This is the first of its kind. The first "My Take" in response to an almost harmless set of of hallway conversations, etc within my local church. Hopefully the title alone didn't scare you off.
Existentialism is a nice and fancy word to describe a philosophical movement that centered around man before thinking. Or put another way it placed existing (or experience) before what actually exists. As we work it out these ideas should make more sense. On the religious side of things the church can heartily thank Søren Kierkegaard for placing existential thought into the middle of the church. Our modern use of the phrase "leap of faith" really derives itself from his teaching and has been widely accepted for better and for worse. So how does existentialism have any connection to worship? Hopefully I'll be able to show you some practical ways in which it affects both the modern approach to praise and preaching. Today the singing.
To address the true roots and affects of existentialism in our singing a more historical and painfully brief look at church history is required. The worship structure of the early church is currently a topic of great research. Outside of a few scant references to psalm singing, there is no prescribed order of worship or singing within the Bible itself. This we do know for sure, that quickly after the development of a visible order in the church the liturgy became the church standard. Between 100-600 A.D. the church developed liturgies that Orthodox churches still practice around the world. The Catholic mass similarly has experienced few changes and even recent "modernization" efforts were not fully supported.
For the most part these liturgies consist of the same words being spoken and sung every Lord's day. There has been inclusion of more variety of songs in the Catholic Church. But in the Eastern church the inclusion of new music has generally been resisted. The reasons? First continuity. People learn through repetition and in the earliest days of the church this was the only way to ensure the people's familiarity with the service. The second reason was doctrinal integrity. The liturgies of the early church were crafted and kept
because of their doctrinal conformity
. This was the best way to educate the masses who visited each Sunday without needing to include it in the teaching time. How and why did the church get to where it is today? Well it all starts with the printing press.
During the Reformation, there was an open protest against the mass structure of the Catholic Church. In particular the way in which it depicted the Lord's Supper and moved towards it. In response there was a movement to writing of songs for the purpose of congregational singing. Luther wrote many great hymns for the Lutheran church while the Reformed churches tended towards putting the Psalms to music. But what is uniquely interesting for this blog post is that these things were able to occur because of the printing press. These new songs were for the first time able to be printed out for the church and used by congregants in their singing. Especially in the Reformed church, the concern with doctrinal integrity was accomplished. And the concern with congregants being able to sing a different song from week to week was addressed by the ability to collect these songs into hymnals for the people to sing.
Enter the existential development. Now we're being inundated with the teaching that it is not the essence of the songs but our existing with the songs that is important. How does existentialism interact with the Eastern church? It doesn't. The essence of the songs has been affirmed. Their usefulness and connection to the earliest histories of the church and hence their very essence is more important than the experience of the Divine Liturgy. Though that isn't to say they don't care about the people's experience with the Liturgy.
How does existentialism interact with Protestant denominations? Well I'll let you guess. In fact, it is very likely that you've experienced the very heart of the existential problem within a church or two through the American "Worship Wars". Why have they wars started? Well let us look at the basic concerns of the original liturgies and apply them to today. First continuity and then doctrine.
Continuity is and will never again be a concern for modern worship. With the development of projectors and Microsoft PowerPoint the church will never be lyric-less again. And these things truly are wonderful. But what was the affect? Songs no longer have continuity. The sheer market for Christian praise music and rise in popularity of praise song writers exploded in the 80s and hasn't really stopped. Why? Because its easier than ever before to present new material to the church. This is a good thing! But why is new material even being considered? Because continuity is and will never again be a concern for modern worship. We don't sing all the songs our grandparents sang. And it is unlikely that our grandkids will sing all the songs we sang. Now continuity isn't something to go to the war mounds for but realize the impact that this has on the relativism of the church. It is more important to experience the new than ensure retaining the essence of the past.
And what has driven us to this conclusion? Experience. How many people complain that they "can't worship" given Style A or Style B of music. And why? Because we exalt the experience of the singing and merely assume we are retaining the essence. Now the funny thing about it is that this is occurring on both the old and new side of the worship wars. Their both claiming their "style" of music is important and neglecting the essence. What is this? Existential worship. Is our experience in worship important? Yes. But what are we experiencing when we make our praise time about the genre of music and not the substance? We merely experience ourselves.
Well what about the concern for doctrine? To be rude and frank this hasn't been a concern in the church for a long time. Ask yourself when the last time you scrutinized the words of a song against the truth of Scripture. Do you think you are the average congregant? Are our songs teaching correct theology? Are we convinced that each new praise album really has accomplished a more clear pronunciation of the truths found in God's word? I'll tell you this, if we were concerned about the essence of our singing it would.
People have always wanted to make the praise time about themselves. But existentialism gave the arts wings. Now our songs are based on the truths of Scripture but how we experience the truths of Scripture. Is this entirely bad? Of course not. But is it a slippery slope? Yes. the variance in songs and the cultic acceptance of different songs in different parts of the nation has lead to an increasing spread of differences in doctrinal opinion. And for once I must side with the old. While they may not have had the best filter for their doctrine their had a uniformed collection of agreed tunes.
What's the conclusion? I think it should be quite clear that existentialism is the living and breathing life force of the modern "Worship Wars". When experience trumps essence, new will always beat out the old independent of whether it retains the original essence. I'm honestly unsure of how to describe a praise time free of existentialism. I'm not sure what the Reforming of the church in this capacity would even look like.
But I do know this, on a church by church basis we can begin to reevaluate the music we sing. We can begin to require their doctrinal integrity. We can begin to admit and accept that some songs simply are better than others in terms of clarity and focus on God's truth. And we should teach these songs to our kids. We should teach them to love the essence and not the experience.
Joshua Torrey is the sole proprietor of Torrey Gazette (don't tell Alaina) and the fullness of its editorial process. That means everything wrong with TG can legitimately be blamed on him.