Churches come in good, bad, and indifferent, but too frequently in Protestant churches anyone who can read the Bible is allowed to teach it. Since it takes work to study Church history, hold to a Biblical standard, and think deeply about our cultural assumptions, the character our churches assume depends upon the pastor’s knowledge, ability, and taste: variable factors at best. More often than not, the pastor institutes what he thinks will hold the attention and interest of the audience. Contemporary fads will certainly hold it.
Ours is the first age in history which has asked the Christian what he would tolerate learning. The devil of consumerism that possesses us is the kind that can be “cast out only by prayer and fasting.” No one has yet come along strong enough to do it. In other ages the attention of the Christian was held by St. Paul and St. Augustine, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our congregants are too stupid to enter the past thoughtfully. No one asks the Christian if the traffic laws please him or if he finds it satisfactory that the initial letter of a sentence should be capitalized, but if he prefers hymns to praise and worship music, his taste must prevail.
I would like to put forward the proposition, repugnant of most Protestant pastors, that Christianity, if it is going to be taught in our churches, should be taught as a culture of its own and should submit rarely to the culture around it. For culture is indeed religion externalized, and if Christ has placed upon us the free and clear bindings of his religion, than we have no other obligation than to externalize Christ and nothing else. No Christian should sing Tomlin or Hillsong until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Handel, Bach, and Isaac Watts, and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better works of the ancient Church: the Psalms, Augustine, and Athanasius, to name a few.
The fact that these works do not present him with the realities, taste, and language of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the seminarian who wrote in his paper that the papists invented the Virgin Mary, many Christians go to church unaware that the Church was not made yesterday; their imaginations began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable.
The pastor will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes his flock a guided opportunity through the best biblical ideas and liturgical practices of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best ideas and practices of the present. He will teach Christ, not evangelism or little lessons in Christian ethics or the whims of this age, for he will know that the more intimately the Church weds herself to the times, the faster she becomes a widow. And he will know that what we "win them with," we "win them to." What yolk we assume, to that we will be enslaved.
And if the Christian or non-believer finds this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being sanctified.
*the structure and many of the words taken and adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade,” published in The Georgia Bulletin in 1963, reprinted in Mystery and Manners (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961)