The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


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.

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 Roman 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, fading into irrelevance in resolving the great strains in American life. 


Debra Grant

Debra Grant

Posted at 12:05 pm (U.S. Eastern) 9/10/2013

Another good illustration to define the problem.  We are very good at defining the problem. We have lots of our leaders defining the problem. Writing books, articles, offering webinars which spend the majority of the time defining the problem. The American faith wilderness is crying out for leaders for a bold, new Christian movement. It is time for a new reformation.  Is there a Luther in the house?

Bill Uetricht

Bill Uetricht

Posted at 12:53 pm (U.S. Eastern) 9/10/2013

This is very good.  I was hoping for a couple more "therefores."

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 12:58 pm (U.S. Eastern) 9/10/2013

This is one of those times when I say that there are two ways to define diversity. If I look at the cereal aisle in the supermarket, I can look at the diversity of what's on the shelves or the diversity of what's in the boxes.

Too often, I think that we're focused on the diversity of what's in the boxes, trying to make every box a box of Trix or Lucky Charms, or something else with "a little of this, a little of that" in it. I think that the real diversity is the tremendous amount of choice that's on the shelves.

In my supermarket I can find Apple Jacks, Special K, Cheerios, Wheaties, Post Toasties, and three different types of Chex. In congregations I can find classic, contemporary, bluegrass, gospel, high church, low church, European, African-American, Hispanic, and who knows what all. I don't see it as being divisive at all, it's all a part of the diversity among us.

Melvin G Swoyer

Melvin G Swoyer

Posted at 1:19 pm (U.S. Eastern) 9/10/2013

Note: Melvin G Swoyer edited this post at 3:55 pm on 9/10/2013.

Linda Worden

Linda Worden

Posted at 10:54 pm (U.S. Eastern) 9/10/2013

I loved that album.  I can still hear Willie Nelson singing "Blue Skies" in my mind.

Letting go of the way we used to do things in church is hard for me, but I'm starting to find it rather exciting.


Beth Joslyn

Beth Joslyn

Posted at 1:20 am (U.S. Eastern) 9/10/2013

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 12:58 pm (U.S. Eastern) 9/11/2013

I love seeing new things added, but we have to be very careful not to do a 1985 "New Coke."

For so long...too long...the issue...the battle in some cases...has been framed as "Old or New," or as we do in our house when we're weeding through our daughters' stuff, "Keep or Toss." The self-proclaimed "Keepers of the Flame of Bach" didn't want that new stuff coming in and pushing all the old stuff out.

They didn't want to update the way we did the old stuff. Some people who knew too much about music history said that you can't put a hymn from 1767 with one from 1889...much less one of those newfangled tunes from 1976...not realizing that the people in the pews don't care about the dates or the history, but about the song.

And because these people fought to keep things musically and historically perfect, many of us lost the moment to add new things gradually, so that instead of being either/or, we were both/and.

There are so many ways in which we keep clinging to either/or rather than going for both/and. I admit it, I'm an old-school church music person. My first paying job was as a boy soprano in an Episcopal church. But...I've also had the good fortune to sing with the Hendricks Chapel Choir at Syracuse University, which exposed me to an extremely wide variety of types of liturgical music, and has left me open to even more. So yes, I like the old stuff, but it would be a shame to see it disappear completely because we couldn't give an inch or two, and let it adapt itself to the times. A Mighty Fortress with guitars is still A Mighty Fortress.

And even though I've been talking about music, this applies to so much more in our church life.

Perhaps as we are willing to let go, we are able to go on.

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February issue


Embracing diversity