Monday, November 01, 2010

Church Unplugged

Sometimes I think that, if I were to start a church from scratch, I’d go unplugged. Not the mid-90’s fad where every girl with a guitar went acoustic. I mean that, in worship, I’d leave out the PowerPoint, the high tech sound system, the band, and maybe even the organ. Worship would be bare bones. Perhaps sing a cappella. Liturgical al fresco.
And while I couldn’t TOTALLY unplug, I’d do the best I could get away with.
Here’s why: sometimes I worry that churches are too worried about “relevance.” We have to prove that we have something to say because we use tools that the culture would recognize.
Becoming a disciples of Jesus is like learning a new language, and through that language, seeing the world completely differently from how you saw it before. Being a Christian is about being enveloped in a story that is not your own making, but you have a part in it nonetheless. Following Jesus means living according to a different set of values than that which the world gives us.
I’d throw out the tech stuff the best I could because iPads, PowerPoints, theatre seating, etc scream “POWER!” In other words, in trying to speak the culture’s language, we tacitly admit that they have true power to which the gospel message genuflects. We say, “Look, we’re using the latest gadgets to prove we’re relevant. We’re cutting edge. We’re cool. You won’t be threatened because you use these same toys!”
When people come to church they should feel it in their skin that they’re entering a different world. Church should be alien territory to those outside the faith. 
But wait, you say, what about hospitality? What about welcoming the stranger as we welcome Christ? 
Good questions. 
In response I’d ask: what are we welcoming people into? Are we welcoming people into a place of comfort or a place of challenge? Are we welcoming people into a place that looks like their living room, but with a cross on the wall? Or are we welcoming people into a space where God’s people are gathered to be changed by God’s grace?
Yes, we are called to be welcoming. But being welcoming means being gracious, inviting people into a different world, and guiding them along the way. Church should be uncomfortable for those non-believers. We bring people to hear the Word proclaimed, and Luther said that scripture is like a surgeon’s scalpel. That doesn’t sound very comfortable to me.
The same kind of discomfort you feel when visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. Mexico wasn’t being unwelcoming to me by speaking spanish when I visited there. They were being who they are and invited me to participate in their world. And I began to see the world differently because of my discomfort. 
I don’t know what all this looks like. I can’t paint a concrete picture. I simply sense that we’re so far steeped in the traditions and expectations of the culture that our proclamation is being diminished. And I wonder if we need to go in the other direction, to stand in contrast to the secular world to make our unique message heard and received, to more effectively bear witness to a different reality running loose in the world.
(NB: Yes I get the irony of posting this on the internet)

7 comments:

Heather McCance said...

I think I get what you're saying, but bare bones doesn't speak to everyone's spirituality. I've been reading Christian Schwartz's "The Three Colors of Your Spirituality," where he talks about different spirituality styles (not unlike the various personality styles, Myers-Briggs et al). Local churches, and different denominational styles, will always appeal more strongly to certain spiritual styles; that's part of the gift of denominationalism and variety. And if bare bones appeals to the folks around you, cool; but I personally can't worship without rich music (of lots of styles), visual imagery, sacrament, etc. and that's not only because I'm a cradle Anglican.

A certain level of discomfort happens whenever we stretch underused muscles. But if those muscles have *never* been used, there's a need to start slow and gentle or the muscle will tear.

aaronorear said...

No sound system? No Power Point? No praise band? Sounds like my parish, Deo gratia.

I have the good fortune to serve in a church where Power Point never made inroads, where a sound system isn't necessary (they used to call it "good architecture" to design a building in which a speaker could be heard without amplification), and in which a guitar would be as common a sight as a pink-furred juggling moose...very rare, indeed. We have an organ, but I'm going to posit that an organ is alien to the dominant culture. While we all know them from churches, who has one at home? Sure, the ballpark has one (or a recording of one), but the movie theatre long ago gave it up, and neither of those sound anything like a church organist playing "Lift High the Cross" with all the stops pulled.

All that said, there are other ways in which we bow to culture. Anglicans have a long and dubious history of mixing with the military. Now I'm not talking about military chaplains, who do a very specific kind of ministry, but about the local armoury parading into church on Sunday, or the Last Post as part of the Remembrance Day Sunday liturgy. I like all of this myself, but I do suspect that Jesus might shake his head.

Even (and here I really will toss the sacred cow on the barbecue) having a photocopied bulletin with all the words is, in its assumption that every visitor needs to instantly know what's happening, a concession to culture. What ever happened to being new, to NOT knowing what was happening and (gasp) watching or asking someone else? What happened to learning by interacting with people? "Oh," we're told, "but nobody would do that! They'd have one confused Sunday and leave." Well, then, I suppose they're not ready to make the kind of commitment Jesus asks for, eh?

revcowboy said...

It sounds like you are looking liturgy.

And not the low-church pietistic Lutheran liturgy that we all just grin and bear it during, because that is abusive.

But liturgy that is lived in, that inhabited by all. Liturgy that is preceded and accompanied by ongoing worship education.

One of the questions that has struck me this year is, "Who told you worship was about that you prefer?". When worship is about doing things that we like, being entertained and comfortable, it is not really worship, but self-worship.

With the exception of the last 50 or so years of Christianity in North America, all major religions teach their adherents how to pray, what to sing, and how to worship. But as we see western culture becoming radically individualistic and self-absorbed, so has gone our worship.

Kevin Powell said...

Heather,

My fear is that, in helping people ease in to faith life through worship, we diminish our distinctiveness, and it becomes a bait 'n switch situation where people first experience one thing, and then we present them with another.

And also, Anglican liturgy could be a profound source of counter-cultural witness. Where else will people see a parade of robed people singing ancient music? And since you're bound to a specific form of worship, you're not as susceptible to whims of culture.

But for me, bare bones would be a confrontation with consumer culture. But practically, I'm not sure it would work. While there's Christian traditions that sing a cappella in worship, the learning curve for Lutherans would be pretty steep.

But this post was just random ideas I've been kicking around...kgp

Kevin Powell said...

Erik,

Agreed.

I asked the confirmation class who the audience in worship was, and they answered "We are." I think most people would answer the same way. But then again, we do receive Jesus in the Word proclaimed and sacrament administered, but not in a consumer way. We receive grace that tells us that we are not the primary actors in our salvation, which is supposed to humble us. Worship, at it;'s best reminds the worshipper of the centrality of Christ rather than the self. But I worry that a lot of the new music we sing reinforces the notion that *I* am the subject and object of worship.

kgp

Kevin Powell said...

Aaron,

Disestablishing ourselves from the cultural is HARD. We've played chaplain for so long that we've forgotten what it means to be a minority. And many Christians can't tell the difference between being a minority and being persecuted. For example: a few years ago the local ministerial "mobilized" their churches against a new zoning law which would have required churches to obtain a special permit to add on to their buildings. They way they talked about this "attack" on the Christians you'd have thought that the mayor was feeding clergy to grizzlies. Which tells me that Christians have been culturally coddled for too long, and our prophetic witness has deflated, and so have a lot to learn how to live as a minority faith.

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