Is Our Struggle to Be “Contemporary” the Wrong Struggle?

I’ve seen churches spend millions in new campaigns to build state-of-the-art sanctuaries that are essentially movie theaters. Heck, I grew up in a church like that. And while it’s great when you’re a kid (because who doesn’t want to feel like they’re going to the movies instead of church?) I’m wondering if it’s a symptom of a bigger struggle of relevance. We try to be relevant, contemporary, GenX, emerging, etc. and it certainly speaks to a number of people. But I wonder if it’s a worthwhile tree to be climbing.

I heard a quote from Wendell Berry the other day that really stuck with me. Confession time: I love Wendell Berry. A lot of his stuff resonates with me and I find much of his writing to inspire a lot of what I do. This particular quote doesn’t need a lot of introduction, but is worth considering to those of us in ministry, particularly those of us who work with young people. It’s a bit long, but always worth it. He writes,

Contemporaneity, in the sense of being “up with the times,” is of no value. A competent wakefulness to experience — as well as to instruction and example — is another matter. But what we call the modern world is not necessarily, and not often, the real world, and there is no virtue in being up to date in it. It is a false world, based upon economies and values and desires that are fantastical — a world in which millions of people have lost any idea of the resources, the disciplines, the restraints, and the labor necessary to support human life, and who have thus become dangerous to their own lives and to the possibility of life. The job now is to get back to that other perennial and substantial world in which we really do live, in which the foundations of our life will be visible to us, and in which we can accept our responsibilities again within the conditions of necessity and mystery. In that world all competently wakeful and responsible people, dead, living, and unborn, are contemporaries. And that is the only contemporaneity worth having.” – Wendell Berry

So good.

How can we live in both worlds? I guess a more base question: Can we live in both worlds? How can we get back to the “perennial, substantial world in which… the foundations of our life will be visible to us” while still seeking a meaningful participation in this world? Is it a worthwhile struggle? Or a hippie fantasy? (I’ve thought both since I began this post).

What is our way forward as people of an ancient tradition in a world ruled by iEverythings?



  1. Great post! I grew up in an extremely small church and now I attend one of the “mega” churches. Some days I miss the connection of the pastor knowing my name, the traditional hymns, actual people knowing your family and caring.
    Some how we have to find a balance in our life for new and old.The new attracts younger members, but are they attending for the right reason? I think some people (particularly ladies) come straight from …hmm.. their extra activites to church-with know thought of what they have on! (Ok -sorry -off my soap box about that)
    For me, I participate at my church on all levels however, I attend another church one Sunday out of the month for communion. I miss the quietness of the small church and the elderly lady singing softly in the back as the pastor says- take this bread-which was broken….calmness, serenity.

    Hopefully, we will find the answer to that question!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree with you where I tend to like the more “contemporary” (for lack of a better word) worship of larger churches, but when I only worship there, I miss the connection and community I feel at the smaller churches. I think you’re right that we need to find a middle ground of sorts. I don’t know exactly where that is, but I think it’s definitely a worthwhile pursuit.

      Do you think it’s possible to get that more personal environment in a larger church? I wonder what that might look like. What kinds of things do you think your two churches could learn from each other to help bridge that gap?

      • Eric,

        What I have found in larger churches is that most people come just for the “show” not sure what else to call it? and at the end of the day it is the faithful FEW who work behind the scenes on everything to make it happen. However, that will require actually getting to know someone in the mass of people and asking how you can help.
        The two churches could learn amazing things from each other! The smaller church -how to reach the new generation of church goers, and thinking outside the box for fundraisers, as oppose to the normal- Church Building Fund. The larger charger- making it each person feel as if they are apart of the church instead of just a number, perhaps if the pastor even knew one persons name -OUTSIDE of his immediate circle that would help. The thing I have the hardest time with – is with the larger church- when it is time for tithing- puckets are passed around, and then you see security come up with the ushers to direct them to the back- and you just see about 12 men walking with baskets higher than their head! Although, I do understand it takes money to run a ministry of that magnitude- I sometimes get lost when I see that- but on the other hand- my small church struggles with daily bills -with 35 members.

  2. Hey Eric! Great post, and amazing quote from Berry. I keep telling myself, I need to pick up his writings and actually get to know him. When I saw your post title, I was reminded of a distinction that Gerhard Forde makes between what is “topical” and what is “relevant.” But Berry says it much more profoundly – his contemporaneity and Forde’s topical are rough equivalents, as are the “perennial and substantial world” and what F describes as relevant.

    To your final questions, yes, it’s a hippie fantasy. 🙂 What I mean is, it probably is a fantasy to actually live in both worlds. The *apparently* insane thing Christians claim is that we are dead to that modern world which is “dangerous to life,” even while we are deeply present in it. But we really live when we participate in what Berry calls “that perennial and substantial world.” So it’s not a matter of living in both, but perhaps of really trusting that only one of them is real.

    And, my own confession time: I really, really suck at living as though I trusted that. Peace!

    • Hey Cara! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I loved your line “it’s not a matter of living in both, but perhaps of really trusting that only one of them is real.” What a great way to say that! I think you’re dead on. We have a kind of gravitational pull to those things which are substantial and truly rooted in the being of the earth. That’s what I love so much about Berry. I always feel called back to something that feels so familiar and so good.

      But I still have a ways to go as well… I wrote this post on my iPad. 🙂

  3. Thanks for this post. Could you tell me the source of this statement by Mr. Berry?

    • Thanks for stopping by, Tom. I read it in an essay of his called “The Specialization of Poetry” in his Standing by Words collection. Very good stuff.

  4. Ah, thanks for that. I knew I’d seen it somewhere. Yes, very good.

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