Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Taking on Brian McLaren

I could've called this "In Defense of Style" I also could've written this as a response to Brian McLaren's recent post about what emerging is and is not. But, hey, nobody reads my blog anyway. Maybe using his name in the title will bump me on the Google listings. Yeah, right.

I was intrigued by what Brian had to say about emerging and style; you can read the full column he wrote here, but he pulled out the section about style to repeat on his own page. First, you should know that I have read lots of his stuff and think he is doing much great work for Christianity, including for the church. I really appreciated what he had to say at the Episcopal Church's 2009 General Convention, and I look forward to seeing him at Wild Goose this summer. That said, I think there is something to be said for style, more than Brian’s declaration that a particular style is not the mark of an emerging church.

I say this with two hesitations. First is the feeling that my blog has started sounding like the church critic who hates almost everything. That was not my plan when I started writing this series. What I really wanted was to blog my in process thoughts about what we are called to be and what we are called to do, lessons I am learning from visiting places that are do things differently. I have been traveling to see how authentic worship and ministry are being lived out today, aiming to provide messages of hope for me and my friends who are trying to shape meaningful ministries in our communities. In other words, none of this should be read as mine final words about any subject.

The second hesitation is that it is hard to oppose Brian when he is essentially correct. Emerging is not a style of worship. I know that. If it were, the worship at Westover (see a few columns back) should've been perfect instead of leaving me disinterested. They had the band, the money, the people, the beautiful worship space, all the trappings that some people are mistakenly associating with emerging.

But I am going to challenge Brian because it would be too easy to read his column as suggesting that style is not important. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, it is a lie to suggest that there is a worshiping community of any kind that does not have a style. We all do. Our style may be minimalist or reactive to things we don’t like, but that is a style too. And acknowledgment of one’s style means deliberate consideration of how you look to others, which is part of evangelism.

And right up front, I must say that style without substance is meaningless. As an evangelism tool, style only gets people interested enough to listen. Without substance, they will soon drift away.
Though it is possible to be emerging in a great variety of styles--some Episcopal communities have chosen to go there through incense and sung liturgy, for example--nevertheless, the style you present to visitors says a lot about who you are and how you understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. If your style is primarily for the people who worship with you, for example, then you will continue to attract the same kinds of people. Style is a bit like clothing. People get their first impression of you through it, which is why most of us don’t go naked.

So, not knowing that I would see McLaren’s article on style and emerging on Tuesday, I visited Cedar Ridge Community Church on Sunday. That is the congregation that Brian and friends started years ago. From a distance, it is the emerging church that has made it, right? They own property, a converted barn and acres of land that they are learning to use for sustainable gardening (A whole message--never say sermon--series right now is on land, food, and work in conjunction with this.). They have full time paid clergy that the congregation supports. They have more than 20 people showing up. And guess what? They have a style all their own.

First style choice is the architecture. I believe they converted a barn already on the property. From the outside, it looks like a very nicely kept barn. The inside, though, says a lot of money was spent making it beautiful. We are not shabby. Upon entering the building, you notice that the foyer is huge, a real gathering place that serves the purpose of most parish halls as a gathering point. By making the foyer into this space, they can gather informally before church as well as after. The coffee and doughnuts are here; you can bring them into worship if you like.

Just a couple of thoughts though. Nametags do not work unless everyone wears them. Most of the regulars did not put one on, and visitors like me are not ready to be clearly marked that way; we tend to want to blend in. Also, perhaps greeters on the lookout for visitors should be working the room. If they were, they missed me for a while. Someone eventually did come up to me, but I must say that I made myself look as lost and unsure of myself as I could.

They physical layout of the worship space says the band is the most important things. They are on the highest stage. The altar and lectern were closer to us, but definitely lower. The number of chairs they have set up for the worshipers is too many. As a result, everyone sits in the back and there are lows of empty chairs in the front. Even churches with pews can rope off unneeded pews to encourage people to sit closer to the action.

And here is my pet peeve for almost every place I have been on this journey. Let some natural light into the place. Yes, I know barns to not normally have windows, but you could’ve changed this! The only other places I associate with no lights are theatres, prisons, and casinos.

So what about the style of worship? The leadership clearly knows the difference between worship and a theatrical production. The band is not bathed in a lighting display, and they are not the worship leaders. The lectern is a simple one, placed for practicality. The altar is prominent enough that the symbol is always there, though I wondered why the leader moved from it to the lectern to show us the bread and obviously empty cup.

The band played. Announcements were made. A prayer, including a few lines of responsive litany was read. And then, straight into the message about work for 45 minutes. The band played a song chosen to wrap up the message. We got instructions about communion time, a brief prayer of institution that took place at the lectern, not the altar (why?). Then, while the band played two more songs (including a nice jazzy version of Wade in the Water), we communed, either by gathering around a table and communing one another or by going to a more traditional station. You could also write a prayer  or an offering at this time, and stations to pray with others were set up on in the rear. There was one more song and then a dismissal prayer.

What struck me most about it was the passivity and individualism of it all. Some people sang the songs they knew, but there was no real encouragement to do so (Well, the words were on the screen.). The message was a lecture with no real chance for interaction; I vaguely remember a show of hands at one point, but that’s about it. The prayer and offering stations during communion were solo acts. There was no passing of the peace or equivalent, so I did not interact with the few people around me (I foolishly sat in the front half of the room.).

I never had a reason to interact with the people I was worshiping with unless I did the table communion. Sorry, but watching the first group of 10-12 people down their grape juice shot glasses all at once was more like watching some friends taking shots at a recent birthday party then communion for me. At the same time, it seemed too intimate an act to do with strangers. I had to go to a station to keep from laughing.

So, here is what the style said to me. Communal prayer is of little value to you. The role of scripture is to illuminate whatever the message giver wants to say that week. Color is important. Comfort is important, as is being relaxed for worship.

Communion is something you are still not actually all that comfortable with, so you downplay it as much as possible even though you offer it every week. And someone yearns for a bit of the Book of Common Prayer more than they want to admit ("The gifts of God for the people of God?").

While discipleship groups are a significant part of your congregation, many if not most people are not a part of them. You are wonderfully multicultural (but so is your standard denominational church in the Washington area). You have succumbed to the notion that children and worship don't mix--but does that really have to apply to the senior high group?

And, I learned that you avoid controversy; this may not be true, but the message this week sure conveyed that impression. I listened to a 45 minute message on work that told me that one should shape one's life so that, while at work, one can still live as a Christian. It did not address whether or not all jobs are appropriate for Christians. The message giver told us all about his years of working for Lockheed Martin with only one half sentence nod to the idea that maybe a Christian should think about whether working for a war manufacturer was a good thing. I was, frankly, stunned. Perhaps because I work with college students who wrestle with vocation questions all the time, I thought he missed the mark. It seems like the hard question that a lot of people face—is the work that I do really something a Christian should be doing—was simply too confrontive. So I wonder if this is always true for messages at Cedar Ridge.

I’ll be honest, it was the seating situation coupled with the passive nature of the worship and the message that told me this was not a community that wanted to reach me. The rest I could get past. Obviously, I am not the target, being an out of state visitor. And I understand that much more learning and discussion take place outside of worship. But I am an empathetic visitor, and this is my first contact. Do you know what you are saying to visitors?

So, yes, style is important along with substance. It does not make a ministry emerging or not emerging, but it does reflect some of the ways in which you understand the Gospel. Forgetting that reality could be fatal for a worshiping community and dangerous to the spiritual lives of those who come into contact with your community.

1 comment:

Britta Waller said...

What strikes me is that perhaps this is a community that may have been in the habit of experimenting with questions of style and reflections of the Gospel in its style earlier in its life but has become more wary of doing so. Not sure.