Going Retro?

I love retro things, items that remind me of happy times from my childhood and teenage years. Because I was a sports fan then many of the retro things I own reference sports teams and players. I own a Bobby Orr t-shirt and a photo of his famous Stanley Cup winning goal, tripped and flying through the air. More recently I have a Minnesota North Stars t-shirt, hat and hoodie. That team no longer exists in the NHL, making it especially worthy of retro memories. Whenever I see anything with a Minnesota North Stars or California Golden Seals crest I am likely to consider a purchase.

In Churchland such retro nostalgia is even stronger. Seniors still attending church on a regular basis can all remember a time when the churches were full, hearing special preachers was a “big deal” and the singing of older hymns made the walls shake with enthusiasm. But those days are largely over. A good indication of this reality can be found at any thrift store, take a look at all those church plates from communities across Nova Scotia. No one wants them anymore. And yet in days gone by every household would have at least one hanging in their kitchen.

Retro church can still be found alive and well in the summer. Look for a church in the countryside that no longer has regular worship, holding services only in the summertime, with a visiting Minister dropping in. Seniors dress up like the old days, the hymns are the favorites from the early 20th century, and people are in a good mood. There is a feeling of touching something special, from a time long ago when church kept one’s life on a steady keel.

But in the context of regular worship, September to June, such retro worship services seem more sad than nostalgic. The contrast between what was and what is just makes people more upset. The blame-game is never far from the surface, everyone has someone or something to blame. Traditionalists blame the lack of continuity, the changes the churches have made, both in practice and theology. More liberal types blame the church’s lack of change, the fact we still sing hymns written two centuries ago, the fact the churches seem so slow to embrace the causes that animate activists; climate change, poverty, transgendered rights. Yet churches that do lean in either of these directions don’t seem to grow or become any more dynamic than those who practice that “Old Time Religion”.

In my seminary days we were given training as worship leaders that pushed us to use rituals borrowed from my liturgical churches but with more inclusive language and theology. In essence my generation of church leaders worshipped like Anglicans and talked like Unitarians. One thing you can say about evangelical churches, they may refuse to use any version of the Bible besides the good old King James but their worship practices tend to be more personal, more emotive, and the music is more accessible. As church growth guru Bill Easum used to say, “So how many people today listen to classical music on the radio, in their homes, on their iPads?” His point was this, the Wesley brothers used the tunes of their time and the lyrics of their time to make accessible spiritual music. By using their tunes and words today we are neither being theologically nor liturgically accessible. It just feels like a museum where the guides are in costume acting out their context, something like the Fortress Louisburg.

I think the way forward is to find a way to convey our theology in words and music that reflect who we are today. Traditionalists going back two centuries are not going back to Jesus and the early church, instead they are reflecting a certain era in church history that has no more connection with the Gospel than what we do today. And my generation of church leaders, with our Anglican liturgy and Unitarian theology, also reflect more of a time, the 1980’s, than the present spiritual hunger and context.

People are hungry for this experience. Finding the way to express it will not be easy. But going “retro” is hardly the answer.