I was at a Christmas Eve service–just a few weeks ago–when I finally figured it out.
We were out of town for the holiday, and this was just another megachurch in another American metropolis, looking and feeling and sounding exactly like most of the other big evangelical churches we’ve seen in recent years, singing the same songs, reflecting a familiar suburban culture. There is much to enjoy about a service like this one, and much to appreciate about the feeling of familiarity, even while I am longing for a less generic feel, something that feels unscripted, a sense that this is a body of people who worship and reflect Christ in a unique way rather than a local franchise of Church, Incorporated. But what really bothered me most was something I have felt many times in recent years–a type of cognitive dissonance that has become familiar, yet time and again I have had trouble figuring out exactly what it was about. So I sat there, watching the pre-service announcements cycle in a well-timed presentation of slick graphics, tried to figure out what was bothering me, and simultaneously tried to ignore it and focus on the celebration at hand.
Then they started a video presentation with what has become a familiar theme: there is no perfect Christmas. Life and people are messy and the first Christmas was messy too. Jesus came to save messy people, and there’s no need to hide our mess from him or each other. A singer, wearing a sweater commercially and intentionally produced for ugly sweater contests, plus an earnest seasonal scarf, sang about the little ways we get on each other’s nerves. The attractive people around him smiled knowingly and nodded along, as if reassuring the rest of us that even they sometimes feel a little bummed out.
When the video was over, the lights came up and the band started playing and that’s when it hit me.
I looked around me at the lovely, polished surroundings and at the people on stage with their self-consciously casual appearance, and I recognized a serious incongruity between the message about mess and the elegant approach to church in this place (and many places like it). As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. And no matter how much we say we welcome people who stumble in, covered in the grit of real life, our actions suggest we don’t mean what we say. That was why I was so uncomfortable. Despite the welcoming words, everything about this service and my surroundings told me the people here wanted nothing to do with honest-to-goodness mess.
In some of our churches, many of which are ironically very focused on reaching out, we present a serious discrepancy between our talk about mess and authenticity, and our highly produced, highly polished services. Until the last 10 years, I’ve never heard so much talk in churches about being broken and authentic and bringing our true selves to God and to each other. And I’ve never seen so much emphasis on the decorations, design, production values, and all-around packaged quality of our buildings and services. I’ve never seen so much copycatting and suppression of both spontaneity and homegrown ministry.
We ought to be telling people they’re welcome to come as they are–assuming we mean it. At the same time, we ought to consider what kind of welcome we communicate when they get there. When we tell people there’s a place for them in our services, we contradict that message when we produce a high-tech, high-emotion service full of pageantry, which no true amateur could possibly pull off–and in which very few people actively participate. We tell people they matter to us, and we turn up the music so that every single voice in the congregation is drowned as if no one is even there. We carefully dress down to make ourselves approachable, then we hire layers and layers of staff to make sure few people actually get access. We talk about welcoming mess and imperfection, then we confess to only our own “charming messes”: sometimes we’re grumpy or the family argues on the way to church or sometimes the laundry piles up.
No wonder people so frequently tell me they feel they can’t talk to anyone at their church about what they’re really going through. They may be wrong–in many cases, they probably go to church with multiple people who can relate to their stories and would be honored to listen and to help as they can. But they have received the subtle message of our services: we put on a show around here. And they figure no one truly wants them to be real.
If we want people to believe us when we tell them it’s OK to be messy and real, we need to do more than say it. Our gatherings need to show it. That is, unless we don’t really mean it.
© 2017 Amy Simpson.