There’s nothing a person appreciates more than their predecessor setting the bar low. FDR could hardly have done better than to have had the Great Depression start on his predecessor’s watch. I am sure that Buck Showalter, currently managing the hapless Baltimore Orioles appreciates the fact that the O’s could hardly have gotten any worse after he arrived mid-season. Producers of a new television series are always happy to know that their show is taking over for a show that bombed.
For my part, I am grateful for St. Paul. As long as no one here tonight literally dies from boredom, as poor Eutychus did listening to Paul, then I suppose I can consider the night a relative success.
Of course, if I am satisfied with that measure, I’ve set the bar pretty low for what qualifies as a meaningful worship experience: no one dies from boredom.
Now, we don’t have to have people falling asleep during sermons and falling out windows to convince people outside the church that church is boring. Come to think of it, someone falling out a window in church would probably qualify as exciting. Rather, the bigger problem is that church itself, not just the sermons, or the hymns, or the prayers, but the very idea of it is boring.
In many peoples’ minds, there is nothing more interesting about church than a public reading of the phone book, which at least has the virtue of being useful.
The church is often viewed as dull and lifeless. And outsider portraits of the church are often scathing on that score. Anyone who watches the Simpsons has seen Rev. Timothy Lovejoy (whose name could not be more ironic) reading tediously from some obscure Biblical Passage: “and so when Eliphaz came down from Mount Hebron bearing figs, he offered them to Mohem, who you will remember is the father of Sheckhom. And to Hazar on the occasion of their matrimony, much in the same….”
Of course what makes the church so dull, so lifeless in the eyes of many is that it is out of touch. That its understanding of the world it finds itself in is deficient. This point is also made by Rev. Lovejoy who says things like “Today’s Christian doesn’t think he needs God. He’s got his Hi Fi, his boob tube, and his instant pizza pie…”
The portrait of Rev. Lovejoy reminds me of a quote a former student once said, that while Family Guy was funnier, the Simpsons was truer. The portrait of Rev. Lovejoy is funny because it is all too often true.
The church is dull and boring because it is out of touch and irrelevant. Why would anyone want to be a part of a community that doesn’t have anything to do with the life you lead or the world you live in? People who get together once a week to sing old songs and tell musty old stories written my men long dead. What is appealing about that? Neither the worship nor the church itself seem to have anything to do with the world in which people live.
II. EXCITING AND RELEVANT!
Now the church has sometimes tried to make itself more relevant, in ways that are downright mockable. And as such they are often mocked. One of George Carlin’s great performances was in the movie Dogma, as Cardinal Glick, the creator of “Catholicism, Wow!” the church’s attempt to make itself more exciting. Glick notes that the traditional symbol of Christian faith—the Christ upon the Cross—is kind of a downer and “wholly depressing” and so the crucifix is to be replaced by the “Buddy Christ”, a Jesus who points and winks at you with his thumbs up. (See the scene here)
Or there is Pastor Skip from the movie Saved who says things like “Let’s get our Christ on, let’s kick it Jesus-style!” and “All right! Who’s down with G-O-D?”
Each of these comedic portraits, like the one of Rev. Lovejoy, is also funny because it is all too often true. The Church, perceiving its reputation as boring or out of touch endeavors to be exciting and relevant in ways that are indeed mockable
Churches sometimes think that what will make them relevant is having a Facebook page or a Twitter account. Speaking in hip-hop slang or making cutesy references to pop-culture. Some of the worst offenders are church signs. The ones that say things like: “Prayer is God’s Knee-Mail!” or “Wal-Mart is not the only Savings Place!” (I mean that Wal-Mart reference is more dated than even a Simpsons or Dogma reference).
There are those churches that spend a fair amount of money on the performance side of a worship experience. Casually dressed clergy, peppering their sermons with video clips and power point demonstrate being in touch with contemporary life. Formal liturgy is dropped in favor of a modern worship experience with light shows, video screens, and live bands, all of which convey excitement and high production values.
Now, I am not knocking on contemporary worship. Different modes of worship work for different people–Wesley said as much. But I am knocking those churches that assume that the way to be exciting and in touch is simply to throw a praise band together and that will make them relevant (and therefore attractive to young people).
Now, I want to be clear that the style of worship, the dress of the pastor, the liturgy that is used, whether high church or low church is completely unrelated to the question of whether church is boring or relevant. There are churches that have traditional worship and styles that are relevant and exciting, there are traditional churches that are nothing more than ‘white washed tombs, which on the outside they are full of the bones of the dead.’ (Matt. 23:27). There are churches with contemporary worship that are vibrant and engaged, and there are contemporary churches that are solely about the performance and have become almost parodies of themselves. (There’s a video on YouTube doing just that.)
The church so often gets this wrong. The church either sticks to its traditions out of stubbornness, assuming that what worked for the last two thousand years should work today, and that people will come to church because it is the right thing to do. They maintain that “relevance” is another word for “popular” or “trendy” and that the church should not cave to contemporary culture. Or, on the other side, it believes that what the church needs is slicker packaging, better marketing, and a better sounds system. But what keeps a church from being boring is not its sounds system, it isn’t its music, it isn’t it’s clerical attire. What makes a church exciting and relevant is something much deeper. Something ancient. At the heart of Christian faith.
III. THE WORD BECOME FLESH
The Gospel of John has some of the most enigmatic language in all of the New Testament and this is nowhere more evident than in the beginning of John’s Gospel, which contains a beautiful hymn about the incarnation of the Word:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us…
The Word of God, the divine Mind, the very heart of God, became flesh and lived among us. Think about the implications of that theology. The word of God became flesh. It did not pretend to be flesh. It did not appear to be human. The Word of God became flesh.
What John’s Gospel says to us is that God did not elect to remain removed and distant from us. God is not solely on some lofty throne, high above and out of reach. God comes here. As one of us. Living our life. Even knowing our death. In Jesus Christ, God meets us where we are.
This teaching of Christianity is called the “Incarnation” which is Latin for “putting flesh on”. Fleshing something out. Putting meat on it. What it means for us, is that God is not an abstraction, an idea, God becomes tangible, immanent, present.
Study after study confirms one impression in the culture at large: Jesus is a lot more popular than the Church that serves in his name. Jesus always ranks higher on the coolness scale than the community of his faithful. How is it that a carpenter/preacher from two-thousand years ago continues to be more relevant, more exciting than his followers who live in the here and now?
It is because Jesus engaged fully with the world. He came to us. He saw us in our trouble and dealt with that trouble. He wasn’t showy. He wasn’t glitzy or well-produced. He wasn’t sophisticated. His illustrations were mostly about farming. But what he was, was there. He was present. He was down among the people he sought to serve. He was concerned with their needs, gave voice to their struggle. In fact, he was so relevant, so meaningful, that it cost him his life on the cross. Jesus was crucified for exactly the same reason that he is praised and admired: because he was living out a faith of consequence.
And so what does that mean for us as Christians but that our faith too should be incarnational. Our faith, like the God it proclaims, should meet people where they are. Our faith should be a faith of consequence.
Our faith calls us to be relevant, but not relevant in that we are conversant with all the latest slang and hip to all the latest trends alone. Relevant the way that Christ was relevant for us. Present. Real. Engaged. By coming to us in the flesh.
Our faith calls us not to care solely about the trappings of the world, but about the world itself, and the cares of the world. What good is a faith that can express itself on Twitter but knows nothing of the struggles of a young person seeking to figure out their identity? Of what use is a fancy website if the church is unable to stand in solidarity and compassion with someone who wrestles with gender identity, or that is unable to understand what gender identity is?
Of what use is a church that can put on a performance to bring down the house, or a choir that can sing glorious settings of the classical masters, but does not know how to talk to people about the issues of alienation and isolation that so many people feel? To help people to make real connections with one another in supportive, loving community?
Of what use is a church that has well planned services and fun social events, but is unable to help struggling families find the resources they need to live, or to speak out for workers so that they might receive a fair wage? Of what use psalms and hymnody if the church is unable to help its people face the challenges of depression and anxiety?
Of what use is a church that has beautifully articulated theology of God as creator but no appreciation of the science necessary to understand that creation? Of what use is a view on sexuality confined to the writings of centuries-dead men without any consideration for all that modern sciences might tell us?
Of what use is all the marketing, all the production, all the promotions if the church cannot work for justice, do acts of mercy, and build communities of peace?
All the praise bands in the world won’t keep that church from being out of touch. All the clever flyers in the world—even if they’re snarky and in Helvetica—won’t keep that church, ultimately, from being boring and irrelevant.
IV. “DO NOT BE ALARMED, FOR HIS LIFE IS IN HIM”
The church is often viewed as dull and lifeless, as lifeless as the body of poor Eutyches. But as with Eutyches, so it is with the Church. “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” There is life in the church. There is relevance. There is excitement.
When the church reaches out to those who are on the margins of society, there is life in the church.
When the church helps people to cope with the struggles and challenges of the modern world, there is life in the church.
When the church gives voice to those who have none, those whom no one else even seeks to understand, there is life in the church.
When the church seeks to meet people’s material need, helping them to care for and provide for their loved ones, there is life in the church.
When the church seeks to grow in understanding of mental and emotional illness, questions of human sexuality, questions of identity, and issues at the heart of our individual struggles, there is life in the church.
When the church embraces all that our senses and our intellect have to offer, when the church sees the hard sciences and the social sciences not as a threat but as a way to greater understand God’s creation and those who inhabit it, then there is life in the church.
When worship is full of the spirit of Christ, calling us outside ourselves, to build community, to reach out to those who are left out, to those whom the world has forgotten, to everyone, regardless of race, sex, orientation, nationality, age… then there is life in the church.
Church can be dull. Worship can be uninspired. Communities can be lifeless and stagnant. But excitement, inspiration, and life are not supposed to be add-ons, culled from new marketing strategies or new worship plans. Excitement, inspiration, and life come from the fundamentals of Christian faith.
For, the church is called to be the Body of Christ. Too often we have forgotten the implications of that that belief. We are to be like Christ, to engage with the world that God loved so much. To be present with the people where they are.
When we do that, when we remain focused on who we are and whose we are, then we become a church that cannot help but be relevant, and live a faith that cannot help but be exciting. We cannot help but claim a power that is transformative of the world.
And when we do that, we become true followers of the one who became flesh and dwelled among us.
On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.
John 1:1-5, 14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.