sector as a management consultant and comes to Yale from New York City. A Lutheran, he hopes to become ordained and work in urban parish ministry.