Here’s a shocking news flash: my boss at the Cathedral and I disagree about things. Shock! Horror! We disagree about things, and we go ahead with life and serving God, and he doesn’t try to stifle me, and I don’t try to undermine him. And as far as I’m concerned, we get along fine.
So I don’t take it for granted that we’ll agree about sermons or liturgy or theology or church life. And when it happens that we do agree, when he knocks it for six, it’s not just cosy log-rolling for me to affirm his point. This morning, Kelvin says what great many people won’t: that excellence and forethought and diligence and attention really do make a tremendous difference in church vitality. If people don’t bother coming to church, it may be that church is giving them no reason to attend.
Now, that requires a few further clarifications. If you love Jesus all the way, you understand that we go to church not just because the choir is good or the preacher is wise or the worship raises your spirits to new heights; we go to church because it’s by faithful participation in the Body of Christ that we renew our sense of who we are, and of what we’re doing here — and by our participation, we encourage others to recognise themselves and their own callings. And there are some circumstances that call for us to withdraw from expressing our commitment to God in church gatherings, but those occasions are always fewer than our moodiness and self-interest incline us to think. So I’m not saying, and I don’t think Kelvin is saying, that the principal reason for going to church is or should be, to appreciate the exquisite production values of a Sunday-morning show of ecclesiastical proficiency.
But if we grant that the Spirit longs for us to draw near with sisters and brothers, and together to bear witness to the truth in ritual and song and speech, we ought every bit as much to acknowledge that it’s fully possible for us to put obstacles between people and the Spirit. Our behaviour — insufferably posh, or self-consciously folksy, or toxically partisan, or explicitly exclusivist, or whatever — can chase people away. Our disregard for our social environment can make it hard for people to get to our threshold (much less to cross it). Our neglect of our own capacities can tempt us to push beyond the bounds of competence into the miasmic swamps of (unaware) mediocrity. Our churches can be positively, effectually repulsive to people, and saying, ‘I guess it’s just the Holy Spirit’s will that they not come’ or ‘It’s just not realistic to expect these people to appreciate…’ or ‘Maybe this new technique will…’ misses a great proportion of the point.
As many of my readers have heard me say before, we don’t hear Bruce Springsteen saying ‘Guess the Holy Spirit doesn’t want people to come to this show’, or ‘It’s just not meant to be’. Springsteen doesn’t implore people to ‘bring a friend to Springsteen’ in order for people to find out that his concerts aren’t as unpleasant as everyone assumes they are. The E Street Band doesn’t hold committee meetings to figure out how to put bums in the pews. The terrific (and long!) profile of Springsteen and the band in the New Yorker underscores the point that being Springsteen is very hard work. Genious, of a kind, but damned hard-working genius, costly, painstaking, and unrelenting. And folks who spurn anything that smacks of ‘performance’ in their worship may roll their eyes (theatrically), but very few congregations work anywhere nearly that hard, that carefully, that thoughtfully, that energetically at raising a joyful sound unto the Lord.
So at the convergence of Kelvin and Bruce… (I’m pausing to let the imagination of that conjunction blossom in your minds)… at the convergence to my boss and The Boss, I propose some hard lessons about church life. One, if your aren’t trying your very hardest, then don’t blame God or the people or the organ or the organist or the choir or the lack of a parking lot or the building or the stifling liturgical tradition or your bishop or synod or presbytery or fellowship or any other person or entity. Start with yourself, demand the utmost of yourself, if for no other reason than that angels and archangels and all the company of heaven are always present, and if your cack-handed liturgical observance and half-baked sermon and torturous musical offering affront those who are always present in the Spirit, then you have no business imagining that those who have the option of skipping out in the flesh will not avail themselves of that opportunity.
Two, if you sense in your circumstances particular limitations — if you know yourself not to be a competent preacher, or if the leadership of the musical element in your worship falls short of pitch-positive, or if the building reverberates, has no sightlines, drops bricks on congregants’ heads once a month, find some way to work with or around those circumstances. Don’t repeat the Charge of the Light Brigade week after week; you don’t have five thousand souls to squander. And by all means don’t pretend there’s no problem, nor spend all day apologising. Grace and humility and imagination and thoughtfulness go a lot further than sheer bloody-minded determination. (Unless ‘determination’ is your spiritual gift, but maybe be sure that’s really the gift rather than a curse.) Kelvin’s column foregrounds ‘cathedrals’, but no one expects a rural parish to reflect all the many dimensions of excellence that a cathedral may; instead, cultivating small excellences, modest beauties, focused brilliances. Here’s a tip: the heart of the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer has served for hundreds of years, in staggeringly diverse cultures; do you really think you’re a better writer? Is your bright idea really that much more relevant, truthful, illuminating than what has been handed down to you? (Obviously non-Episcopal congregations will have different resources for worship, but the premise is the same: get over yourself. You don’t write better drama than Shakespeare, you don’t write better hymnody than Wesley(s), you don’t know Jesus better than the evangelists, and so on.) Small, limited congregations have the opportunity to flourish in ways different from cathedrals — but some modes of excellence will always be available to you. If nothing else comes to mind, try improving yourself, your worship leadership, your preaching, because you can always improve.
Three, encourage excellence where you find it without stirring up needless, empty conflict over ego, turf, credit. If you don’t know, through and through, that positive worship arises from cooperation and teamwork on the part of every participant, you probably don’t adequately understand what’s going on. The more you give away, the more thankful you are for everyone else, the more freely people can size up your contribution. If they join you in applauding the choir, the organist, the office administrator, the ushers, and acolytes, and Altar Guild, the flower arrangers, and the sexton, but it never occurs to anyone to applaud you, there may be a lesson in that.
Four — it is, from beginning to end, a matter of serving God. If you lost sight of that, you’re asking for the demons of egotism, laziness, prejudice, insularity, and narcissism to move in, and your latter state will be worse than the first.
And if hard work, collaboration, selflessness, and thoughtful openness seem unreasonably onerous to you — then I invite you to blame God, and the rest of us will draw our own conclusions.