My wife and I are attending our denomination's national assembly in Orlando this week. Last night, we went to a retirement party for one of her mentors. As a group of ministers tends to do, they concluded by gathering around, laying their hands on, and offering him a prayer of blessing. Then the group spontaneously broke out into a round of song that went on for a few minutes. It was both beautiful and touching.
The wait staff, however, wasn’t quite sure how to take it.
"Wow," one bartender said, "that's amazing. You guys can all really sing."
Amy just smiled.
“That's church," she said.
I'm not entirely proud of this, but I am man enough to admit Amy and I also are big fans of the reality show American Idol. For the two people reading this who don't know what that is, it's a singing competition. Every year, among the two dozen-or-so finalists, of at least half of them credit growing up and singing in the church for their gifts.
There was a time when the church was considered to be the central curator of the community’s cultural identity. The architecture, stained glass, music, and other artifacts represented the values of the culture, both spiritual and aesthetic.
But a couple of things happened. First, our communities began to disperse, to mobilize and spread out. The idea of a town square in local community gave way to interstate highway systems. We became more independence-minded and ventured out away from our families of origin. As such, the hub that was the community church became less and less central to daily social life.
In addition, our relationship to art has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Whereas artists previously served the prophets, storytellers, and bellwethers of cultural identity and sentiment, they have been reduced in many cases to purveyors of entertainment, a commodity used to distract us from the stress and complexity of daily life, rather than grabbing us on a visceral level and challenging us to dig deeper within ourselves.
The local church tried in some ways to keep up with this trend — contemporary worship being a perfect example. This is not to say that all nontraditional styles of worship lack sincerity or value. But in incorporating the styles of a culture that has commoditized art, we have reduced worship in some cases to little more than entertainment, with the offering plate serving as the price of admission.
There are communities of faith who are yearning to reclaim the experience of sacredness. They're serving as incubators: for artists, for galleries, and even for centers of creative education and expression for those who mistakenly feel they lack the skill necessary to express themselves through art.
But for the church to become once again a curator and incubator of the culture’s artistic identity and voice, it first has to reorient both the artists and those they engage toward an experience of the art that demands something of us — while also making room in our busy, chaotic lives for the in-breaking of the sacred.
On the other hand, if church continues to adopt cultural trends for the sake of attraction, rather than holding some value in this set apart nature of sanctuary, we stands little chance when going head-to-head with a multi-billion-dollar corporate entertainment machine.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bibleand Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.