I didn’t imagine this three-part reflection series to take nearly a month to write. Alas it has – here goes Part 3. As a recap, Part 1 was about how we talk about Jesus and tell the message in the church within a changing society, and Part 2 reflected on some organizations and individuals who are spreading God’s love outside church walls through their actions and love to their neighbor.
Part 3 is about the confluence of inside-the-church worship and the cultural experience outside it. When I was in Guatemala in 2009, I had an experience that made this idea very important for me. The following is an excerpt from my GPF application:
“Vamos,” the former Catholic priest said after glancing at his watch. We stood up from our chairs, exiting his office which also functioned as our one-on-one classroom. Down the stairs and the hill, we entered Parque Central, the heart of the old district of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The frenzy of cars, street vendors, the smell of freshly-baked bread, at least three languages, church bells, and the sharp color contrasts of the green grass, blue sky, and large stone buildings hit me at once. We crossed the square and entered the Catholic church.
The sounds died completely away. Lit by candles and faint daylight, we found our way to some pews, sitting and watching, taking it all in. My heart leaps as my mind transports back to that day – the peace of that place and the drastic change from the square outside. The church was a place of refuge – and though there was no official worship service or sermon, I heard the words read to me and by me while I was growing up come flooding over me: “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” It was the Gospel I needed to hear, to feel, to experience in that moment. I remember talking with my instructor about light and darkness, peace and chaos, on the way back to his office that day.
It was inside this church that I felt the safest I had since arriving in Guatemala over a month earlier. Even at my host home, behind the 12-foot cinder block walls with broken glass embedded in the top, electrified razor wire above that, and a closed circuit TV system, I did not feel as safe as I did in that church that day. And it was with the thoughts and activities of that day that something flipped, something changed in my mind – I began to link the ideas of “Church” and “Change” together.
And I still wonder about it. How do the church and culture change each other? How do they affect each other? How can the church be a positive force of change in our cultures, and a positive voice that is not laying down a simple message of “love, love” or “woe, woe” all the time? Here are a few ideas I have been thinking about the last few weeks:
First, don’t live the Christian faith like the seasons in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is a scene in that cult-classic movie in which the narrator says, “Winter changed into Spring. Spring changed into Summer. Summer changed back into Winter. And Winter gave Spring and Summer a miss and went straight on into Autumn.” Sometimes it feels like we are always in Winter, or always heading toward it imminently. There is always something to worry about, to complain about, to fear. We are looking for the Spring and the Summer. But it may feel like we are in the Fall and Winter, in a slow, cautious, dying phase, one in which we don’t want to expend too much energy in any one direction for fear of being snuffed out, when in reality, not going whole-heartedly (and possibly foolhardily) toward something may finish us off.
Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, was one of the rallying cries of the Reformation in the 1500s (Martin Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, that time period). It means “The Church reformed, always reforming”. It didn’t mean, “let’s reform what we see is wrong with the church and then lay down the exactly perfect structure for everything that will happen in the next millenium and never ever change anything for the rest of all time until Jesus comes back.” The Reformers of that time knew that they didn’t have everything perfect, that the seasons of the year and the church would change, and we would be led back to a new Spring each time, a new Easter, a continual Easter.
We are reformed – we’ve been through the Winter, been tried by fire and cold and ice and pain and death and whatever else. And we are to come back to the Spring, alive and changed and growing and reacting to the world around us, yet rooted deeply in the same dirt, the same grounding, the same life, the same Truth of God’s love and Jesus’ death and resurrection. We can constantly cling to that Truth, sinking our roots in deeper and deeper; or, we can sink our roots in deeper and deeper, and at the same time stretch upward toward the light and warmth. We can cling to the past and only what we know now, or we can cling to our history and stretch toward the future, constantly communicating between the two.
Second, Risk. The board game by the same name offers a good example of this. (If you haven’t played or seen it played, it is a game in which people try to take over a map of the world by building up armies and rolling dice to see who wins the battles.) At the beginning of the game, and certainly at points along the way, it is very easy, and perhaps wise, to not do anything. There is equilibrium. Drawing attention to yourself by acting may make people think differently about you, good or bad. And so sometimes it is nice to just sit there, commander of a powerful army, doing nothing.
As people who believe in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, we are armed with powerful tools as well – among them, power over evil forces, the ability to forgive sins and wrongs, community, and life. And yet it is very, very easy to just sit and not share these, or share them passively with other people. It’s scary to move, to speak up, to act, to share. But whether you do something or don’t, people start to think differently about you, just as in the board game. Keith and Ang McLaren, who I mentioned in Part 2, decided to act differently than those around them. It has brought animosity and hatred, but also love and respect, hope and life. Like Keith and Ang, sometimes we need to act because of our faith, impacting the culture, however small or large, because of what we believe. Whether that’s fighting against child labor, sitting with someone in hospice and giving them joy and hope, or providing employment for another, we are called to Risk.
Third, be like Thumper. In the movie Bambi (you can see a clip here) Thumper says “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” One thing I’ve noticed in so many of the churches we have been to is that the first thing people say after or about a worship service is how great it is. “That was a great sermon, wasn’t it?” “That worship was wonderful.” “Strong preach today.” (Note: “Preach” is used in a few churches here to mean “sermon” or “message”.) They may later say that something was “flat” or “down” or “not up to par” – but nearly always the first thing people say is positive. And the information is volunteered, not coerced. People want to talk about their great church experience. We went out to a market with one of our friends, Mervin, the other week. He invited a shop owner he bought some food from to come to his church.
I’ve listened to a lot of sermons (“preaches”) here, and heard a lot of people speak. Some people are wonderful public speakers, others are not. But even when people who are poor preachers are speaking, people still come to church, still participate, still are excited. And I will be honest – I think the main reason many of the churches we have visited are strong and growing is because people speak well of their church. They have good things to say.
And we can’t leave out the negative – but leading with the positive and showing we do like where we worship will go a long way. I think it is one of the most important things for the health of the church and it’s future. It’s simple, but it’s powerful.
Above I posed 3 questions, but I think only responded to the last. Here I’ll briefly respond to the first two. (How do the church and culture change each other? How do they affect each other?) Paul writes in Romans 12, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (NIV) I’ve heard this paraphrased down to “Christians are in the world, not of the world”, with the idea behind it that Christians aren’t supposed to have anything to do with modern culture, that modern culture and modern Christianity are entirely mutually exclusive and can never interact. But they do interact, and I think they should.
The culture changes how and what people want to hear – length of attention spans, preferred preaching and worship style, a message of hope, face-t0-face community, and so many other things. It can keep the church from getting complacent in how it preaches the Gospel, how it shows the message, forcing the church to adapt and not stagnate, while still preaching the same message. And the church changes, or can change, the culture – a positive message of life in the midst of a 24/7 news cycle of mostly debbie-downer stories, caring for the poor and lonely and immigrants and hurting across social groupings, stories of God’s actions for thousands of years, and showing that trust and faith and hope and belief are still valid in a world filled with numbers and reports and so-called “hard evidence.”
I think the church and culture are intricately linked – and it can be a good thing. The key for the Church is to stay rooted in the message of and about Jesus Christ, while also reaching toward the future.