Americans turning to ancient music, practices to experience their faith

December 24, 2013

In our of-the-minute culture, Santa seems old-fashioned. But Christians are exploring far older ways of observing the holiday.

In the living room this week along with the pile of presents, there’s more likely to be a wreath or calendar marking Advent, the month leading up to Christmas that symbolizes the waiting period before Jesus’s birth. Christmas services largely dominated by contemporary music are mixing in centuries-old chants and other a cappella sounds. Holiday sermons on topics such as prayer, meditation and finding a way to observe the Sabbath are becoming more common.

These early — some use the term “ancient” — spiritual practices are an effort to bring what feels to some like greater authenticity to perhaps the most thoroughly commercialized of religious holidays, say pastors, religious music experts and other worship-watchers.

“It’s the recognition that Christianity didn’t start when someone got an electric guitar,” said Ed Stetzer, a pastor and church consultant who runs Lifeway Research, a Christian polling firm. “I think particularly among younger Christians, they’re drawn to smells and bells and history in a way that boomers weren’t on the same level.”

Mary Ellen Barringer, a fundraising consultant from Silver Spring, always liked Christmas and contemporary Catholic music, but started listening less to pop Christmas songs on the radio and more to Renaissance and Baroque-era chants after her Catholic church started doing more of what some call “sacred music.” She likes the haunting a cappella sounds of the Benedictines of Mary, an order of monastic Missouri nuns whose two albums this year topped Billboard’s classical traditional chart. This month she listened to the sisters’ special Advent CD.

“It helps put a boundary between me and all the commercialism of Christmas,” she says. The older music emphasizes better the entire message of Christmas, which includes the discomfort and the waiting before Christ’s birth, not just the celebrating. “I’m trying to find more places to be quiet and meet God in my life, because we are so busy.”

Prominent evangelical writer Brian McLaren, who until a few years ago pastored Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., saw the trend as so significant that he wrote a book on it in 2008 called “Finding Our Way Again.” He looked at everything from the return of contemplative practices such as meditation and fasting to making the sign of the cross and evangelicals taking communion more frequently — something far more associated with the more formal, ritualized parts of Christianity, including Catholicism, Episcopalianism and Lutheranism.

“I was a pastor for 24 years and the emphasis was on Bible knowledge and doctrine. The longer I was a pastor I realized a lot of Christians with a lot of knowledge were mean and miserable. I became interested in what brings about change in people,” said McLaren, who now lives in Florida.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Denver Lutheran pastor who has a large tattoo of Saint Mary Magdalen from a 12th century manuscript, bases her whole church service on early practices. Music is a cappella — except a couple of bluegrass services in the summer — and on Christmas she emphasizes the darker days of waiting for the holiday by starting the service in an “Advent Waiting Room,” which is really the church courtyard where they drink hot chocolate before service.

“We don’t use vapid soft rock with lyrics about Jesus. For a lot of people that’s too sentimental and tweaks people’s cynicism. I know what’s going on in people’s lives and it’s hard, a lot of rough stuff is going on,” she said. “A lot of what you experience in a lot of churches feels like it’s five minutes old and an inch deep.”

In a sermon to her church Sunday, Bolz-Weber said Christians shouldn’t think of time as a “linear progression.” In religious and spiritual life, she said, “it’s much more like taking that string and bunching it together in our hands so that what happened thousands of years ago touches what happens now . . . All touching together.”

Stetzer said the rise in interest in early practices has become so common that at Wheaton College, the prominent evangelical school in Chicago, “the joke is, all these people are now liturgical.” It’s important to remember, he said, that most American Christians are still more absorbed in modern, nondenominational ways of worship and music.

Barringer feels that too. Even though she prefers the early, “more sacred” music to flipping around the radio dial, “ ‘Frosty the Snowman’ is still one of my favorites because my Dad used to read me the book. I’ll listen to that today, too.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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