What does the American church have in common with the video Snowden on Ice? More than I wish it did.
Snowden on Ice has been in regular rotation on our video player for the last couple of weeks. It was produced over a decade ago by the Target department store chain, and features some of the major figure skating stars of the time, including Scott Hamilton, Kurt Browning and Ekaterina Gordeeva. My wife (the Supermodel) likes the skating and the music, my kids like the silly stuff and seeing the animated snowman, and I like the fact that it keeps the kids occupied and out of my hair for about an hour. It’s a win-win. But I did sit with my daughter and son on Christmas Eve to watch it all the way through, and I found something interesting.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a young woman (played by Gordeeva) who is returning after may years to the little Midwestern town where she grew up. (Or maybe Northeastern, possibly Canadian. They never really say, but the town is darn near snowbound and the social event of the year is an ice-skating festival, so we know it ain’t Arizona.) She and her daughter have been through some non-specific heartbreak and are coming back to lick their wounds. Figure skating routines ensue. The skating is well done, not surprising since the cast includes three or four Olympic medal winners, and Snowden the snowman is acceptably cute. It isn’t Dances with Wolves, but it’s mildly entertaining.
However, there’s one scene that blew a hole in the whole presentation. Gordeeva’s character is a children’s-book author, and she is reading her latest work to her daughter as a bedtime story. She’s supposed to be native to this little town in the Midwest (or wherever), remember. So she sits at the edge of her little girl’s bed, opens the book, and begins to read.
In her Russian accent.
Now I understand that Gordeeva is Russian (though she does live in Newport Beach now). But I don’t mean she spoke in a gentle Slavic burr. I’m talking A THICK JAMES-BOND-VILLAIN RUSSIAN ACCENT! You almost can’t understand what she’s saying. I mean, I remember Katarina Witt at the 1988 Winter Olympics when officials gave her a beer after her final performance so that she could produce a sample for the drug test. But being from East Germany, she’d been on a strict training regimen more or less from birth, and had literally never touched alcohol. The result was that they accidentally got her sloshed — right before her gold medal press conference. Witt then, bombed out of her mind and barely functional in English besides, was easier to understand than Gordeeva reading this silly story!
On one level it was hilarious. On another, cringeworthy; easily one of the worst casting choices ever. But most of all, it wrecked the basic premise of the “plot” — that Gordeeva was just a small-town North American girl. You weren’t going to buy it once you heard her speak. The illusion the producers were trying to created broke down the second she opened her mouth. And yet the show went on.
So what does this have to do with anything? Because the Christian church in America has the same problem — an illusion has broken down.
Elsewhere, I have written a piece entitled “A Call to Re-Examination” where I address this issue. The piece leads off with a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard:
I feel I was set here on earth to describe church services, and there’s something intrinsically hilarious about them. Often I have almost died in church in the effort to keep from laughing out loud … What’s so funny? The gap between what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do. The relationship between the incongruity of who we are and who we’re trying to move with our prayers. It’s a sort of dancing bear act.
That gap has only gotten larger in my 21 years as a Christian. So much of the Sunday services of American congregations is spent doing things that do little to further the purposes of those same congregations. The music is usually either painfully traditional and thus less accessible to those listening to it, or modern but with incredibly shallow theology and cranked up to aircraft-test-hangar decibel levels. Sermons are largely designed to be so basic that anyone can understand them (and are thus forgettable to people who have been believers for a long time), but at the same time are loaded with “church-speak” that is gobbledygook to anyone without church experience. Almost no time is given for interaction between the speaker and his/her audience, or between members of the audience — yet if someone stops attending these meetings, they are told they “need fellowship,” as if fellowship could be accomplished by staring at the back of somebody’s head while listening to someone else talk for an hour without a break.
This is why I’m nervous about embarking on the “congregational journey” I mentioned in my last post. I’m about to visit twelve places where the odds are good that all of the things in the last paragraph will be happening — and the people doing them will be arguing that this is God’s will for them and for the world. A view, I’m afraid, that the Bible they claim to follow largely contradicts. Thankfully, my job is to love them and look for chances to minister, not to show how tattered the illusion they’re projecting has become.
Look at when Jesus came to earth; what did He, God in the flesh, do? He gathered a small group of people and started talking to them, spending time with them, leading by word and by example. That was most of His ministry. Occasionally he’d speak to a large crowd, but even then people were allowed to pose questions, to ask Him for healing or other help, even to challenge Him on some point. (Try that in the average Sunday meeting today. Be prepared to tuck and roll when they throw you out.) But most of His impact came from interacting with a group of about twenty people — His twelve disciples, a few women who tagged along, some other folks who observed from the fringes or put Him up when he came to town. But from that, the world was changed.
Relationship is the key here. But where is there time for relationship in the activities of most American congregations? Jesus said the entire law of God could be edited down to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But how can we love God or our fellow church attenders when we don’t get the opportunity to interact with either? Easy — we can’t. Any wonder that according to every poll on the subject in the last two decades, there is no significant difference in the behavior of those who call theselves Christian and those who don’t?
And the rest of the world sees this. They see that the illusion of our “loving God” and “loving our neighbor” has broken down, that most people who label themselves Christians don’t do either. Above all else, I believe that is why churches are closing down, why not a single U.S. county in the 1990s showed an increase in church attendance, why people associate the words “born-again” with a political rather than a spiritual agenda. They recognize that whatever it is our Sunday meetings do, they don’t lend themselves a whole lot to knowing God or making Him known, regardless of what our “vision statements” say. And so they stay home and watch football. At least the football players are clearly pursuing the goals they claim to pursue. You can’t usually say that about the church on the corner.
What would happen in the American church if we just scrapped all our plans and all our liturgies tomorrow and just did the following things:
* Talking to God, believing that He is not only listening but that He will respond if we listen?
* Getting to know each other as people, not just as names on a church attendance roll?
* Actively seeking ways to help other people, without concerning ourselves too much with what it costs us?
* Trying to find out what God wants us to do, rather than what He can do for us?
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect we wouldn’t have to put up an illusion of how hard we were “working for the Lord” … because we’d be too busy living for Him. And I think people would be attracted to that, would start asking “why do you act the way you do?” and actually listen when we tell them we belong to God.
I’m reminded of the lyrics to a Randy Stonehill song, called “In Jesus’ Name”:
If He were all the world could see,
They’d be breaking down our door
For the life they hunger for …
They aren’t “breaking down our door,” I’d guess, because they don’t see Him in us when we do our Sunday-morning thing. It strikes me that we can do something about that.