Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

On Propriety

This past weekend our congregation had the privilege of listening to some world class music. A guest musician, known for his mastery in music, accepted our invitation to come, and what we heard from the keyboards of both piano and organ was absolutely stunning.

But I noticed something, something that I am observing more and more. We have lost a certain appropriateness. I’m not sure if this is the right word. Propriety? Politeness? Decorum? Correctness? I’m finding myself asking with increasing frequency this question–Have we as a culture become so casual we have lost a certain correctness? Lost sight of social norms?

Back to the service. While we listened to some beautiful pieces prior to the service, there were a number of ongoing conversations that also contributed to the sounds in the sanctuary. A work of art to behold was being treated by some as background music. It might not have bothered me so much if it were not for an experience I had days earlier in the same setting. It was a memorial service, and as the mourners filed in on this summer evening, I could not help but notice that thy came in a mix of suits, casual dress, shorts and flip-flops.

Something is amiss here—at least to me. Maybe I am beginning to become a stuffed shirt. A fuddy-duddy. Is this something generational? A modernist struggling with postmodernity? I am fine with casual. I have little patience with people who look only on the outward; who carry a legalistic tone; who measure one’s spirituality by whether one adheres or does not adhere to no coffee in the sanctuary. But  I wonder at times if we no longer know how to be proper? Does it matter? So much of contemporary style seems to be about appearing disheveled. But is this casualness really a cover for sloppy? Cool a cover for lazy? Have we succumbed to a messiness both in dress and how we socially function that is “stylish”, when in reality it is a reflection of a life that has become disordered? Have we used “authentic” to rationalize our behavior, when it is really a lack of respect, a lack of awareness, and a failure to be sensitive to the moment?

Now that I have gotten some of you angry, let me try to underscore that this is not some rant as much as it is a pursuit of sorts to figure out if we have truly lost something. I am simply asking—is there an appropriate respect for someone’s labor or someone’s memory that is no longer taught? Do we know how to be silent? Have we not pondered what it means to be reverent? Does it matter on certain occasions to be neat, smart, elegant, or natty? Is there a code of conduct for how and when to use a cell phone? We seem to have become tone deaf, no longer able to pick up the clues of what is suitable for the moment.

David Brooks, the New York columnist, noted that part of George Washington’s greatness was his commitment to a dignity code. He composed a list of 110 “rules of civility and decent behavior” (e.g. lean not upon another, read no letter, books, or papers in company, etc). For him, these were not merely a list of manners or etiquette tips. It was deeper. They were about character, inner morals. Like the list in Kostenberger’s Excellence, they are virtues we must recover, for scholarship, vocation, and life.

Some time ago, I invited Robert Smith, Professor of Preaching at Beeson, to teach a doctoral course. This older, African American gentleman came and taught, and taught well. But what I remember was the day he preached in chapel. In walked this man in a suit, handkerchief folded just right in his coat pocket, shoes polished. But it was far more. There was an eloquence to match his dress. He did not come to be eye-catching, flashy, or ostentatious. He carried a certain presence, a reverence, a dignity that said—I serve a holy God who deserves nothing less than excellence. One could sense how he carried himself that he too has developed a dignity code. I was reminded again of something we might be losing sight of, something that, as David Brooks puts it, has been completely obliterated.


  • mc
    11:42 AM, 19 July 2012

    Pastor John,I reciprocate your feelings as well for our “casual generation”. I think a big part of this issue has to do with a lack of “fathering” in this generation, even among those who have fathers. As a parent today, it is getting even harder to figure out how teach these “rules of civility” in regards to digital etiquette.

  • Bud
    10:14 AM, 31 July 2012

    I agree. I was there, as well, and was disrupted during the magnificent music by the chatter. One need only go to assemblies at middle and high schools and see where this disrespect is taught. Meanwhile, the true presence of God is shoved into the background by our pursuits of personal pleasure and friendly interaction.

  • Mordecai Lament
    12:06 AM, 2 August 2012

    Speaking as one of those twenty somethings, I think there has been a certain decorum lost. Silence, is not only the lost discipline of the church but a lost discipline in the world. Every second we must be entertained, we must hear something. We must be doing something. But silence is a necessity. It’s the mind’s way of digesting and processing what we have heard. I have always found it helpful to go for a walk after service as it gives me a chance to process what I’ve heard.Perhaps this is a side effect of “busyness.” We’re busy and we’re proud of it. Always doing something. Always rushing about. It’s a sign of being in demand, we’re taught. Always needing to be a meeting about the meeting, needing to accomplish more, higher demands, more output, more productivity. I have to look at it after a while and ask, “Really?” It seems less of a status symbol to me and more of a person that doesn’t know how to set boundaries for themselves. It’s a case of someone not realizing that work was a side effect of the curse and as Solomon referred to it “meaningless” and “a chasing after the wind.” Work is not the end all and be all. Neither is money. Those are replacable. Time? Not something you can replace. Ever. It’s here, it’s gone. And perhaps that is the thing that we don’t grasp so well as humans.

  • Vaughn Longanecker
    9:56 PM, 17 August 2012

    I was not there, but we all are there, a culture that lauds un-discipline, fearless, selfish idols; the church has been infiltrated.At the root of being a disciple of Christ is discipline. (some form of that word is used >50 x in NIV) The principle is spoken of numerous times throughout God’s Word. Rom 6:12-14; 8:13…
    Recommended reading: “The Cost of Discipleship, D. Bonhoeffer

  • Nanci Leiton
    7:42 AM, 5 October 2012

    I, too, have worried that I have become a “stuffed shirt,” overly concerned with appropriate appearance. But I’ve convinced myself–if no one else–that dressing “up” for an occasion, be it a wedding, concert recital, or (just) church on Sundays, demonstrates an elevated level of respect for the people involved. As I encourage this value in my own children, there has been some resistance along with multiple references to the “accepted” casual approach of our modern culture, but just as we prepare the heart for worship, we can prepare the body for appreciation of a special event.

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