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Dumbing Down and Smartening Up

Dumbing Down and Smartening Up


The title of this essay is to be read with reference to worship, any kind, but especially, since it is my field of expertise, Christian worship.


You already know my bias on this subject.  I shall nonetheless do my best to be fair and balanced when representing examples of the former, dumbing down; but I disclose at the outset that, except for three or four occasions, I am relying on second-hand information from family and friends who, for the most part, have been positive in their assessment of their experience at mega-churches and “contemporary” worship in mainline churches trying something, anything, to increase attendance. 


Dumbing down is my pejorative (forgive me, Lord!) for what others do in the name of making the Gospel more accessible.  Since most people cannot read music and struggle with any tune employing notes above “b” on the treble clef, minimize the tessitura.  And, while you’re at it, yield to the power of repetition, with refrains like “I love Jesus”… over and over and over.  For a generation raised on TV sound bites, step up the pace of the service and cut out nods in the direction of antiquity like the Gloria Patri and the Doxology.  As for the sermon, rename it “meditation” or, better, “message,” avoid everything controversial, keep it simple, use PowerPoint, and stick with recognizable clichés, like “God loves you and so do I,” or “Just believe and everything will turn out all right.”


Courtroom lawyers tell me their summations for the jury aim at a sixth grade mentality.  It’s the world according to H. L. Mencken who famously stated: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”  KISS, “keep it simple, stupid,” could be the new rubric for a seminary class on worship. 


When I first contemplated the vocation of preacher, lo, these many, many years ago, it was an office held in high esteem by the general public, including this member of said general public.  The smartest people in our community were Dr. Worley (my pastor), Mr. Campbell (the Presbyterian’s pastor, of course!), and Rabbi Pearlman (no parenthetical explanation needed).  My high school English teacher, much-revered in other corners of this website, boasted that three of her best and brightest students entered the ministry… yes, Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.  This assumption, that clergy is a profession with the highest credentials of intelligence, has fallen into disrepair with the ascent (and consequent descent into scandal and banality) of the reverends of television infamy. 


Smartening up was once both qualification and imperative for the calling on which I embarked in 1956.  There are a score of young people no longer young, once from Brooklyn, whom I can name as witnesses to my success in the pastoral role with the “imperative” to smarten up.   


Not that I favor intellectualizing worship.  God knows, and my bored soul does too, preachers have succumbed to the temptation in the pulpit to show how smart they are, parsing Greek or quoting Kierkegaard.  Pastor Howard has been fairly accused by parishioners of brandishing in newsletter articles a vocabulary that would send anyone other than Bill Buckley to the dictionary. As my homiletics mentor Paul Scherer admonished me and other fledgling preachers, that he who preaches a sermon over the heads of his congregation does not prove he has superior ammunition, only that he has poor aim. 


The faithful alternative to both simplemindedness and bragging (and boring) profundity is to be profoundly simple.  Like Jesus.  Yeah, yeah, how can any Christian quarrel with that example?!  By way of illustration, the parable of the prodigal son, so clear in its insistence on the boundless mercy of God no matter how reckless our behavior, will yield a thousand more meanings to those who stay with it for a lifetime. 


I was charmed, for instance, by the recent reworking of this story from Luke on A Prairie Home Companion, its version, the Prodigal Daughter, with Meryl Streep as the forbearing mother. Garrison Keillor offered the benediction, with the prodigal’s jealous older sibling in mind, that God’s grace is just as outrageous to our sensibility of fairness as gifting a penitent wastrel with a fatted calf… but that’s the way God is. 


Or Genesis 3, Adam, Eve, the snake, the forbidden fruit, the temptation, the lies, the banishment: it is as captivating to kindergarteners as to the brightest minds humanity has produced. 


That’s what I look for in worship; and, when it’s my turn, I try to provide: an experience that is simply profound.  


Go ahead, dance in the aisle, float pink balloons at Pentecost, clap your hands, slip into the vernacular at every opportunity, illustrate your sermon with PowerPoint outlines and photos of pleasant pastures, and cozy up to the deity in “centering prayer”: I can tolerate them all, provided you nourish my mind as well as my heart and my soul, with understandings of the Gospel that reach up to heaven and down to earth.

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