Dangers in Spiritual Formation: Museum vs. Mission

My dysfunctional relationship with museums and photo albums is strikingly similar.

Cover of Saturday Evening Post 06-04-1921

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.

I am a pastor, a husband, a father, and a lover of Jesus. I am also an unpredictable blogger, who can go for several years without blogging a thing, and then inexplicably write a book. Perhaps this is one of those times.

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