Søren Kirkegaard Replies to the Call to Action Report

by E. Byron Anderson

Why is it that worship and music always are made the “fall guy” for the church’s problems? Is it because they are the most public? Is it because they are the most susceptible to “quick fixes”? (Full disclosure, dear reader, I am a liturgist and church musician.)

The recent “Call to Action” report released by the United Methodist Church provides yet again a simplistic analysis of the UMC’s problems and an even more simplistic prescription regarding worship. All congregations, regardless of size, social context, and economic means, should “offer multiple worship experiences [including a “mix of contemporary and traditional services”] and cultivate dynamic topical preaching.”

While this prescription needs some unpacking, which I cannot do here, it is, nevertheless, the same prescription we have been hearing from “church growth experts” for more than twenty years. 

But it has an even older history. 

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard noted how the persistent question at church conventions was “what the age demands” with respect to religious practice. Kierkegaard notes, tongue-in-cheek, how everything wrong with the church can be blamed on the current hymnal. We would not be wrong, I think, to substitute the word “worship” in each place he includes hymnal. I especially like the last sentence!

"The Convention has recently arrived at the conclusion that…it is a new hymnal the age requires. 

    How comes it that church attendance is relatively so small as it is in the country's capital? Why, quite naturally, the answer is clear as day: it comes from aversion to the old hymnal….

    How comes it that the practice of family worship is so rare, although at home there is freedom of choice in the use of hymnals? Why, naturally, it is as clear as day, that the aversion for the old hymnal is so great that no one has any willingness as long as the old hymnal exists; its mere existence is sufficient to quench altogether the spirit of worship….

    And how then comes it that all this was unfortunately the case long before the need of any new hymnal was mentioned? Why, naturally, it is as clear as day, that it was the deeply rooted need of the congregation, its deep need, though still unconscious, since there was yet no convention to give it utterance. 

    But for this very reason it seems to me we ought to go slow in abolishing the old hymnal, lest we experience too great a measure of embarrassment when we have to explain the same phenomenon after the new hymnal has been introduced.” 

[my emphasis; Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton, 1947), 427-429.]

Why is UM church attendance so small, family worship non-existent, discipleship formation so lacking…[you fill in the blanks]? 

Of course, it is because of our worship and music. 

Perhaps we are developing a much higher tolerance for embarrassment, because the next “call to action” study (and there will be another, and another) will offer the same prescription. 

In the meantime it appears that we will be occupied with dismantling those very practices of the church (sacrament, prayer, worship, the study of and preaching on scripture) that are most suited to the formation we need for a new generation.

Image Credit: Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard (1806-1882). Public Domain.