Author and theologian Diana Butler Bass shared a video recently about what she saw for the future of the church. She shared an interesting story about a priest who went out onto a busy street corner on Ash Wednesday in full vestments to offer ashes and a quick prayer to passersby.
Several people stopped with surprise, having forgotten that it was Ash Wednesday. They were grateful for the “interrupt” the priest provided by appearing out of his normal context in worship. Had he not done so, they might have gone through the entire day never realizing it was a holy day on the Christian calendar.
I talk to folks a lot about what role the church should have in contemporary life in serving people. There’s the trend of “third space” ministry, getting out of the four walls of the church building and meeting people in different, typically “secular” contexts.
One defining trait of postmodern life is the blurring of previous boundaries. Just like work now can go with us beyond the cubicle, people think about faith in different terms than just sitting in a sanctuary on Sunday morning. There are entire ministries that do all of their work online, broadcasting services, or recording them for people to view on demand. There are blogs (like mine) whose authors consider what they do to be a ministry, though not in the typical sense of the word.
Then I read an article online today about a church offering drive-thru prayer services on Friday. Basically you pull up, they pray for or with you about whatever you request, and you’re back on your way. Kinda like Burger King, but in this case you get to have religion your way instead of a Whopper. It made me think of another ministry in Florida I learned about last year that has converted a drive-in movie theater into a worship space. This is no joke; you pull into a space, tune your radio to the designated frequency and get your dose of the holy ghost from behind your steering wheel.
Please turn off your engines during Pentecost, however, as the tongues of fire can be hazardous around combustion engines.
All church nerd humor aside, these kinds of approaches to ministry beg the question: are we helping or hurting by doing things differently? Are we providing a necessary “interrupt” to remind folks to keep worship and connection with God as part of daily life, or are we pandering to the cultural norm that tells us that it’s all about you?
My sense is that nothing done in the spirit of service to one another and in an effort to truly connect with people, and to help them connect with God, is inherently bad. It may make some folks uncomfortable and it may seem gimmicky to others. But there is nowhere in the Bible that says “thou shalt worship only on Sundays in a dusty old cathedral.” That notion of propriety is a human construct – a cultural tradition that has, in many ways, become the very thing we worship rather than God.
Even Jesus challenged the notion of holding on too tightly to institutional religion. Don’t make this your God, he said, because the day will come when all of this will crumble around you. Then where will your faith be?
That said, there’s the risk of feeding an already epidemic sense of narcissism which is counter to Jesus’ gospel message. Christ calls us to get over ourselves, placing God and others first, but how can we do that if we’re simply fitting faith in between a stop for a vanilla latte and the next tank of gas? There’s something to be said for intentionally setting time and space aside for silence, reflection, study and renewal. Though a worship service from my car or a quick prayer through the driver-side window may offer a nice little bump, it’s a poor substitute for the discipline of worship.
I know, discipline is a four-letter word in today’s culture of instant gratification. We want shoes that build up our calves while we walk around the house, a workout regimen that gives us washboard abs in less than seven minutes and a diet based centrally on the idea of eating chocolate. We want the results without the discipline, and if faith leaders succumb to this trend, replacing spiritual discipline with these new approaches rather than considering them simply an entry point into something deeper, then they’re simply peddling the next quick-fix product in an effort to try and stay relevant.
Finally, there’s the matter of community. Yes, some spiritual practices are best done alone. Even Jesus retreated into solitude at times to pray and refocus himself and his ministry. But ultimately, the Christian faith emphasizes putting “we” ahead of “I,” and it helps us learn how to share one another’s lives in a way that eases the hardship while multiplying the joys.
In some ways, we’re more interconnected than ever before in history. Yet research shows that, despite our virtual social fabric, we’re spiraling into epidemic levels of loneliness. I don’t know about you, but I see God best in other people. And how will I ever know if they might possibly see a similar spark in me if I never get out of the car or out from behind the computer to let them see for themselves?
Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting —set to hit book stores everywhere on April 1, 2012.
Drive Thru, iQoncept / Shutterstock.com