You may have run into this YouTube video already. It has certainly been making the rounds. It’s a parody of the service formats of the high end Christian Churches, the ones many of us have secretly admired and envied because of the production values (read $) they can bring to bear. I have a few comments, but first check out the clip if you haven’t seen it.
Those of you who know me, know that I am a pretty strong advocate for good quality presentations. Religion and theatre are inseparable, and as such there are lots of theatrical techniques that can enhance the Sunday morning experience. It starts with leaders and preachers speaking clearly and keeping away from annoying habits that get in the way of people hearing them. It continues with making sure people know their responsibilities and executing them well, especially in the beloved rituals. It involves the sound system working properly and the hymns being played at a reasonable speed, etc etc.
Good technique enhances a message. It does not replace it or make up for a weak message.
So when the service bar can be raised with excellent music or powerful visual presentations, well so much the better
But what this parody challenges, and what bothers me just a little, is the victory of style over substance. I figure the folks who put so much effort into this slick clip have been disappointed by experiences where the message was lost in the devotion to style and self-promotion…when the preacher and the musicians and the service-leaders placed their performance high than their message. And yes, we have all seen that at one time or another. I probably have been guilty of it myself now and then.
Back when I was a seminarian sometime in the last century, I came across an idea from a long respected UU preacher who spoke of always being afraid every time he climbed into the pulpit. (Climbed: it was one of those high New England pulpits). It wasn’t that he feared mistakes or preaching badly. Rather he was afraid of allowing his own ego to get in the way of the divine spirit. If how much work I put into researching and writing my sermon, if the hours I spent rehearsing and adding cool visuals becomes more important than the chance for the congregation to make some kind of direct contact what that they value the most, then I am getting between them and the Most High and the sermon – or the service – or the ritual- is destined to fail.
This parody attacks those kinds of ego driven choices that place style over substance, that makes “I” more important than “Thou”.
(OK- that was a Martin Buber theological reference just to prove I went to school. It was about the proper relationship between God (in Buber’s world) and the human. Some UUs would choose a word other than God, but the importance of the relationship abides. The “I” is seldom the most important part, especially in Sunday Services.)
What leaves me sad, about this clip, is the idea that perhaps these folks can only see style and dismiss it, never taking the time to look for what might be there that is of value. Their criticism is no less empty that the people they mock.
Religious experience, spirituality or whatever way you prefer to describe it is NOT a consumable product. It’s not just given to us. We each must be a willing participant, bringing our strengths and our weaknesses, our grace and our sinfulness to the table. Contrary to the way many people see it, preaching is not a monologue. It is a series of dialogues happening between the speaker and every person who participates by listening, by responding within themselves and maybe in conversation later.
This Digital Age promises to bring changes to the way those experiences and those conversations happen, fine. But those kinds of interactions will need to happen no matter whether they take place in a church or a pub discussion group, or an on-line chat.
At its core, religion is about connection, about linking things together and about being in relationship with something more than “I”. There’s a lot of ways to do that, and no one is necessarily better than another, but without relationship, there is no real religion, no real spirituality.
PS Wrote and posted this from the Hong Kong airport on a lay over en route to Manila and the International Council of UU’s Council Meeting. Ain’t this Digital Age truly cool? BTW, the Illy stand her pours a perfect latte, complete with one of thise lovely little milky hearts drawn in the foam!