Wednesday, June 25, 2014

rethinking church

This past Sunday, for my solstice service, I had the largest audience at both boys' and girls' facilities that I've had at either before--seven at each--but I'm troubled. Two of the boys were--well, staff called them disrespectful, but I think it was more like I wasn't giving them what they expected or wanted. I'm not sure they could have articulated what either was, although both made references to "real church" and said things that smacked of traditional black worship: "Can the congregation give me an amen?" "I feel the spirit coming into me. I gotta preach." I don't think either wanted a more traditional worship service, although one asked me point-blank, "Why aren't you standing up and yelling?" becuase neither was a churchgoer in their lives outside, but that they were reacting to uncertainty by reaching for elements they had experienced.

The girls were more respectful, by which I mean more polite, but they were coloring or scribbling and occasionally chatting quietly to one another throughout the service, which wasn't distracting but did get me wondering what they were getting from those activities they were not getting from the service. (Possible answer for both: participation?) What this experience has led me to is a realization that my services need a major restructuring.

I've already reduced my order to one that is as listener-friendly and participatory as I thought necessary, but one that remains recognizable as a contemporary Christian or UU service: welcome, candle lighting, hymn, reading, message, silence for prayer or meditation, benediction (with the replacement of conversation for other prayers or hymns). On its own without dialogue the service lasts about twenty minutes, which is probably as long as I can expect any of them to sit as possible. But my point is it remains recognizable, which may be both a strength and a failure.

I've often advocated for a radical restructuring of service elements, and even with all my study and contemplation I still have a hard time imagining what that would look like without those basic elements. I've thought about replacing the message or the hymn or both with a mashup like I've done in the past, but I'm not entirely convinced it's worth the effort (although I already spend a couple hours writing my message and searching for an appropriate song and reading, so I don't think I'd be losing anything). But I'm also loathe to make another element that's just like watching TV. True, I can still have dialogue, and there would be more time for it if I reduced both the reading and message to a single three to four minute song. And true, my reading of Steven Johnson would suggest that my reaction against it being "just like watching TV" is heavily influenced by the culture and the generation I grew up in, and may not take their experiences with learning into account. After all, when I teach I use visuals to make a point or an idea better understood. Why should I assume that spiritual ideas can only be understood through words?

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