I spent a good part of the workday engaged in an online conference called The Nines. The subheading, Culture Crash: When Church and Culture Collide, gave a good indicator of the topics of
conversation that the organizers planned.
I’ve participated in this online event in years past, and it’s been a positive experience. Essentially, it’s a group of evangelical “names” talking to each other, about each other and about the church – specifically, leadership in the evangelical church. The bulk of the content is delivered in short, nine-ish minute prerecorded video segments by folks who are generally considered to be current ministry successes; the folks who are doing it right.
So we heard today from several mega church pastors; we heard from a few folks who are doing things well. There were women (but not too many). There were a lot of inside jokes and an abundance of beards.
I engaged online primarily because of the topic; as the culture around us changes (as they are wont to do), a church like ours has to pay attention. We have to respond; it is essential. Why?
The point of focus of our church is to reach people who are turned off by the traditional churches available to them, and we do so by leaning hard into authenticity and brokenness. We try to meet people where they are, and then walk with them to where they need to be; from disease to wholeness, from dysfunction to relational health, from confusion to clarity. We believe in Jesus and we believe in the power of God; we are connected to the historical doctrine and creeds of the Christian faith, and impacted and influenced by the very real transformational power and experiences we see in our community. We believe everybody is broken.
So broken people show up at our church, which is what we want. And we welcome them with arms wide open, and it gets messy, and sometimes it goes sideways. But overall, we cling – sometimes desperately – to the hope we have in the kind, generous grace of Jesus, and broken things become whole.
But the conversation is changing, in regards to how we frame what is broken and what is not. Cultural views on sexual ethics and relative truth morph as the world speeds up and technology changes and generations ebb and flow. The Nines sought, ostensibly, to have a conversation that mattered about such things.
And, to some degree, they succeeded. They gave airtime to an atheist, who presented a valuable and insightful perspective from outside of the evangelical Christian bubble looking in. They talked about LGBTQ issues (although, to their discredit, they only talked about rather than with). Christian civility got a lot of air time (because Lord knows, that’s not really something Christians are known for). Tomorrow’s agenda includes social justice, immigration, and changing sexual norms.
At least they – we – are talking. The church and current western culture is colliding, and people are being hurt. We do not have all the answers, and it is simply not enough to say, “Well, Jesus IS the answer!” because, quite frankly, it’s not working. People walk away and I’m not enough of a Calvinist to think that we are off the hook when they do so because we aren’t willing to hold up our end of the conversation.
At least we are talking.
/ / /
With crashing cultures coursing through my thoughts, as the workday ended I got ready for the satisfaction of a birthday promise I’d made to my youngest daughter, the theater student. I’ve heard tons of great press about The Book of Mormon – lots of awards, lots of positive comments. I saw it was coming to Richmond last spring; tickets weren’t available in July, but I promised Syd I’d take her as a birthday gift. Between her schedule and mine, we were thrilled to discover – at the last minute – that we could make opening night tonight. Yesterday, I bought tickets for Syd, me and my mom – carefully choosing not to invite my mother-in-law, as I had heard that the show might be a tiny bit offensive.
Some of you, familiar with the show, might be laughing right now. At the least, you are rolling your eyes and smirking.
Incredibly entertaining, very funny and powerfully produced, The Book of Mormon is, without a doubt, the most offensive, vulgar production I’ve ever seen.
The fourth musical number has a made-up, tribal language title that is translated in the course of the song. It means (supposedly), “F**k you, God”, and is used by the Uganda villagers to relate the despair of their circumstances. The phrase is repeated.
Mormon prophets are mocked, as is Jesus, who has LED lights in his robe and calls Elder Price a d*ck in a dream sequence.
The crisis of faith encountered by the lead character reveals a perspective on belief – especially the more fantastical, supernatural parts – that makes it all seem utterly ridiculous.
The entire show mocks faith in general, not just Mormons.
And there were mock penises and F-words galore and and a few other choice expletives; all sung in perfect harmony with great dance moves.
Now, one might ask just what the heck I was doing there, as someone who serves as a pastor and leader at a Christian church. Quite honestly, I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew it was a little risque – but I had no idea (frankly, I didn’t even know you could do stuff like that on a public stage!)
But here’s the deal; as I sat and watched – and found myself offended and slightly uncomfortable – I decided to let the story unfurl. I laughed, because some parts were really, really funny. I considered the immense talent on the stage. I empathized with the loss of innocence of Elder Price, who really thought that Heavenly Father would grant him his desire to serve his mission in the most perfect place in the universe: Orlando. And I looked for some truth and grace.
And as the tale unfolded, I saw it. Clearly connected to the monologues and conversations of the earlier evangelical conference I participated in:
This is the culture we live in.
It’s a world that sees little value in the church. It’s a world desensitized to vulgar language and sexual references. It’s a world that doesn’t shy away from mocking people revered by others.
And yet it’s a world that can laugh at itself while clinging to a little bit of hope that we could and should be nicer to one another.
A world that knows that acceptance has to be found inside of ourselves
A world that recognizes that not everything is what it seems, but that sometimes it’s worth it to push on through.
A world that recognizes the immense power of partnerships and community.
I could have done without the F-words. The fourth song quite literally, seriously hurt my heart and – to use old religious parlance – grieved my soul. I was offended by the vulgarity.
But the story rang true and clear.
We walked out of the theater and headed towards the parking garage. Right across the street, where the drummers always play, stood eight young men.
Black pants. White shirts and ties. Name badges.
At first glance, I thought they’d walked off the stage in costume and out into the street.
But they were the real deal; they were Mormons, on mission, and they were engaging with folks coming out of the theater. They were smiling. They were complimentary of the talent on the show and the commitment of the creators.
“Read the book,” he said. “It’s even better. And it’s really true.”
I wasn’t up for that discussion, but I walked away impressed. When church and culture collide, we can condemn it, talk about it, or get up in disgust and walk out (a consideration during that fourth musical number, I confess.)
Or we can witness the ever-glorious beauty of our frail humanity as we struggle to make sense out of all that is broken in us and around us, and rejoice for the bits of grace that leak out.
And then wait on the corner for the chance to talk through it, with anyone who’s got an ear to hear, who might want to wade towards clarity with a friendly face.
We are all more connected than we realized; when we collide, it might feel rough, but it can always be a good thing if we look for the light. Collisions always result in bruises and bumps. but I do believe that we are compelled to get up, shake it off and keep moving forward. That’s where grace gets to live.