September 30, 2020

C.S. Lewis — The Conservative Worshiper

One of the clearest statements of what might be termed the “conservative” position on the practice of worship was made by C.S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

I wonder how you respond to it.

“It looks as if they [innovative clergy] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain — many give up churchgoing altogether — merely endure.

“Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value.And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

“But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was ‘for what does it serve?’ ‘‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’

“A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the questions ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.’

“Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. …But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit — habito dell’arte.”


  1. Excellent quote, good find. Permanence and uniformity. Which also establishes unity among Christians and avoids offense and unnecessary disputes. so why do Christians constantly seek novelty and uniqueness? Only vanity.

  2. Absolutely spot on!

  3. Yes, this is the cry of my heart, in areas other than church as well. I do, however, also love new things. Lewis deals with the potentially happy and creative tension between change and permanence well in “The Screwtape Letters.”

  4. The obvious tension in his position is that EVERYTHING was novel at some point in time. All that is traditional was at one point new. And I think he acknowledges this with the phrase “each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it”. So basically it boils down to — make any changes when I’m new and not yet “at home”, then leave it alone so long as I remain attending. Which is actually a rather selfish position.

    Change is inevitable and often for the good. Churches should be willing to throw out old forms if they are failing. I think the problem in much of the evangelical circus (and other circuses as well) is that change is done just for change’s sake. Or to “brand” a sermon series. Or to keep it “interesting”. It would be far healthier if for every change implemented, the church had to create a theological position explaining how the change would complement the mission and vision of the church. This would make the changes more intentional and not just chasing fads (assuming the church’s mission statement is not “mimic pop culture”), while keeping the congregation well informed.

    • Absolutely agreed.

      I was going to comment. “We should have stuck with the Latin Mass if we didn’t want change.” But then I realized that the Latin Mass was in and of itself a change.

      Most of you will probably agree that Latin is a dead language, it was good change to make theologically that people could worship God in their own tongue.

      But people, classical music is also dead. It represents 2 to 4% of music sales in the U.S. The musical forms represented in traditional hymns are dead. Including classical music and traditional hymns in your worship service makes as much sense as having the service in Latin.

      “Churches should be willing to throw out old forms if they are failing.”

      The forms have failed. The youth have left. Do we need to debate this any longer?

      “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.” – Jeremiah 8:20

      • But people, classical music is also dead. It represents 2 to 4% of music sales in the U.S. The musical forms represented in traditional hymns are dead. Including classical music and traditional hymns in your worship service makes as much sense as having the service in Latin.

        This comment reminded me of what’s happening to the local classical groups. I live in Minneapolis, and both the professional orchestras in the area – The Minnesota Orchestra and The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra – are undergoing all sorts of financial turmoil at the moment. The Minnesota Orchestra recently canceled all their performances until Thanksgiving because management and the players can’t come to an agreement on the players’ contracts. Ticket sales have been declining and the number of donors has gone down as well. Classical music is seen as a cultural good still, but it doesn’t play the same role in society as it once did.

        • Couldn’t agree more. I’m singing this year with the Orlando Messiah Choral Society and although I am honored and humbled to be around such dedicated and talented people, it isn’t exactly overrun with singers under the age of 40.

        • Since I also live in a suburb of Minneapolis (west side!), I have this to say about 99.5…at least they play music during their member drives. 89.3 The Current (MPR’s alt/indie station here in MN) is my favorite radio station, but when member drives come up, you are lucky to hear 4 songs in an hour.

          So glad the latest drive ends tonight…

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

        “Churches should be willing to throw out old forms if they are failing.”

        The forms have failed. The youth have left. Do we need to debate this any longer?

        I hesitate to bring up this cliche to you, Michael, as you do a lot with statistics, but I can’t help it. Correlation does not necessarily imply causality. Hadn’t the old forms been abandoned long before the youth were even around? Most of those who are currently youth have never even been exposed to the old forms. The old forms were abandoned when the boomers began running things. In fact, I think this is one of the reasons in my denomination we see that most of the advocates for the most traditional forms are in their early 30’s or 20’s: they’re rebelling against their parents’ rebellion against the old forms.

        Unless, of course, we’re saying that the “old forms” that the youth have left are the seeker-sensitive, no form thing that the boomers have been pushing on them for the last 30-40 years.

        • “Correlation does not necessarily imply causality.”

          Guilty, with an explanation your honor.

          Youth leave when the church becomes irrelevant. That is the cause and effect we are seeing.

          In the church where I attend I believe it was a too slow transition from a German service into an English service. In other churches it might be the music, or the style of liturgy, or the attitude towards homosexuals. In others it might be hypocrisy, or the scandals in the catholic priesthood. In others it might be the attitude towards science.

          As for youth rebelling against their parents’ rebellion against the old forms, I haven’t seen it. However, as we both now anecdotal evidence does not imply statistical trend, so the fact that you have seen it and I haven’t doesn’t mean much. I would be interested in knowing if there might be any stats out there about this. I would guess however that as I am not seeing any trends of youth flocking back to classical music in society, that I would not expect to see it in the church either.

          • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

            Truth be told, I have been wondering how much of what I’ve seen (and been told) about such things is anecdotal or specific to the segment of the population that I most interact with rather than representing a quantifiable trend. And to be fair, it’s a certain segment of the 20- and 30- somethings that we’ve seen rebel against the boomer’s rebellion: they tend to be single and they tend to be well-educated. Also, I’ll freely admit that most of those who point out these kinds of trends are not objective.

            Some studies I do remember (though I don’t have them readily available) were than among the few catholic convents that were growing with younger novices, they were all very traditional. Also, I remember reading about how relatively unchurched younger folks were more likely to eventually attend a church that was more traditional architecturally than the store-front or warehouse or overtly-contemporary look when they did come into the church. And when we did our study for our new building, across age board, the preference in our community leaned more traditional, including a desire for pews and kneelers, cathedral ceilings, and cruciform floor plan. Now, that’s just one parish in one small town, so who knows how that is reflected on a larger scale.

            But really, the most important thing to the X-ers and Millennials (and I do have studies to back this up) is community and a sense authenticity, however unquantifiable both of those issues are.

          • “Youth leave when the church becomes irrelevant”….

            My son shared with me several weeks ago that many of his friends (mid 20s) are leaving or have left not because of relevance but rather have abandoned ship due to their perceptions of the lack of authenticity and the fact their church didn’t offer a sense of constancy but rather was always embracing the latest trend or style to incorporate into their worship service.

            Admittedly I have a particular style of worship I lean towards, but none the less it seems to me if relevance is the primary issue with youth, then we’ve got a significantly bigger problem. Our society is very much one that embraces the latest fad, what’s popular or trendy, etc. The church will never be relevant enough to a society molded by those items and will always be in pursuit of the next great thing to attract people. I don’t have to look any further than WWE wrestling to see what happens when more isn’t enough and even more is demanded, and where that takes you.

            Maybe I’m too old fashioned, but isn’t the Gospel relevant enough?

          • “But really, the most important thing to the X-ers and Millennials (and I do have studies to back this up) is community and a sense authenticity, however unquantifiable both of those issues are.”

            Agreed. However I think that community is certainly quantifiable.

            I saw a study a number of years ago that surveyed people 6 months (I think) after they had joined a church. Those who had developed 5 (I think) or more significant relationships invariably were still at the church. Those who had developed fewer than five relationships had moved on.

            Someone else who may have seen this study may correct me on the time frame and number of relationships, but I think you get the idea.

          • @Don – “Isn’t the Gospel relevant enough?”

            My Grandfather was a Bible translator. He was the primary translator of the Bible into Bemba, the most common indigenous language with over 3 million speakers. So why translate the bible? Why not just give them the original texts in Hebrew and Greek? Or English for that matter.

            Here is why. For the gospel to be gospel it must be understood. It must be communicated in ways that the hearer can comprehend, understand, and receive. We must communicate using the heart language of the recipient.

          • @ Michael Bell – You are defining relevant I think a bit differently than I am. Unfortunately what I see in many churches in the US is a tweaking of the definition of relevance to really mean what is popular at the moment. Translating scripture as you noted makes absolute sense, as what good is the Gospel if it can’t be understood?

            But when it comes to worship, unfortunately some, maybe many churches in the US have taken relevance to another level. Adapting a service to the latest style or what’s popular only lasts for the moment, and creates a mindset within those attending that worship really is more for them than the audience of One. I’m not saying we can’t adapt to what makes sense to a culture, but if we’re changing simply because the old way isn’t cool anymore, then we’ve completely missed the point.

          • Aesthetic preference is not the same thing as a language barrier. Good grief.

          • If Aesthetic preference is what is causing a barrier to the gospel, then yes, it is the same thing as a language barrier.

          • How on God’s green earth does aesthetic preference “cause a barrier to the gospel?” Is the power of God unto salvation so weak it can’t transcend personal taste? It can not be the same thing: Someone talking in a tongue unbeknownst to me cannot communicate to me. But I still can, believe it or not, understand the four pillars of Islam, even if it’s sung in a country western song, provide the lyrics are in english. The style barrier does not prevent comprehension in the same way a language barrier does. But the Nobel Eightfold Path, even if sung in high classical opera, will be completely indiscernible to me if the text is in German.

      • But people, classical music is also dead. It represents 2 to 4% of music sales in the U.S. The musical forms represented in traditional hymns are dead. Including classical music and traditional hymns in your worship service makes as much sense as having the service in Latin.

        Ok, I’ll bite. Classical music also represents a significant portion of motion picture soundtracks, which, combined with orchestral music, probably is a majority. People don’t listen to it much because they we don’t just sit down and play a CD and listen while doing nothing else. If we did, top 40 pop would make for a torturous experience. The fact is that people are still moved by this music, and that is why it is used to manipulate our emotions in movies. The problem is that we don’t recognize it as such because in our instant gratification mindset we’re so easily drawn to forms that can be understood within 4-8 measures. Calling a form of music “dead” makes about as much sense as calling God dead. The idea may not be en vogue, but there’s plenty of life to be found there.

        The musical forms used in hymns are also incredibly diverse, many of which are still in common use today for a variety of functions. Would you say that the national anthem is dead? That’s an oldie. Perhaps we should replace it with something new, hip, and “relevant” so that our young people will recover a shred of patriotism. Oh that’s right, the youth aren’t apathetic because the song sucks.

        The forms have failed. The youth have left. Do we need to debate this any longer?

        Wow. If you think kids are leaving the church because the liturgy is boring, you are not listening to them. Kids are leaving the rock and roll churches with the big light shows too, because it’s become an empty, meaningless production. All forms of worship, at one point or another, have the potential to bore people. That does not justify changing them UNLESS the goal is to entertain (or use entertainment to increase attendance). When you find yourself bored in worship, consider it may be more a reflection of yourself than the service.

        As much sense as Latin? Then why are new churches being started with primarily younger people like through the Sojourn Network experiencing dogmatic demands for hymns only and intolerance of CCM? I’m sorry, the young people are not leaving church because our worship isn’t hip, cool, and “relevant” enough. We got that in spades now and they’re still leaving. Latin is literally incomprehensible to a person who doesn’t speak that language. Hymns are perfectly comprehensible and enjoyed by the young and the old alike. They something meaningful and substantive, and I know plenty of youths who have expressed appreciation of this aspect, in several churches across the country.

        Including nothing in your church service more than 50 years old makes about as much sense as starting your own new religion.

        • Or put it another way: If classical music and hymns are really “dead,” then how can they possibly be the reason that youth are still losing interest in church? CCM has been mainstream for decades; surely by that logic we ought to see youth flocking back in droves. If youth today are losing interest in churches, then given the zeitgeist, that proves they’re losing interest in churches with “relevant” music right along with the rest.

          Let’s ask some of these young people why they aren’t interested in church, and be prepared to really listen. I expect they’ll mention things like culture wars, superficial programs, emotionally distant church members, judgmentalism, insularity… To put the blame for all this on (hmm, let’s see, what could the root problem possibly be here…) music! is simply scapegoating.

          For a bonus question, play the teens recordings of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Jepsen’s “I Just Met You And This is Crazy”; then ask them which music they think sounds more spiritual and worshipful. Does anyone really want to put money on them embracing the more “relevant” option? “Relevance” is a slippery fish. “Meaningful” might be a better adjective to start with…..

          • “For a bonus question, play the teens recordings of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and Jepsen’s “I Just Met You And This is Crazy”

            That is a straw man argument. Why not compare “There is a fountain filled with blood” with “Shout to the Lord”?


            Groups dominated and led by young people who are very interested in singing mostly older hymns, all over the country.

            Also see this post:

            Evangelicals are beginning to rediscover what was thrown away.
            Teenager preference shouldn’t be the litmus test for doxological suitability, but my experience leading both those songs very many times in several different churches is that the former gets the young people on board much more enthusiastically, whether done with a bluegrass hick or Passion style groove. “Shout the Lord” typically appeals most to mid to older generations; the kids don’t care for that one a ton, and it certainly does not excite them.

          • > “Why not compare “There is a fountain filled with blood” with “Shout to the Lord”?”

            Indeed, why not? The idea in either case is that, other things being equal, people (including teenagers) tend to prefer good music to bad and substantial to superficial. To make it purely a question of “style” is to miss the point.

            A friend of mine, an excellent contemporary worship leader, once led worship at a youth group. One day the kids started talking about how boring they found hymns compared to the music of today. “What about the songs we do in youth group?” asked my friend, “which one is your favorite?” Without hesitation, they enthusiastically agreed: “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!”

            It took my friend quite a bit of convincing to get them to realize that their favorite contemporary song was in fact one of those boring old hymns. So you never know.

    • “The obvious tension in his position is that EVERYTHING was novel at some point in time. All that is traditional was at one point new. ”

      I’m not so sure this is true. The liturgies of the eastern Christian traditions have changed very little over the centuries. And what change has occured has been very slow and organic.

      • Though I like this line from Wikipedia.

        “Basil had as his goal the streamlining of the services to make them more cohesive and attractive to the faithful.”

        Though it does sound from this article that things were quite fluid in the early years.

        • There are three main Divine Liturgies used in the Orthodox Church – the Divine Liturgy of St. James (oldest and longest), St. Basil (next oldest and longest), and St. John Chrysostom (newest and shortest). So yes, there was a streamlining and simplifying of the Liturgy in the early Church, but I don’t think this is not the kind of change that is being discussed here. Anyone can read these Liturgies and see the similarities and the fact that they come from a common source. It wasn’t about changing the basic structure of the worship in order to be relevant.

        • When you hear this through the filter of revivalistic Evangelicalism. “Streamlining” and “cohesive” do not mean “praise and worship set leading up to the sermon,” or “going where the Spirit is leading you.” It means that he put some thoughtful work into the crafting of his liturgy, which, when all is said and done, is to this day more elaborate and ornate than anything you will experience in the Western church. They still use his exact liturgy. Read through it and then see if this fits your conception of “fluid.”
          Here’s a copy for you to look at:

    • EVERYTHING was novel at some point in time…

      Yes, but not in the history of the Christian church. Don’t forget that we did inherit a good deal from the Jewish faith. Both their songbook (the Psalms) and their liturgical practices (of the synagogues) were readily adapted by the early Christian communities. However, they did have to be Christianized to reflect the Trinity as now understand it, hence a good deal of the developments in the liturgy (such as the Gloria Patri, traditionally tacked onto the end of a Psalm).

      I wish that “failure” were the reason the old forms were thrown away, but it is simply untrue. There was never a discussion on the theological nature and purpose of the forms in order to ascertain their current utility. Those who understand the answers to those questions are still using the old forms because we have found them extremely useful for our purposes (such as Colossians 3:16). Unfortunately, when the purpose becomes drawing a crowd, entertaining people, and competing as an entrepreneur in a religious free market, the old forms aren’t always the sharpest knife in the drawer (though sometimes…)

      Ultimately, I think the greatest tragedy is the modernistic tendency to take an either/or approach to historic Christian worship. You don’t have to start with a blank slate just to make room for your individuality and creative expression. The most vibrant worship communities are, IMO, ones who synthetically blend the musical and doxological heritage of the church’s past with carefully selected and well thought through creations of contemporary origin. You can have your cake and eat it to (though I know on the ground level many congregations are intolerant of this idea and insist on either/or).

      • Not to be inconsistent, and agree with you… 🙂

        The best church service I have ever been too, was a charismatic Anglican, which billed itself as:


        The four elements did help to temper the excesses and weaknesses of each of the other categories.

        • I am a big fan of borrowing ideas from other traditions to supplement your own. Them Charismatic Episcopalians are a wild and rowdy, eccentric bunch. They shall have their cake and eat it, too.

          Don’t worry about the occasional agreement, Mike. You can’t be nuts 100% of the time. 😀

  5. Kerri in AK says

    I wonder if Mr. Lewis equated novelty with innovation. Seems there was much hew and cry over the introduction of organ playing during church services; now it would seem odd, particularly in a traditional, liturgical church, to not have an organ in use. When it was introduced, I’m certain it was seen as a novelty and, no doubt, some people left the church because of it. But now it’s as ubiquitous as having an altar or, here in the UK, having a baptismal font.

    I also wonder what Mr. Lewis’ views were of the Oxford Movement begun in the 1830s with its dramatic changes to the Anglican church particularly in England. Wikipedia has this to say:

    “The Oxford Movement was a movement of High Church Anglicans, eventually developing into Anglo-Catholicism. The movement, whose members were often associated with the University of Oxford, argued for the reinstatement of lost Christian traditions of faith and their inclusion into Anglican liturgy and theology. They conceived of the Anglican Church as one of three branches of the Catholic Church.”

    And this:

    “The Oxford Movement was attacked for being a mere “Romanising” tendency, but it began to have an influence on the theory and practice of Anglicanism. It resulted in the establishment of Anglican religious orders, both of men and women. It incorporated ideas and practices related to the practice of liturgy and ceremony in a move to bring more powerful emotional symbolism and energy to the church. In particular it brought the insights of the Liturgical Movement into the life of the Church. Its effects were so widespread that the Eucharist gradually became more central to worship, vestments became common, and numerous Catholic practices were re-introduced into worship.”

    This is the norm for most of the Anglican churches I’ve attended. Despite the shocking novelty of it at the beginning and the resistance of many Anglican bishops, something about these different views and practices was appealing enough that they’ve been a part of Anglicanism for over 100 years.

    But then the Oxford Movement was partially in response to Evangelical Anglicanism which in England got its start in the 18th century. And now post-modern Evangelical Anglicanism is pushing back at what the Oxford Movement established!

    I think Mr. Lewis plea for “permanence and uniformity” a bit short-sighted as what was “traditional” for him hadn’t been in place since the dawn of time.

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

      From what I understand, Lewis was a high churchman, but not an Anglo-Catholic. At the time, there was still a significant number of high church folk who drew their cues pretty strictly from the prayerbook rather than from pre-Reformation sources or current Roman Catholic sources. This was a fairly traditional form of Anglicanism, but still solidly Protestant and theologically moderate. This position has all but disappeared now, unfortunately.

  6. I have seen some churches fall into the idea that they have to do something new simply for the sake of doing something new. More often, though, it seems that pastors want to try something new as a response to some crisis or issue within the congregation. I’d say that can be either good or bad depending on what it is.

    My experience has been that those most resistant to changes are often those that have the most invested in current forms. For example, the organist or pianist who refuses to learn to play a hymn in a key she’s not used to.

    I think another thing to realize is that if we’re talking about things like modern worship music, a lot of the beginnings of that can be traced back to groups that were ostracized by the church at some point. So in response to that, they started developing their own patterns of worship. This is especially true in the Pentecostal tradition.

    • I am both a pianist and an organist and I happen to be a he. Any good pianist or organist should be able to transpose hymns easily. For those who are not so adept at doing it, however, there are some electronic organs (Allen, for example) and some electronic pianos (Yamaha, for example) that have rotary dials or toggle switches to transpose by whatever number of half-steps you like. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. For what it’s worth, I have never known any musician who REFUSED to play a hymn in a different key. It’s almost necessary these days as fewer and fewer people seem able to hit the high notes.

      • Well, in many smaller churches the people who are at the organ or piano barely qualify to be called musicians…

        I think that’s another thing about using more modern songs compared to songs in hymnals. It takes a certain amount of ability to play music from a hymnal. Many of the people I know who play piano can’t read music. They can play off a lead sheet with chords, and they can do “dumbed down” versions of hymns. But I think it’s getting harder and harder to find people who were actually trained to perform traditional church music.

        • petrushka1611 says

          As another male pianist/organist, if someone refuses to transpose a hymn because she’s not _qualified_, that kinda means she’s the _opposite_ of being invested in the form. By refusing the hymn, she’s actively changing the form. The refusal probably comes from the player’s acknowledgement of limited skill, and the desire to avoid becoming a distraction by fumbling the play, as it were. I can play Amazing Grace in any key you want, and probably any style. But if someone wanted me to transpose A Mighty Fortress on the spot, during a service, I would refuse; I’d tell them, let me look at it this week and we’ll do it next Sunday.

          • I guess I touched a nerve!

            I wasn’t really meaning to say anything negative about organists or pianists in general. What I had in mind was what I have seen in smaller churches in my life. The person in this position has been there for 30 or more years, doesn’t really take the job all that seriously in the sense that they probably don’t really practice or rehearse any more. They have limited skill and aren’t really interested in getting better. But besides all that short of the Archangel Michael himself walking in the sanctuary, they ain’t movin’ from that piano bench…

  7. Judging by the previous comments, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that, in Lewis’s original, there’s a somewhat significant sentence that goes where the ellipsis is above:

    “I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, as long as it will stay put.”

    For some reason I’ve seen that sentence omitted from this passage in any number of quotes from present-day “conservative” worship folks. (Not that I’m imputing any ill motives to them, mind you.) However this does make it even more apparent that Lewis is not necessarily arguing for the Anglican tradition or any tradition in particular, but against the idea that change or novelty for its own sake is an edifying or even particularly good thing.

    The other awkward factor about that sentence is that it shows how this cuts both ways– it’s quite possible for the cry “Hey, let’s use the liturgy for a change!” to come as much out of a desire for novelty (we want a change from all those “repetitive” choruses?) as it does from our desire for real reform. Or as the pastor at a little church I went to long ago once said with a perfectly straight face, “This will be our new tradition this Christmas…”

    There’s a passage in one of Screwtape’s letters about “the Horror of the Same Old Thing” that would be well worth doing a compare / contrast, by the way.

  8. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    I recently watched a clip by NT Wright in which he talks about the staying-power of the hymns he grew up with and states that he suspects much of the newer church music won’t have a staying power of more than “five minutes, and wouldn’t do anyone much good if it did.” I know that I’ve kind of romanticized the idea of a more uniform hymnody and the idea that everyone knew the same bits of songs. As I’ve thought about it, though, I wonder if there is an extent where K-Love has become that. I know in my parish, everyone seems to know the latest worship choruses floating around K-Love, except some of us curmudgeonly folk who want to sing hymns in church and listen to classic rock in our cars. I.e. I wonder if the issue is that I’m on the outside of the common music experience of today’s Christians.

    [BTW, the NT Wright piece is not just about bashing the new music, but about how church music ought to both reflect AND challenge the culture. His main complaint about MUCH (but not all) of the current trends was that it rarely challenged and almost always just reflected. That was my disclaimer so that folks don’t jump all over Bp. Wright for something that I quoted without any context.]

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      His main complaint about MUCH (but not all) of the current trends was that it rarely challenged and almost always just reflected.

      i.e. “Just like Fill-in-the-Blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

  9. Cliff Osbon says

    I can really relate to the opening statements:

    “It looks as if they…believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightening, lightening, lengthenings, abridgments, simplifications, and complications of the service….The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain — many give up churchgoing altogether — merely endure.”

    Such wisdom from C.S. Lewis. I attend a church whose service would be labeled contemporary. It seems that almost every Sunday, the worship leader (the position previously known as music minister) Tells us “We’;re gonna teach you a new song today. It’s really easy. You’re gonna love it.”

    Promise number one is never true. Promise number two rarely is. In fact, attendees must devote all of their energy to figuring out what to sing and why. To make matters worse, the likelihood that we’ll sing that song again in the near future is very low.

    It’s almost embarrassing how many people are looking for stability, constancy and…dare I say it in my evangelical tradition….liturgy.

    • It’s almost embarrassing how many people are looking for stability, constancy and…dare I say it in my evangelical tradition….liturgy.

      Agreed. I keep coming back to this in my search.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      It’s almost embarrassing how many people are looking for stability, constancy and…dare I say it in my evangelical tradition….liturgy.

      But they’ll never admit to it, because that would be ROMISH.

  10. I don’t agree at all that “worship works best when you don’t have to think about it” … doesn’t that reduce it to emotionalism? There is a place for “enacting” the sacrament where you flow and don’t count the steps, but also the world constantly presents itself as new and surprising, and we should (IMO) allow ourselves to freely respond in new and self-surprising ways. Likewise, I believe that Unity is a vastly over-rated goal.

    There is a difference between spontaneity and novelty-for-its-own-sake, which becomes mere entertainment. And there is a difference between evangelizing and “luring in” new congregants.

    • It sounds like you may be misinterpreting what Lewis is saying. He’s not referring to “not thinking” it in the sense of anti-intellectualism, or abandoning our rational faculties, reducing to emotionalism. He means it in the same sense that a world-class ballet dancer doesn’t think about dancing – it’s second nature. Although I would say, and I think Lewis would agree, that the primary instrument of worship is the heart, not the intellect. Novelty and constant change cause distractions and lessen one’s ability to focus their heart on God.

    • I don’t think Lewis is saying that we should not be thinking while worshipping. As the context of that part of his letter relates, it is the focus that is key: are our minds focused on getting the unfamiliar words right, or are our minds being drawn up into God, facilitated by a form of worship that has become second-nature through familiarity? Lewis was definitely not one to shirk mental rigor, in worship or anywhere else.

      I also am intrigued by your comment about unity being over-rated. How do you define unity? If we are speaking merely of uniformity, then I may be inclined to agree. But the idea of true union, true community, being over-rated strikes me as peculiar, given that I would identify unity and reconciliation with God and our fellow man as one of the central themes of the gospel. As Jesus prayed to the Father, “that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity…” Again, it matters how we define unity; uniformity can serve a useful purpose, but I certainly believe that deep Christian unity can exist in the midst of differing outward forms.

      I like your statement that ‘there is a difference between evangelizing and “luring in” new congregants’. This very idea has been preoccupying my thoughts the last few days. I read recently an opinion that we need to stop thinking about the liturgy (I am Anglican) as a new-comer’s ‘first point of contact with the church’. Evangelism is not (at least not primarily) inviting my unchurched neighbor to a service of the divine liturgy that will probably make little to no sense to him; neither is it inviting my neighbor to a service that has been so tricked out by whatever is currently ‘in’ that it becomes little more than an attempt at popular entertainment or ‘feel good about yourself’ time. Evangelism is going out into the world and living my life in such a way (both in word and deed) that people are drawn to Christ.

      • In fact, if you read the rest of Letters to Malcom: Chiefly On Prayer (which I borrowed from my library, so sadly don’t have with me to reference), he talks about his inner approach to praying liturgical prayers, particular Our Father. His mind was very much alive during doing so, and he discusses the mental overtones he approaches each line with.

        The whole book is a really fascinating read.

    • @Clay: World-class ballet dancers aren’t just hopping around out there, they are entirely focused on doing the exact thing that the choreographer specified (which might involve variations specifically for this performance) in the most expressive way possible, taking into account irregularities in the footing, in other dancers’ movements, in the musicians’ tempo. What a beginner would be trying to do is “second nature” to them, but what they are doing is not. If you stick to what is second nature, you have fallen asleep.

      We can be intensely focused on the ritual acts we are performing, or the songs we are singing, paying attention to how each element relates to the “observations” Chaplin Mike raised in the previous post. Or, we can float along and be comforted by the complete familiarity … of course it’s appropriate to just take comfort from worship or music sometimes, but I don’t think that’s the BEST of it.

      @Rob: I see the word Lewis used was indeed “uniformity”, I was careless. I meant, and I assume Lewis meant, as opposed to “diversity”. We do hope to be made one in Christ, but we have our many gifts, as Paul noted.

      • Very true. As I said, I think uniformity can indeed serve a useful purpose, but I would agree that it is overrated. I think one of the great truths of the Christian faith is that it can thrive in diversity, amidst varied cultures and traditions, while still maintaining the true gospel. And is this broad, all-encompassing characteristic not precisely what we should expect of the one, truly catholic faith?

  11. The two analogies Lewis uses leave plenty of room for many of the concerns expressed in the comments. Because we need to break in a new pair of shoes, putting on new shoes everyday wouldn’t be wise. Shoes do wear out, however. Learning new dance steps before we’ve mastered old ones makes real dancing difficult. Never changing the steps, however, might also distract us from really dancing. The important point I see underlined is that change has a cost, so we shouldn’t change just to change.

    • Good points and analogies.
      While pursuing change for novelty’s sake is a bad idea, being too resistant to any kind of change can be like keeping a lid on a boiling pot. The results can be explosive and often much more destructive than allowing changes to gradually phase in at a reasonable rate.
      Change is just an inescapable component of this universe we live in, and even things that seem fixed and unchangeable are constantly undergoing a subtle process of change that can only be seen and understood over long periods of time.
      Church history is full of changes made, changes resisted, and those changes that happened too slowly for anyone to notice it was happening. We just need the wisdom to preserve what should be preserved, while enacting or allowing those changes that are needed or inevitable. Most of all, we need to learn to serve and love and worship in the present tense without getting locked up in the past or obsessed about the future.

  12. The real question it seems to me is, do we worship a certain way because it works, or because God has given the Church a certain way to worship? He certainly gave Israel a certain way to worship, which was based on the heavenly pattern. And in comparing Isaiah to Revelation, it doesn’t seem the heavenly pattern changed from the Old Testament to the New. Why shouldn’t we believe that Christ gave the Church a way to worship, a way that continues the heavenly pattern? In the Church to which I belong, Eastern Orthodox, we believe we are worshiping according to the heavenly pattern (see Fr. Ernesto’s piece from a couple of days ago). So for us, it’s not ultimately a matter of worshipping a certain way because it works (although it certainly does “work”), it’s about entering into the eternal and unchanging liturgy going on in heaven.

    • In fairness, though, even in EO land we do have arguments on smaller issues about what works.

      Do you have your best sight readers cluster together and lead the rest of the congregation from a particular spot, spread out willy nilly, or have an actually defined choir? There are lots of parts of the services, particularly vespers and matins that could be sung OR chanted – which works better for the group you have?

      The goal is to enter that liturgy in heaven, but there will always be questions on some level about the method to set people up to do so in your local context. Bounded more by tradition, we juste end up with more niggly questions about it.

  13. Ric Schopke says

    Classical music and hymns, as well as other kinds of music (old and new) are thriving in the parish where I
    worship. This is a vibrant multi-generational congregation with active children and youth (including those in
    the Boychoir and the Girl’s Choir) and many younger families.

    As for Lewis, he was opposed to novelty for novelty’s sake and to chronological snobbery (the concept that
    what is knew is therefore better).

  14. I wish my church did truly classical hymns instead of music from last century with the tune of carnival music.

  15. Lewis is deep & thoughtful in his reflections. However, I wonder if he could have written the same piece as a much younger man? I prefer liturgical worship now but had little appreciation for it as a teen. At that time it seemed dry as old bones with little spirit expressed at all. My appreciation of the liturgy now has more to do with the time I’ve taken to read/study/grow in my faith. And now I would agree with almost everything Lewis states.

    In my experience churches who truly emphasize/require education of new (& old) members on what it means to be a Christian, what the worship elements signify, instead of just getting more people in the door hoping they’ll figure it out, don’t need to change up their liturgy all the time to be relevant, because the relevance is in the meaning they’ve conveyed, which is all about new life in Christ.

  16. ” Try as one may to exclude it, the questions ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude.”

    Hah! This is what I always think when I see the likes of Mark Driscoll or Ed Young Jr. pop up on here.

  17. Novelty has become the new norm. I don’t think that is Lewis’ point, but I think that is where the “contemporary” service is at right now. I would agree that change is good, change is needed, but nothing is more entrenched, more resistant to change than “contemporary” worship.

    It is a mistake to keep making this an issue of music style, of traditional/classical versus contemporary. The rubrics have changed, and not for the better. The key point of this quote is that good worship focus the participant on God, not on the celebrant or the novelty, or the musicians or singers. There is a reason that old churches have balconies; it removes the music and performers from the center of attention and places the focus on the word, the alter and the cross. Some churches without balconies move the musicians to the left or right of center, so that the cross and alter are still front-and-center. Even the pulpit lectern are rarely the focal point in old churches, but are to the left and right of the alter. When communion is de-emphasized, then these arrangements fall apart, along with the entire rubric. The service no longer is a progression to the alter, or to perhaps misappropriate Bruce Cockburn, “Everything flows toward the rim of that shining cup”. Other things take the place. This is why novelty is so entrenched in contemporary worship; if that is removed, the whole thing collapses. Perhaps not all churches can embrace sacraments, but if not, the symbolism they claim to embrace in communion should be given greater prominence and focus.

  18. Jack Lewis is the (non-Catholic and certainly non-official) saint who escorted me from my childhood faith to my adult faith. He and his many writings opened the window of understanding to the “WHY” of things I had taken for granted. He gave me the words and arguments to explain to others…and my self…..the basis for my choices to remain a Catholic Christian. Here was a man of unquestionable brilliance who made the journey from atheist to devotion and could tell us, in no uncertain terms, the steps and rationales for his convertion. So yeah, I am a major office holder in the CS Lewis fan club!!!

    So, I was reading the passage quoted in the first decade after Vatican Two, when changes were flying like paper airplanes in an unsupervised 4th grade classroom. I quite disagreed at the time (guitar masses were my forte) but now see the wisdom. I think of his words about being able to do something ‘without thinking” in terms of driving. Remember how hard it was to learn all the rules, switches, and techniques?? Hard to enjoy when you are going through a checklist in your head. Same with the Mass for me…..I have had a rough year with the new translations. I haven’t needed to READ communal prayers since I was a kid, and I will be very glad when these new words become part of my brain. And, when there is a new SONG, too….my head hurts!

  19. CS Lewis “got it.” Thanks for posting this!