BEING CHURCH IN A
STRANGE AND CHANGING WORLD
Charles N. Fulton III
Last year I was frequently asked to
speak about the changing culture of our country and the changing
context of ministry. I have made generalizations about generational
groups. I have said that the under-fifty population carefully chooses
membership, loyalty, and commitment. I have pointed out that the
majority of Babyboomers that dropped out of church have stayed out.
They did not expose their children to church, and now their children
are having children. I have challenged the "they will come back"
thinking of the church. Most haven't come back. And their children
cannot come back, because they have never been there before. If
they do come they will need infinitely more help and explanation
than a polite usher handing them a service bulletin. Some may or
may not know about Jesus. Some may or may not be aware of their
own spirituality. Some may or may not know what drew them to the
church for the first time or why we are inviting them.
Recently I heard friends tell of two
experiences that take these abstractions home. A friend of mine
visited her cousin's family. The cousin and her husband were beside
themselves with joy over the birth of their first grandchild. My
friend noticed a large portrait of the grandchild dressed in the
family baptismal gown used for five generations. My friend asked
her cousin where they went to church. Her cousin replied that they
haven't gone to church since the children were little. Surprised,
because the family had been Episcopalians for more generations than
they had been using the gown, my friend asked where they had the
baptism. Her cousin replied that they just took out the dress, put
it on the grandchild and had her picture taken.
Why are we still thinking that they
will be back to get the children "done"? The family in the story
has discovered the sacramental equivalent of throwing the baby out
with the bath water- throwing baptism out and keeping the gown and
It is easy to judge these people as
shallow. It is more difficult to see them as prospective members
of a faith community. How can the church reach such people? Obviously,
"Where do you go to church?" doesn't produce the result we hope
for. I suspect the more fertile ground is found around the new grandchild.
"What do you hope for this child?" "What are your worst fears for
this child?" It has long been true that one of the best ways to
reach parents is to minister to their children. Maybe it is also
true for grandparents and their grandchild.
What are we going to have to do to
reconnect with the grandparents and to connect with the children
and the grandchildren?
Tex Sample in his latest book, The
Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World, reminds us that worship "works
with the soul music of the people gathered." The soul music of a
people gathered is not merely tunes and lyrics the group prefers;
it resonates deep within them. He says, "Soul music is as deep as
muscle and bone, as intimate as feeling, and as close cognitively
as the way we know the world around us. The word soul, then, is
a good one because music of this kind is profoundly bound up with
one's being." To ridicule or put down another's soul music is a
Another friend told me of a family
she knows socially. The mother had told my friend before Christmas
that Christmas was when she misses her father most. Her fondest
memories are of her father at the piano, playing the traditional
carols and the family gathered around and singing with energy and
joy. Since her father's death her brother would play (he plays almost
like their father).
This year, however, the brother came
down with the flu and was not able to come over for the carol sing.
In desperation the mother suggested that they might go to church
for midnight services. Everyone agreed. The older son however was
out with friends on Christmas Eve and was to join the family at
the church. When he got to church (an Episcopal Church) his family
was not there; they had gone to the Congregational Church. He was
engaged by the lively singing of carols as he entered, so he decided
to stay even though his family was not there. He said he sang heartily.
When it came time for communion, he
asked the people next to him what to do. They thought he was putting
them on; they said that he knew the hymns and sang so well, that
surely he was a churchgoer. After insisting several times that he
has never been to an Episcopal Church before and that he didn't
know what to do, they explained how to receive communion. They told
him if he was baptized he was welcomed to receive. He didn't know
if he had been baptized, but decided to receive anyway. (When he
got home he asked his mother and he isn't baptized.) He said he
took the bread, but the cup looked like the flu waiting to happen
and he declined. My friend asked him what he thought of the service
and he said the carols were great but there was a lot of Jesus,
This story demonstrates the power of
"soul music" to engage the visitor. Note that Christmas carols were
this family's soul music. It is a mistake to assume that all church
music resonates as effectively with visitors. Soul music if often
generational as generations are becoming culturally distinct. Also,
unchurched people living in an increasingly post/pre-Christian culture
do not necessarily know what Jesus has to do with them.
What this story warns us is that we
need to be prepared to answer the questions of a truly unchurched
person who may be sitting next to us at the Eucharist. We no longer
can assume that the visitors know what Christianity is about. There
are generations out there that have not heard the gospel and dislike
typical church music. God has been part of their lives. It is up
to us to find out where and how.
The wacky therapist (played by Tracey
Ullman) on the TV sitcom Ally McBeal will have nothing to do with
a patient until the patient has revealed his/her song. The song
must be upbeat, moving, danceable, in other words, soul music. From
the therapist's view point all conversation is wasted until she
knows "your song."
Tex Sample often calls to mind the
Gospel of John, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Tex
translates the Greek for dwelt as literally "pitched tent" with
us. He does not imply that the church should pitch tent with every
practice in a culture, as some are clearly in violation of the faith.
But he also reminds us that, "the church is not captive to a range
of cultural practices from one culture that it imposes in a colonial
fashion on another culture because the church has come to identify
those as essential to the faith, when they are basically an expression
of pitching tent in another and quite different culture."
Sample continues, "Incarnation does
not mean that God joins the human story and becomes part of it.
Rather Incarnation is disclosure that the world is part of God's
story. The task is not, then, how we can get God into the picture.
It is rather how we understand our
picture in terms of God's greater picture." Our ministries might
be described as hearing and knowing the Word Jesus, becoming the
Word Jesus' flesh in the world, dwelling and pitching tent with
those who haven't heard the Word. For those who don't know the Word
Jesus, the order is reversed, being dwelt with, pitched tent with
by those who in their flesh embody the ways of Jesus, and finally
discovering that the Word Jesus is the source.