Boring is a Deadly Sin
There is a lot of ambivalence about the church these days. Young people, in particular, seem to be relentlessly sliding into either the “spiritual but not religious,” or the “no to church, yes to Jesus” crowd. But I suspect that even graying Christians who’ve spent a lifetime in church wonder some Sundays whether the trek to the sanctuary really matters all that much.
Researchers pin a lot of the blame on the hypocrisy and scandals that have plagued the church. Indeed, the evidence has often been damning. But frankly, most churches have no scandals or skeletons, align their activities in some reasonable relationship to their beliefs, and make an effort to do good, be welcoming, and care for one another. Anti-institutional attitudes may be a culprit, and it is true that all things institutional get a bad rap these days. But people still do participate in institutions that seem relevant, joyful, and fulfilling, even with their inherent flaws and limitations. So that can’t be the whole story either.
We hear a lot, of course, about churches being too linked to right wing politics, too judgmental, too excluding. And while there are plenty of churches that fit this profile, there are plenty that don’t. At some point, people who are excited by the message that “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here,” will begin to ask, “now that I’m here, what have you got?” For those who have experienced harsh rejection, an extravagant welcome may sustain engagement for a long time. But even for them, a seat at the table begins to feel pointless when there’s not much on the plate.
Since the days of Ulrich Zwingli a broad swath of Protestantism has relied almost exclusively on words to convey the richness of the Gospel. So much so that many Protestant services have devolved to little more than a few preliminaries, a sermon, and some closing exercises. This is obviously a rather perilous approach, dependent both on the quality of the preacher and the enduring power of words to move us into the realm of the Word. A serviceable preacher may have sufficed in the years of my childhood when church attendance was the cultural norm. Today something more compelling – intellectually, spiritually, emotionally – is required. And even a very good preacher finds herself having to appeal to an audience at once addicted to words yet sated at the same time with their constant electronic intrusion.
Could it be that church has just become boring? Are we increasingly finding ourselves like seven year olds, wondering why we’re sitting there, only to discover that there are no parents around to keep us in the pew? The radical Jesus who speaks of a transformed world may attract. The Good Samaritan Gospel may appeal. But how does this relate to the actual experience of church? Just because the ethical trajectory of the Jesus story continues to be compelling to folk doesn’t automatically translate to “I want to be in a worshiping community on Sunday morning.”
The critics of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd can and do make strong arguments for the continued importance of the faith community as an essential element of our spiritual lives. And, of course, no one would know anything about this appealing prophet named Jesus if there hadn’t been a church to sustain the Jesus tradition across the centuries. But these arguments may not do much to sway the person who is weighing a morning in the pews against a morning at brunch.
It may well be that our real problem is spiritual, emotional, and intellectual boredom with church. And the culprit may in significant measure be our radical Protestant sensibility that has staked everything on words and very little on the varied elements of ritual. It’s not a need to be entertained, but a need to be engaged, and in our age of shortened attention spans listening, after a while, just gets boring if it is not balanced by engaging practice: Music that evokes our joy, fear, pain and hope; prayers that touch mystery; silence that allows for presence; sacrament that offers the tangibles of taste, aroma, and touch; art whose color, texture, and imagery surrounds us with beauty; testimony that inspires; and sermons that do more than merely educate, but invite and compel. Worship leaders must aspire to more than a “nice sermon, pastor,” at the door. They should want to hear, “Surely God was in this place!” If we leave church week after week without ever coming close to that experience, it will be tempting to find another place.
None of this requires invention. It’s all there already in the rich traditions of the church catholic, gifts ready to be opened from across time and cultures. What it does require is disciplined practice, careful planning, diligent rehearsal, and the ability to put it all together in a coherent movement. Above all, it requires a rethinking of our singular reliance on and sense of sufficiency in the spoken word of the sermon (without ever demeaning the importance of that spoken word).
I’m under no illusions here. The “rise of the Nones” is going to be around for a while. Church pews are not going to be filled to standing room only. Alternative practices will continue to engage many who find church arid and static. But those who do come ought to be entitled, if not every Sunday, then at least more than occasionally, to the surprising presence of God in our midst. We all know boring is a bad strategy. We should also sense that it is a deadly sin.
John H. Thomas
July 24, 2014