There are have been proclamations, rants, even celebrations by some that with the fall in church attendance across the mainline Christian denominations that the days of “going to church” are quickly coming to an end. By this I mean the days of packing the family up in the car and driving to a Sunday morning worship service, perhaps Sunday school and fellowship hall gatherings over burned coffee and cookies fresh out of a box. To this bit of Americana I would have to agree – the days of this picture are fading faster than a Polaroid on a bulletin board (note: given that Kodak is discontinuing the Polaroid line, this metaphor is ironically fading out as well).
Is this such a bad thing? Well, a number of post-church (aka ’emergent’) folks have been banging this drum for most of the late 1990’s and into the current century and have made quite a nice living on book deals and speaking gigs that have stirred the dismay and questioned the notion of “church” as a modernist construct to the point of people gathering around their books and conferences rather than as collectives of the Body of Christ. Those who attend many of these “we are different” and”embrace Otherness” and “not your father’s Christianity” and “meaning as Twitter feed” gatherings seem to keep coming and the folks who put them on are able to pay their mortgages so something is working, right? (btw – many so-called ’emergent’ folks will ‘hate on’ this alignment of “emergent” = “post-church”… but emergent folks hate on any label… kinda cute actually…)
That said, my worry goes deeper than the business models of the so-called ‘different without a Creed’ gatherings. My worry is that ultimately ‘the Church is Christ in the world’ (a phrase stated rather boldly by Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and as such has such a brutally fractured presence in the world that it resembles the torn apart corpse of the Levites concubine in Judges 19-22 (if you are interested in this troubling section of the Hebrew Bible that is never preached on and not found in any lectionary, my colleague Frank Spina provides a great lecture on iTunesU available here)
What is left of the presence of the church other than torn apart, sun-bleached and picked over chunks of flesh and bone fragments as Christians continue to passively participate in ever-shrinking circles of affinity that rarely engage a larger conversation that could mean the end of their perspective and the beginning of some new relationship?
This is the question that is driving my book project entitled “The Z factor” which is a meditation on the words of the Minor Prophets and in particular the book of Zechariah. It is something I have been musing over for a while and feel that it is time to kick start the project again. I will be posting thoughts on it over the coming weeks and look forward to your contributions and help in musing these questions over…
I am a bit late to the game in picking up Alex Ross’ Pulitzer Prize winning “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and can’t say enough good things about it. Ross is the chief Music Critic and an Editor for the New Yorker magazine and has pulled together a seminal primer for ‘reading’ the evolution of culture in the 20th century through the music that formed our lives and times. Ross stakes a claim early in the introduction that “twentieth-century classical composition…sounds like noise to many…yet these sounds are hardly alien. Atonal chords crop up in jazz, avant-grade sounds appear in Hollywood film scores; minimalism has marked rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward. Sometimes the music resembles noise because it is noise, or near to it by design. Sometimes, as with Berg’s Wozzeck, it mixes the familiar and the strange, consonance and dissonance. Sometimes it is so singularly beautiful that people gasp in wonder when they hear it.”
I love this description and the way Ross is so spirited in his call for us to move from being passive listeners toward an engagement as full participants in the music that fills our iPods and cascades out of the windows and doorways of dorm rooms and bars, concert halls and the church sanctuary. As I wrote in a recent theological review of U2’s recent album “No Line on the Horizon”, music is something that shapes and ultimately frames not merely marking the memories *of* experiences we partake in, but literally *are* the experiences themselves. For many of us, music is as vital to what it means to be alive as anything else. We return to the songs that give us hope, provide companionship in the midst of lament, carve out space for reflection and lay out a map for our journey both in recovering our past and forging into the hope of a redeemed future. “We are born of sound” muses Bono in the song “Breathe” off “No Line on the Horizon” and I believe he is absolutely correct. To read The Rest is Noise to realize just how profound the birth of the twentieth century is and the genius that is found in the music we have been midwifed by into the life we now hold so dear.
I am have been travelling quite a bit recently – a different city and a different conference for three weekends of the past four. Venturing from the sublime (U2 academic conference in Durham, NC) to the ridiculous (was in a booth across from a disco dancing Yeti under a mirror ball blaring the Michael Jackson back catalog at the YS National Youth Workers Convention in LA) to the somber and informative (the AYME conference where I gave a paper on racial identity in teens in Louisville, KY), in the immortal words of Jerry Garcia – “oh what a long strange trip it’s been.”
I am pretty beat up after all this travelling and frankly marvel as frequent business travelers who keep up this pace. It is utterly de-humanizing to be travelling those distances in that period of time. I was bumped up to first class on one leg of a trip and got a taste of what happens to people who travel that much – people shoving their overhead luggage into you so they can secure a spot, barking at the stewardess for yet another drink, grunting at the elderly as they attempt to get off the plane with limited mobility. I kept thinking “so THIS is what the boys in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” would have become if they had traveled by plane as opposed to ship…”
Being bone tired makes you realize your limits and on a spiritual level offers a space to consider what it is that makes us human. Exhaustion is the end of the bell curve and I am beginning to see it as the polar opposite from imagination. The lack of human intimacy, the frantic blur of locales and yet the utter banality of hotel rooms in drab sameness, the lack of distinctiveness in food all add up to a vacuum that provides no resources nor encouragement to even consider possibilities and a vision larger than just making it through another metal detector and TSA strip search.
Frankly, I am too tired to even know what to do with this… but at least I am home to think about it.
Organizational guru and motivational speaker Steven Covey challenges individuals to “work to live, not live to work”. Catchy aphorism to be sure, but hard to live out. I just finished teaching a class in the MBA program at SPU that caused me to do some thinking on the issue of how and why people choose the work that they do. A student in my class last night – the last class mind you – raised her hand and asked “Throughout this class, you have said that we should seek jobs that are fulfilling, that will serve the needs of the broken in our world, that will have a mission statement that we can support – is it realistic to find such a position when entering the workforce or do we settle with any entry level position?” Great question to be sure. My immediate answer was “yes”. That said, the challenge is more to do with a willingness to wait for the goal and do the things in the mean time that will allow space for the goal to be realized. This might mean changing my lifestyle a bit to allow me to work for next to nothing so I can do an internship and gain the experience necessary to fulfill the long term goal and not merely accept the short term gains of a better salary so I can buy a house, car, new clothes, etc. This ‘down-sizing’ for the sake of the long term is a difficult and counter cultural choice.