They’re dark, loud and changing the public face of Christianity—they’re “relevant churches”, the state-of-the-art hip churches furnished with artsy guitar players and tattooed preachers.
In a matter of years they have taken Protestantism by storm, conquering the established traditionalism by the celestial sign of newness. Their sermons are colloquial, their music is fit for pop radio and their sanctuaries are decorated like Toronto night clubs.
But in spite of their sensational campaign for freshness in Christianity, are they really new? Do we have here something truly new under the sun?
In some sense we do: never before has the world seen something quite like the hipster pastor who graces Instagram like the Puritans of old graced their massive pulpits. But in many ways it seems that the relevant pastors, whether knowingly or not, have found the North Star of ancient and medieval worship and have charted their courses accordingly.
Consider a few key aspects of the budding relevant Christianity.
When entering a relevant church, a visitor will likely be most aware of the dim lighting provided by glowing coloured lights and, occasionally, a rustic lightbulb suspended above the preacher’s stand. Oftentimes visibility is further obscured by the use of fog machines that fill the sanctuary with a thick haze.
“One thing relevant churches do really well is capture the eye”
The parallels with medieval and high-church Christianity are obvious.
The dim lights produce an effect strikingly similar to candlelight—even the placement of the lights is similar—and the fog machines mimic the once-beloved incense that wafts from censers.
In the second half of the twentieth century, a handful of energetic Christian musicians such as Keith Green and Rich Mullins upset traditional Christian worship by melding upbeat rock with melodic praise to God. For decades this music was the cutting edge of Protestant hymnody, the controversial “contemporary.”
But relevant churches have distanced themselves from the concise, catchy songs of Green, preferring the long, meditative and highly repetitive songs of Hillsong or Jesus Culture. A relevant song recording can easily pass the nine-minute mark.
It is hard to miss the similarities here with ancient Western chants—the slow pace, the repetition, the contemplative mood. One wonders how comfortable relevant singers might be in a monastery—or monks at a relevant concert!
One thing relevant churches do really well is capture the eye.
Aside from the lighting, relevant pastors mesmerize their flocks by displaying beautiful videography and photography engineered and perfected for the glory of God. Many congregations now have staffed graphic designers. This embracing of the visual has been reclaimed from a Puritan-type mindset that was mistrustful of visual art and its supposed opulence.
This celebration of visual beauty is something that is shared with medieval worship, which for centuries taught congregants Bible stories and led them to piety through beautiful images.
What was once the formidable rood—the huge elevated crucifix—is now the magnificent projector screen.
One wonders about the future of the relevant campaign.
Will it perhaps lead its masses of hand-raising worshipers to the pews of Anglo-Catholic churches?
Will the censers swing freely once again, this time with the accompaniment of electric drums?
Will trendy singers take up the old tunes of evensong?
This is still a story without an ending, and one in which the Anglican Church of Canada may yet play a vital role.
David Doherty is the Youth Minister of Grace Anglican Waterdown.