February 7, 2018

Like It's Going Out of Style

If there's one word that defined the 20th century, an argument could be made for "style." Love it or hate it, Modernism brought an avalanche of stylistic trends and -isms that would shape the way our modern world looks; from clothing fashions that changed every five minutes and recycled every couple of decades, to psychedelic graphic design trends, various schools of abstract painting, and a smorgasbord of weird and wonderful architecture. Compared to the previous century, everything moved at a break-neck pace, and that trend seems to only be accelerating as communication becomes wider and more immediate.

The unfortunate victim of this high rate of change was the church. In the early part of the 20th century, most American churches lagged behind the curve a decade or so, but by the 1950s, the whole church more or less had jumped on the bandwagon. There were some holdouts, of course, but at the time, the more "enlightened" folks would have viewed these as outliers—mindlessly imitating the aesthetics of a bygone age. (This is the part where I'm sure some of you will make an argument that the church needs to "exist in the now" or "relate to modern culture" or what have you. Trust me, I've heard every argument.)

The reason I say this is unfortunate is that this idea of impermanence—a key component of style and fashion—has permeated even the church, to the point where we fully expect to tear down or remodel our churches in a decade or two. A former church of mine built a very minimal, barn-like sanctuary in order to convert into a gymnasium in a future stage of expansion. And from what I can tell, this utilitarian approach to building churches has become pretty commonplace. Some even go so far as to make the sanctuary dual-purpose from the get go. And it makes sense, from the perspective that a church built today will likely go out of style in the next five years anyway: "Technology will need to be replaced, the aesthetic will need to be updated, and who knows? Maybe we'll actually have the funds to make a "nice" church the next time around." It also makes sense from the theological perspective of Baptists and Evangelicals who don't believe in the real presence: "If the building is just a place where we come to do some things in God's name for one hour a week, no big deal. It might as well look like a gym." Of course, this doesn't describe the position of a confessional Lutheran, but in recent times, that hasn't stopped us from acting like Evangelicals.

I recently listened to a Let the Bird Fly podcast in which a couple of WELS pastors made some convincing arguments in favor of bringing back the clerical collar. The one that struck me the most was that you never have to worry about your clericals "going out of style" (32:30). Imagine never having to worry about whether your pants were sufficiently baggy or skinny, whether this print of plaid is still in vogue, or whether your shoes were hipster enough.

What if your pastor's clothes were not supposed to make a statement of style? What if they were just meant to say something about who you are in relation to God, and that's all? What if you made a choice to wear what other pastors and priests have worn for centuries, with the knowledge that it isn't going out of style in your lifetime? How incredibly freeing would it be to permanently cut that annoying decision-making process out of your day? To stop wasting time every morning wondering what kind of image you are going to project to the world today? At least, that's one set of arguments Dr. Johnston and Dr. Berg make.

Redeemer Lutheran Church in Louisville, KY - built 1952.
Take that concept and apply it to your church building. What if we decided to treat our worship spaces as the dwelling place of God—not just in theory, but as a matter of fact? What if we resolved that our architecture would say something about who God is, and less about how fashionably modern we are? What if we could rest easy that our hard work wasn't going to be erased by our children in an attempt to correct our bad taste? What if we adapted forms that are so cemented in Western culture that they couldn't possibly go out of style? What if we planned for the future, instead of just for today, and built a church that could truly stand the test of time—both in its aesthetic considerations, and in its construction?

All this is not to say that it is wrong to have a trendy-looking or cheaply constructed church, just like it isn't a sin for a pastor to dress like a lumbersexual. I bemoan even having to write this disclaimer, but in the modern Lutheran church, you can't even whisper the word "should" without someone saying you're being a legalist. (So if that describes you, just stop it. You're being disingenuous.) It doesn't make you a legalist to say that one thing is better than another, and even less so for merely posing the question. If a group of Lutherans wants to have a really hip, contemporary-looking church, presumably there is some utilitarian benefit they have in mind—say, connecting with a demographic of people who don't trust "churchy churches." Or perhaps it's a matter of cost.

That's fine. We are free where Christ has made no law. I mean, chances are good that it's going to look ugly, and in fact you're probably counting on that. But considerations of beauty aside, there are both theological and practical benefits to thinking about our churches in terms of permanence and timelessness, just like there are many practical benefits to wearing a clerical collar. It shows that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, something older, and more important than our changing whims and fashions. It shows that an actual encounter with a holy God is occurring here. When we are freed from the ongoing worry about whether our church's image is completely up to date, then we can focus on other things—like sharing Christ with a fallen world. Chances are good that a traditional church building (with its furnishings and artwork) will even help you in this regard!

We all have different levels of comfort with change. Speaking for myself, I get fatigued by it very easily. But if I may presume to speak more broadly, there are things we all like to stay the same. However we feel about our fast-moving culture, we all make traditions for ourselves. Maybe it's football. Maybe it's pizza and a movie on Friday nights. Maybe it's the holidays with family. Whatever it is, there is something each of us finds comfort in, and that we want to stay the same. Maybe our church can be one of those things?