M y wife came home crying. In response to a new song she was trying to introduce at choir rehearsal, one of the church members had crumpled up the sheet music and literally thrown it in her face. Called her the devil, too.
My wife is strong, but she’s not really hip on being called the devil by a church member. Sadly, if you’ve worked as a church leader, you’ve probably experienced or heard of something similar.
When it comes to religious expression, people get really worked up about their personal tastes and preferences.
In the various industries of the world, working with church people would rank pretty high on the Dude-Diva scale:
What’s up with that?
It’s simple, really.
People confuse Jesus and the donkey he rode in on.
In other words, they confuse Christ and the means by which Christ entered their lives. The academic word for it is “sacralize.” We turn the means by which we experience God into a god.
The tendency has been present since the beginning. Old Testament characters sacralized locations where God moved. Early on, Christians started hoarding supposed artifacts from Jesus’ time on earth. Medieval churches sacralized images that were designed to point to God. Reformers got rid of the images, but in turn sacralized their systematic theologies or the Bible itself, turning texts – the small “w” word rather than the capital “W” Word – into detached objects of worship.
At the same time, since the beginning, God has been telling us to worship God, not a representation of God, no matter how powerful.
It seems we cannot help but confuse our worship of an invisible, Other God with the visible means by which we experience God. Perhaps this is part of the necessity of the Incarnation, for God to make himself, rather than a representation or image, known, so that we can experience full and unmediated worship.
Don’t mistake my words for an anti-image rant. On the contrary, we followers thrive on image as the means of understanding and talking about God. We are visual – especially artist and Beauty types. We need images that point us to Christ, the imaged, incarnate presence of God on Earth. The problem is that theologians, theorists and artists alike acknowledge the inseparable relationship of reality and resemblance. Tillich said that symbols participate in the reality to which they point. McLuhan said the medium is the message. Lowry said the sermon itself is a story. Shoot, Stephen King noted that you’ve gotta start with the image, because if you start with the theme, what you get is not story, but allegory.
The result of this inevitable confusion is this:
If you introduce something new in worship or in part of church life, count on someone getting fired up about it.
Whether your music style is 200 years old or 20 years old, I’ll bet you a year of domain hosting that somebody has sacralized it.
Shortly before I joined the staff of a young and growing church called Ginghamsburg, the congregation had moved into a new building that sat 1400 in its main worship venue. Previously, the church’s worship venue held about 300 for three Sunday services that packed in a total of around 1300. People literally sat up folding chairs in the open outside air and listened through a door or window to worship, like people passionate for the Apostle Paul’s message.
With a new, appropriately sized worship space, everyone should have been happy, but instead over 200 people left the church, saying the church had lost a certain something in the move. Of course, that certain something, a movement of the Holy Spirit, continued, and within two years we averaged 3200 in worship. But those 200 couldn’t abide, because they had sacralized the old space.
Leaders have no choice but to innovate. I believe that it’s not just a good idea, but that we’re called to new innovations and expressions in church life. Yet even as we create, know that some won’t make the move.
I’m about to introduce a radically redesigned bulletin at my church. The new design is 4 pages, down from 16. I’m betting I’ll have someone in my office throwing things at me and calling me the devil.
If so, I’ll simply say, “You’re confusing Jesus and the donkey he rode in on.”