[Thoughts from the Festival of Homiletics 2012]
I've listened to fascinating conversations this week about the emergent church. I've engaged in thought about the future of the church, and how to reach generations beyod what currently fills (at least my church's) pews. And I've heard people talk about the "post-moderns"-- and though I think I'm of the generation that produces post-moderns, I've never had a big understanding of what that meant. Because probably, at least in thought, this is not the group with whom I identify. I've not yet felt run out of the church because it doesn't fit my needs or expectations. In fact, I'm a little bit cozy with the church. I like (at least to an extent) that people still dress up for worship. I appreciate liturgy that is far older and wiser than I am--words that stretch beyond our present experience. And while I like the accessibility element that our sanctuary's projector and screen lends to our worship, I'd be ok if it didn't work for a week or two. In fact, I guess I'd be ok with going back to the very basics--I'm a big fan of the early church: Groups gathered together to celebrate and wonder at the mysteries of God.
So that got me thinking about a question that I'm at some point going to have to devote a lot of time to. Because some day the church's survival may depend on being able to meet the needs of a new generation. What is it then, that is essential?
I can only start by naming what is superflous. For me:
-pews are not essential. Seating is necessary, but I'm not convinced that all the pews have to face forward. The word of God will still be proclaimed even if people are looking at each other instead of the "preacher." In fact, sitting in the round might just offer a sense of community through which the scripture might be interpreted.
-Bulletins, while nice, are not essential. I'll admit I had a few moments of panic as I've worshipped in various spaces this week when I've discovered that there were no bulletins. I found lost and always wondering what was happening, but the world did not shut down as I supposed. In fact, I'd argue that worship happened in a new way that left room for the Holy Spirit's new workings. I like things carefully controlled but perhaps spontanaeity it is beautiful as well. And under this same heading is carefully constructed prayers and liturgy. I love them both--how I love them. But they are not essential.
-Dress Code. Again, I like the fact that worship is special enough to require a different dress in the minds of many. It helps me worship to feel set apart from the needs of "out there". But at the same time, I both get and truly appreciate that God takes us as we are and it matters very little what we look like.
So then--back to my original question. What could I (and the church) not live without. What elements, if removed, would change worship into "other"?
-a sense of community. I believe that the "I am the vine and the branches" passage names us as tangly-uppy people who know and value and care--even enough to stick our noses into our neighbor's business. I believe that we must be responsible to God for each other as a community as well as individuals.
-the Word proclaimed. As a preacher, I can't imagine a world where carefully crafted sermons have outlived their usefulness, but what if the Word was something we proclaimed together. People have experienced Christ in powerful ways and they don't need a "Rev" in front of their names to bear witness to that truth. Yet the word MUST bear witness to the love of God in Christ. That's not negotiable.
-Prayer. If a community is not engaging in some sort of communication with God as a people, then perhaps the group begins to bear a resemblance to a social group. That being said, how might we rethink prayer so that it offers space for many voices to join in the conversation.
-praise. There must be a space for the gathered body to say "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" But maybe that can take lots of forms. Could praise be asking the question (and aiming for answers) be "Where has God amazed you lately? Where has God shown up?"
What isn't essential, but might positively shape the ways we worship?
-art. Maybe it's poetry or art art, or liturgical paraments. Things that both point to and paint a picture of God, while at the same time, allowing one to dream and hear the Word in a new light.
-music. I believe in stillness and silence, but I also think there is a place for the soul to sing out. I do think, however, that the music must make attempts at connecting with as many generations as there are represented in a congregation.
I am certain of little-- except that the church is changing. How do we remain true to what is essential and allow room for what might yet be?
"Graceland" is the name of my favorite song and album. It's by Paul Simon, but more importantly, it's what "home" sounds and feels like to me. We always listened to this album as we traveled from my home in Tennessee to my parents' childhood homes in Florida. But today, it's also a pretty good snapshot of my theology. Somewhere I really believe that the Christian journey is all about a wild trip to Grace-land. As I see it, Grace-land is the place where God is waiting to meet even us–with all the baggage and brokeness that we tote with us. Grace-land is the place where we will be received with open arms, even though our attempts at “getting it right” have been miserable failures at best. But, I think, every step we take is a step on the journey to Graceland.