The Common Good

The American Church: Searching for a New Imprint

Out of nowhere, I felt an urge to listen to Willie Nelson’s epic album Stardust, a collection of pop standards that went platinum when it was released in 1978.

Christian imprint illustration, SoulCurry / Shutterstock.com
Christian imprint illustration, SoulCurry / Shutterstock.com

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As I listened to “Blue Skies” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” I remembered buying this album for my father. I thought he would enjoy a fresh take on these songs of his youth, his travails during the Great Depression, and the war that defined his generation.

I don’t think he ever listened to it a second time. He loved the songs, but he couldn’t bear the fresh take. He wanted Gertrude Lawrence, the original voices of Tin Pan Alley and Depression-era hopefulness, the crooners that carried his generation to war and back home again.

I understand. The music we hear at our first dreaming, first love, first dance becomes the soundtrack of our lives.

For many people, the same is true of faith. Our images of God, songs of worship and language of prayer tend to be those we acquired at first awareness. Many more images, songs and words will come later, but none might resonate so deeply as those that were imprinted on us early on.

It can take great patience and self-denial to hear another generation’s soundtrack of faith and take it seriously.

Christian congregations in America are dying for many reasons — smugness, excessive infighting, fear of change, aversion to risk, perpetuating ineffective practices — but one reason is this reality of imprint.

Churches tend to become generationally narrow — focused on a single generation that shares a certain moment of imprint, like grand hymns of the 1950s or contemporary Christian rock.

Each generation hears its soundtrack, as it were, and relaxes. Going broader and deeper means accepting a fresh take as worthy: new songs, words, and images, new sorts and conditions of people.

When you add racial and ethnic diversity, as any church in an urban area must do, you gain entirely different music, preaching styles, and languages. Sunday worship moves awkwardly from piano to pipe organ, from Gospel music to bluegrass standards to classical hymnody, from power to bland and back.

No wonder churches thrive when they stick to a single script and struggle when they embrace pluralism.

Whatever our attitude toward diversity, our imprinted faith probably was formed on a narrower field. It takes a major life crisis — and the personal newness that ensues — for a fresh imprint to take hold.

This isn’t just a problem of church management. It also speaks to faith’s place in our increasingly pluralistic society. Religion has always divided us. Look at colonial Maryland, or New England towns with a separate Catholic parish for each ethnic cohort, or suburban intersections where denominations compete like burger joints.

Now we add Islamic mosques, Orthodox Jewish synagogues, nondenominational megachurches — each wanting to make its imprint before assimilation takes hold.

When assimilation does occur, we get the present reality: not pluralistic religion, but non-religion, as in the polls’ favorite, “None of the above.” People haven’t turned against God; they just aren’t willing, as my father once showed in music, to seek a fresh take.

Jesus kept moving. He never allowed a single imprint to capture his purpose. Denominations haven’t followed that lead. They’ve found a script and stuck to it.

Now they are paying the price, not only in institutional collapse, but in growing irrelevance to resolving the great strains in American life.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.

Image: Christian imprint illustration, SoulCurry / Shutterstock.com

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