When we set up our new web site, the ‘web builder’ asked me to make up a kind of ‘catch phrase’ which would go on our headline banner. I thought a lot, and finally we came up with “St. John’s: Surprisingly Different.”
Well, not surprisingly, someone has asked me ‘So why ‘Surprisingly Different?’ Here is my response.
How many ways can the phrase be used that are not the one that we chose?
First there is ‘Not surprisingly different.’ There are may congregations who are trying to be, as they say ‘non traditional.’ It is true that perhaps two whole generations have grown up not knowing much about the Church. They do know about rock concerts, and the kinds of meaning that are made by the songs that are sung there. They are technologically more savvy than most of the people over 55. They have grown up with consumerism, and approach most things as customers, looking for ‘services.’ Congregations who want to make contact with this group of people adapt their styles of worship and presentation to forms that look more like the cultural forms that are already known to many younger people. Music changes, liturgy changes, data projectors are introduced, sound and light shows illustrate prayers, sermons and songs.
This is indeed different from what the Church has been, but many places who adopt this style are successful in attracting young people, and financing their ministry, and giving money away. They are becoming increasingly aware of social justice issues.
When I told my sister about my critique of one such congregation, ‘Hillsong’ London, where my ephew went, she replied ‘Well at least he’s going somewhere as a young person. He’s now taking an active part in the local Uniting Church.’ To which there was no answer.
But this way of making contact is well known. It is not surprising that many people are going down this road. That is why I’ve described this as ‘Not surprisingly different.’
But there are some congregations who have hung onto what used to be even when it becomes dry and lifeless. This kind of church represents the kind of church that the congregation grew up with. The worship serves the valuable, yet limited purpose of ritual in that it represents a link to the past. It represents security, it represents the comfort of the known. It does not take long for this to happen. Like learning to ski, we all teeter between the safety of not going down the slope, and the risk of trusting that one can ‘find an edge in the snow’ even when underway. At some point one has to ‘take off’.
To my mind, these churches are surprisingly the same! In a book I am reading called ‘Stress, Power and Ministry’ the author, John C. Harris says about the search for a new prayer book ‘ Our search arose because the symbols and forms of the 1928 Prayer Book no longer interpreted the anxieties and spiritual hunger of more and more people. The very language and rituals themselves became barriers to the experiences of the transcendence and integration that they were intended to make possible.’ (p54). When this happens churches become worshipers of tradition, and not God who is Spirit, and blows into new places as part of God’s nature. Churches become museums and worship becomes an interesting museum piece. We have to find ways that we can connect with God, and tell the truth about our lives in ways that resonate as truthful with others. That is what liturgy is for. Harris goes on ‘…authentic worship is meant to loosen our hold on the illusion that we are in control of life; it is meant to break through our normal ways looking at ourselves and the world; it is meant to move us and shock us into an awareness of our vulnerability. By its very nature, worship involves anxiety.’ (p54). It is surprising to me that some congregations continue without the excitement and new life that can be generated by looking for new ways to worship
But then, maybe there are some congregations who have given up on truth. Maybe it is easier to concentrate on
toilets and drains and money, and not to worry about theological questions. So these congregations are not surprisingly, the same! But the phrase is used with certain amount of sadness at the state we are in. We hear about the Church as an institution’s inability to really do what is necessary for renewal, and we say ‘Why am I not surprised? ‘ Why, because although the Church is ‘His new creation by water and the Word’, it is also an institution, and thinks and acts like one.
So now we come to my hopes for St. John’s. I have called us ‘surprisingly
different.’ Now on the surface, we look like what some people would call ‘traditional.’ I have trouble with this because everything comes from some tradition or other. So really, there is no such thing as ‘traditional worship’ and ‘non traditional’ worship. There are just different traditions that inform how worship goes. But here, I am committed to the sacraments. I believe that the actions that are asked of us in the Eucharist each Sunday: being opened up (broken?), doing something, and then responding, just as Isaiah recorded in Ch. 6 of his prophesy, is both scary and life giving, and what worship is really for. It does not correspond to normal life where we are customers buying goods and services. For those who penetrate beneath the surface of this series of actions, to really do them, what, on the surface, looks like ‘The same old same old’ becomes a life giving mystery that informs how the whole of the rest of life goes. Now that is different!
But we can’t just keep saying the same words if they cease to be life giving. The actions (being opened up, hearing and doing, responding) stay the same, but how we are invited to participate in them can vary according to the gifts of the congregation, the sense of the Spirit, and the willingness of the members of the congregation to take risks, and to tell the truth of their lives t one another in mutual vulnerability. That too is different.
The surprise is that not many people expect that this will be so. While we may look ‘the same’ as any old Church, my hope is that the life and vibrancy that lives within the Eucharist itself will communicate something to those who cross our path in one way or another.
At a clergy conference we were discussing the story of the lame man at the Gate Beautiful. Peter and John come up and he says ‘give me money.’ They say ‘silver and gold have we none, but what we do have, we’ll give to you. In the name of Jesus, get up and walk!!’ I asked ‘I wonder, what would I be able to say to the people of my town. My answer was ‘Anyone who is serious about life with God will not be disappointed here.’ Now that is surprisingly different.