Wednesday, August 12, 2009

We are musicians, not fans

There's no denying it -- the Christian church is in a bit of a pickle. Congregations are dwindling all across the U.S., and therefore churches are making significant staff reductions and grasping for a way to make our Messiah's message relevant to this generation. I'm not pointing any fingers, but needless to say, some churches are making better choices than others.

I've heard many theories. I would imagine some atheists are perversely overjoyed by the fact churches are suffering, and interpret this moment as a long-awaited human exodus from God. But that's not what's happening -- from what I understand, most U.S. citizens still believe in God and more than half of my country's population still considers religion an important part of their lives. However, I also understand that less than half of my country's population goes to church on a weekly basis. The U.S. mostly consists of folks who only go to church at Christmas and Easter, or just cut out church altogether.

I heard one of my fellow Fuller students propose that this is the most self-centered generation in U.S. history. I can understand where this person is coming from -- it seems like more and more Christians I know are adopting a "Jesus and me" philosophy, and a lot of people who do go to church are only interested in what's in it for them. But I don't know if this is true, either, especially after some other friends of mine promptly reminded me why Baby Boomers are said to come from the "Me Generation." As self-centered and individualistic as a lot of U.S. citizens are, I'd like to think this generation is doing a little better than that one.

After reading a book for my leadership and diversity class called "The Missional Leader," by Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, I think I have a firmer grasp on what's really going on. People are not opposed to liturgy or communion or even gathering inside a building with a bunch of potential strangers -- it's just that a lot of churches are not offering what modern-day disciples are looking for. Most people are no longer going to church in hopes that some trained, heroic super-Christian will absolve them of all their wrongs and show them "the way." I think most halfway-educated Christians already know "the way"; what many of them are looking for are opportunities to spread the transforming Christian message to the world in a sincere, meaningful and truly integrative manner. It's not about the pastor and other church staff carrying the torch anymore. It's about stimulating imagination, sharing ideas and acting upon those ideas so we can show people what Christ's redeeming forgiveness, generosity and love are all about.

To delve into musical metaphor -- which is kind of the whole point of this blog -- for the last several decades (and probably earlier), church leaders have operated their ministries like Christian rock bands. If you've decided you enjoy Christian rock, these bands' concerts can be a great experience. The lyrics carry a wholesome, uplifting message that the band's listeners connect with on a variety of levels. They are driven into spiritual bliss, closing their eyes, waving their arms in the air, singing along at the top of their lungs and maybe even crying. Facetious cliche-flogging aside, though the audience members are deeply moved, they don't necessarily act upon their revelations once the concert's over -- a lot of them simply head home with ears ringing and hearts singing, and within a few days life continues as it did before. In the end, they were merely spectators of a really good performance. (Of course, depending on the band's style, the music could be thrilling and poignant or unbearably dull; knowing the way most Christian rock sounds nowadays, I'm voting for the latter.)

I would suggest that these church leaders put down their guitars and pick up a conducting baton. Every single one of Christ's disciples is an instrumentalist performing a classic piece called "The Word." Composed thousands of years ago by Awesome God (read the previous post and you'll know what I mean), "The Word" is the most gorgeous, affecting symphony ever written. It does not highlight any particular soloist -- every player's motif is equally unique and essential to the whole. Awesome God even allowed for certain sections of "The Word" to be improvised by the players, as long as they avoided notes that would detract from the symphony's thematic beauty. Whether the piece is performed by a full orchestra or a string quartet, a conductor is necessary to ensure the musicians remain focused and in sync. Even if the musicians they work with are just beginners, this conductor must train and encourage them to develop their hands, feet, lungs, eyes and ears. The conductor should also warn the players about the only way "The Word" should never be performed: Solo.

Probably the most unique thing about "The Word" is that Awesome God apparently wrote a pretty killer ending, but thought it so good that they are declining to publish it until they feel the world's best musicians are ready to play it. Not even the Jesus Jam -- a group countless critics called the best Awesome God revivalists ever -- could figure out the symphony's final section. But so great is the promise of this grandest of finales that its musicians keep playing the piece's preceding sections over and over again. It's so beautiful that the musicians really don't mind the repetition. In fact, they've never really stopped playing it since its debut.

It is not enough for instrumentalists to merely rehearse "The Word" on their own. With the help of the conductor, they must seek large audiences -- not for the sake of profit, not for the sake of displaying technical skill, but for the sake of inspiring others through the power of music. Hopefully, any uninitiated listener will be moved to tears of joy upon hearing "The Word" and maybe want to pick up an instrument themselves. One doesn't have to audition for this orchestra, but they had better hone their chops if they want a chance to perform that big, elusive finale.

I could go on forever with this, but I think I've made my point. Missional leaders are the church's future, and as far as I'm concerned, it is closer to what Christ intends for discipleship. To quote a U2 song, no one wants to watch someone "play Jesus to the lepers in (their) head." Not that I'm saying all pastoral leaders have that intention -- I don't think most of them do -- but we must realize that all of us have the capacity to be lepers AND to be like Jesus Christ our Lord, regardless of theological training. Studied leaders are obviously essential to keep order among Christian communities, but it is no longer sufficient for disciples to just listen. We must boldly and gracefully play our parts in this great orchestra, and until Awesome God gives us our cue to finally perform that ending, may our symphony resound beautifully throughout the world.


  1. What an inspiration blog, Todd. I can't wait to read more! Jo and I would love to sit down and talk to you about this kind of stuff. I keep bugging Josiah to call you -- let's meet up sometime this week?

  2. "I think most halfway-educated Christians already know "the way"; what many of them are looking for are opportunities to spread the transforming Christian message to the world in a sincere, meaningful and truly integrative manner. It's not about the pastor and other church staff carrying the torch anymore. It's about stimulating imagination, sharing ideas and acting upon those ideas so we can show people what Christ's redeeming forgiveness, generosity and love are all about"
    Interesting ideas on the postmodern Christian attitude. I wonder if, perhaps, postmoderns (including postmodern Christians) are, however, a bit less optimistic than you suggest here? It seems possible and even probable that "most halfway-educated" postmodern Christians do not, as you say, know the Way. Rather, it appears (as we follow missional participation, the flow of money, the more general characteristics of postmodernity, etc.) that our generation has not come to know the Way but has rather reached the less encouraging conclusion that church leaders don't know it either.

    The testimonies of those postmodern Christ-followers already working to champion full-participation in the "symphony of the Word" are pretty revealing on this. It appears our postmodern Christian culture is not as eager to commit missionally as some might think.

    Have you heard or read anything that might agree with this experience?

  3. Thanks for the comment, John!

    You bring up a good point, and I think a lot of postmodern Christians unfortunately look at the church's not-so-holy history and dismiss the entire idea of affiliating with any religious institutions, thereby reinforcing the "Jesus and me" attitude among believers who might otherwise have a lot to add to a congregation. This is understandable -- having a bad experience in a church setting can be really damaging -- but I think trying to perform "The Word" solo is incredibly naive and incomplete. Even if someone spends every day praying, reading Scripture and otherwise adhering to the Ten Commandments (at least the two most important ones), it is all for naught and can actually become quite maddening if they don't consistently share that sense of holy grace with a particular community. In a way, it amounts to a "strength in numbers" modus operandi, though it is much more nourishing than that.

    I also think part of the reason there are so many "Jesus and me" folks today is because a lot of the more popular churches are not adequately addressing the issue. In fact, many organizations (*cough* Young Life *cough cough*) seemingly cater to this more self-centered version of Christianity; they're a little wishy-washy toward the concepts of abstaining from sin and helping those in need. It's these kinds of ministries that seem bizarrely pastoral, and the fact a lot of them cater to the younger generation does not necessarily bode well for the future.

    I think one step leaders should take toward solving the problem is showing postmodern Christians history does not have to repeat itself. A lot of terrible things have transpired "in the name of God" over the last 2,000 years, but the problem lies with the corrupt and/or misguided "Christians" who did those terrible things, not with Christianity itself. You can't taste a few bad apples and then condemn the entire tree.

    But more importantly, I think leaders must discourage fandom and show postmodern Christians the importance of musicianship. Acknowledge the "Jesus and me" trend's prevalence and take steps to work against it. There is no ultimate reward in humming "The Word" to yourself. We must sing it loud and proud (and well) wherever we go, so that people will understand its beauty and hopefully be inspired to perform in this amazing symphony.

  4. Hi Todd. I'm an atheist, and while I admit that some atheists would be overjoyed to hear that Church numbers are falling, I also submit that many Christians would be overjoyed to hear of many former atheists joining Christian churches, and that neither of these are necessarily perverse. It's natural to be happy when more people agree with you or when you genuinely think they are making a positive life choice. Of course, there are those on both sides who really do have a perverse reaction to things of that nature.

    For those of us inclined towards religion, I'm in agreement that people should share it with a community. In all of the things I've read and classes I've taken, it seems that people who experience their religion in a community have better mental health than those who are not in a supportive religious community, or those who are displaced (such as immigrants.) I think ritual is important to religion. I even think ritual is important to those of us without religion, which is why I practice traditions even though I don't believe in God.