My dysfunctional relationship with museums and photo albums is strikingly similar.
Though I am not disparaging either, I find that I treat both in similar fashions. My family has long since resigned themselves to a certain method of showing me their pictures. Instead of sitting down with me, and showing me with great detail, their photographs from their most recent trip of excursion, they hand me the camera (who has photo albums anymore, anyway) or the computer monitor and let me go through the pictures “at my own pace.”
And then they walk away and leave me alone.
My family, at least, knows me well enough to know that I do care about their trip, I do want to see what they saw, I do want to experience what they experienced, but I also don’t want to linger relentlessly over still photographs. Because for as vivid and well exposed as their shots may be, there is just something that feels artificial and distant about a photograph. And so I flip through the photographs rather rapidly, giving genuine (albeit somewhat predictable) verbal responses periodically to the plant life, historical setting, odd looking animal, or other beauteous find. But mostly I am just looking to “get the gist” of what was seen, heard, and experienced.
Kind of like how I go to a museum.
In college, on a particular spring choir tour, we stopped at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. At the time, I believe a Norman Rockwell exhibit was on display. Now, I don’t want to miss the point here by debating whether or not a Norman Rockwell exhibit belonged in the high museum of art. Norman Rockwell fans and Thomas Kinkade fans can breath easily on this one. The point of the illustration is once you had seen a Norman Rockwell painting, you had seen them all. My time in the High Museum lasted for an hour, tops, and then was spent checking the scores on the ACC basketball championship.
Museums are hard for me. There is something sterile, disconnected, and out-of-reach in their artificial lighting, their informational placards, their self-guided tours and their kitschy gift-shops. The whole experience seems to be tailored around “isn’t that nice” and “wow, thanks for the memory” as people return to their lives. Aside from the souvenir they may have picked up, you aren’t going to go home with any of the things at the museum. Unless you are really, really, fortunate, you are not going to recreate that moment in the family photo album. They will both be, at the end of the day, disconnected memories and distant artifacts, with little to no connection to daily life.
And so comes the danger in the life of the church. Whether it be in sermons, small group bible studies, Christian Education environments, or children’s work, we fight the same temptation nearly every time we walk in the door. We will either be leading people through a museum exhibit, or accompanying them in the trenches of a mission field.
When our aforementioned teaching vehicles contain more reminiscence of the historical setting of the scriptures, times when these texts were particularly meaningful, applications from previous generations, or are interpreted through the hermeneutical framework of other authors in other contexts, we risk this dangerous diversion. Well constructed museums can give the illusion of being real. They can have all the feelings of genuine life, complete with environmental tweaks and sound effects and all to make one think they are someplace they are not. The fundamental difference is you leave museums. You live in your mission field.
As a pastor, I routinely fight this as I prepare sermons, teach classes, and train leaders. It is easy to look at commentaries and bible dictionaries to find out all sorts of little known facts regarding a text. And yet, unless we are linking the texts to the narrative of God’s redemptive work in Christ, and then find the intersection of that text first in our lives, and then in the lives of the people we are leading and shepherding, we are doing no better than the museum tour guides who recycle the same script to new patrons every day. If you have heard it once… well, then you have heard it.
And so, how are we doing? Are we more concerned with presenting the narrative story of the Gospel as a beautiful piece of artwork to be looked at behind the glass? Is the teaching of scriptures the show to get people in the building so that they will actually stay behind and buy whatever it is we are selling behind the gift-shop counter? Or are we being ourselves equipped to lead people into the mission field, where the vitality and viability of the gospel are both needed and displayed?
Time will tell. But it is a tension that, unless we are both aware of it and and fighting against it, will always see mission eclipsed by museum.
“In fact, one criterion to apply to worship in any congregation, regardless of the liturgical style it embraces, is that of historical remembrance and proclamation: Does worship proclaim the whole sweep of divine activity past, present, and future? Does worship induct participants into a cosmology in which God is at work faithfully in continuity with past divine action? Does worship convey a sense of hope for the future grounded in God’s faithful action in the past?”
When consumeristic people come to worship to only glean what will do them well for the following week, they have little patience for how God has been faithful in other people’s lives. They are, instead, looking for the understandable morsel or two as to how their lives will be made all the better, provided that they are treated well, worship is intelligible, and they get out in a timely manner.
But in all seriousness, we seem to miss the interlocking of God’s redemptive work in history and faithfulness in the present day, because we focus on one or the other to exclusion.
“For comfortable North American worshipers and worship leaders today, the great temptation is to slip into expressions of petition, thanksgiving, and proclamation that are nearly exclusively focused on the present moment. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of lives and churches that are content with the status quo. Our songs, prayers, and sermons emphasize God’s immediate goodness and even the vitality of our intimate experience of God. For us to live into the riches of fully biblical worship, our prayer, praise, and proclamation should be carried out as if we stand before a cosmic time line of God’s actions, fully aware of divine faithfulness from the creation of the world to its full recreation in Christ. It is this vast and specific awareness that grounds our hope when days are difficult and that leads us beyond the immediate concerns of our little egocentric worlds.”
The burden is on us, as pastors and leaders, to look to the task of spiritual formation that intersects our people in the workaday of their lives Monday through Saturday, and to pray that God would do a work. We need our hearts changed first, and then theirs as well, so that we do not come merely to consume and discard, but to contribute and display the work of God to all who may see.
Blockquotes from “Former Prophets and the Practice of Christian Worship,” Calvin Theological Journal 37 (2002)
- People Retention vs. People Formation (davidfridenhour.com)
- Regarding the notion “We better find out what they think.” (davidfridenhour.com)
“Anyone who travels and visits churches will see that program, theme, and creative are the most dominant words of worship planning that force leaders toward designing culturally driven worship. My concern is that culturally driven worship will nurture a culturally formed spiritual life. If this is true, how do we correct current worship practices so that it does truth and forms the congregation into a deeper, more biblically informed spirituality? I suggest we look once again at the ancient order of worship and ask how it shapes the spiritual life.”
I think the reason this is so is because we view worship not as a spiritually formative, God honoring, Community galvanizing event where non-Christians, skeptics, and nominal Christians might be looking on. Rather, we view this as the central marketplace of our vanity fair, with the hopes that if we can keep the people in our church via our worship, we can develop them as disciples through other acts of nurture, Christian growth, and spiritual formation. The problem is this character strips the worship event of what it was truly meant to engender: a divine-human interaction where the people hear from and respond to the mighty works that God has done, and in so doing, find the norm and standard for the rest of their weeks and interactions having been modeled at pulpit and table.
Having seen the great things that God has done for unworthy sinners, we are free then to forgive, to initiate to others, to believe in hope, to confess our sin, to seek to restore, and to find fellowship, all because these are the things that God has done for us at great cost to himself.
When we don’t do this, we find that people see modeled before them exactly what they practice in their own spiritual lives. A faith embodied by a “god” who always produces for them exactly what they want, exactly when they want it, and when it isn’t going their way and they complain, they again receive what they want. The cultural formation at work here is an elevation of self, and a deification of people retention over people formation.