The first thing people do after entering the quiet sanctuary is pause at a table to light prayer candles for friends and loved ones, the tiny flames adding to the glow of nearby candle trees.
The ministers wear oat-colored, hooded robes tied at the waist with ropes and guide their flock through ancient prayers, a litany of confession and silent meditations marked by a series of bells. Hymns are accompanied by an ensemble that includes fiddle, acoustic guitar, wind chimes, pennywhistles, a Bodhran and even bagpipes.
This coming Sunday is the day before the feast of St. Patrick.
Thus, worshippers at Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church will sing the great prayer of Ireland’s missionary bishop: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me. … I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through a belief in the Threeness, through a confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.”
This is not your typical Southern Baptist service.
Nevertheless, this Celtic service is held every Sunday at this historic church in Lynchburg, Va. The goal is to use ancient rituals to touch postmodern souls.
“Postmodern people — like Baptists in general — like to take some of the old and mix it up with some of the new and then put it all together. We’re comfortable with the unusual juxtapositions that may occur when you do that,” said Karen Swallow Prior, who selects and reads many of the rite’s Celtic prayers. She is an English professor at nearby Liberty University.
“We don’t think that what we’re doing is getting back to the ancient ways. We think that we’re using elements of the past in ways that make sense to people who are alive today. The goal is to create something new.”
In the lingo of Southern Baptist life, Rivermont is known as a “moderate,” or even progressive, congregation. In addition to the Celtic service, it also offers the plugged-in, energetic contemporary worship common in “seeker-friendly” congregations across America. The bottom line: Different kinds of people worship in different ways.
The contemporary service is larger and the pews are filled with Baby Boomers who have become the established, middle-aged core of the congregation. For them, pop praise choruses and a chatty atmosphere have become normal. What was once “modern” is now strangely “traditional.”Meanwhile, said Prior, the Celtic service is attracting a unique blend of young adults, who are drawn by its beauty and mysticism, and the elderly, who appreciate peace and quiet. Church leaders refer to this as a gathering of the “pre-moderns and the postmoderns.” What was once “traditional” is now strangely “innovative.”
“How will the postmodern church worship?”, asked Chad Hall of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, writing at www.coolchurches.com. “One thing we know about postmoderns is that they are extremely experiential. That is, they learn, grow, develop and commit based on their own experience with truth not according to someone else’s encounter or someone else’s retelling of an encounter.”
Postmodern believers want to use all of their senses, stressed Hall. They want smells and bells. They want to see icons and statues, as well as drama and digital clips from movies. They look for God in nature, as well as scripture. They want to encounter God, not mere words about God.
But this doesn’t mean they want to change their beliefs. The faithful at Rivermont Avenue remain steadfastly Baptist, said music minister Wayne Bulson. While they use elements of ancient liturgy, they believe that the Irish Bannock bread is still bread and the grape juice is still grape juice. They are embracing symbols, not sacraments.
“People want a sense of the ancient, but they still want something that they feel is appropriate to their lives, today,” said Bulson. “I mean, we’re still Baptists. We’re not Catholic or Orthodox or anything else. … We’re not pushing for Baptist monasteries. What we’re trying to do is find out what will be meaningful to our people, what will help them experience God in their lives.
“We’re not proud. We’re willing to borrow things from all kinds of traditions, as long as they work for us.”