Four Weddings and a Church

In the evening in Montreal in our hotel, Chandler and I watch cable television when a promo piece comes on for a show called “Four Weddings.” Chandler says, “This is one of my favorite shows! We have to watch it.” Thinking it had to be better than the one we were watching – a show involving hidden cameras following unwitting people in order to critique their eccentric fashion choices – I agreed. For the next thirty minutes I got an exclusive look at one small corner of the church in its new disestablished state.

For the uninitiated, “Four Weddings” pits four brides in a competition, the winner of which receives an all-expenses paid “dream honeymoon.” Each bride’s wedding will be judged by the other three brides on such areas as venue, food, entertainment, and – yes! – the pastor (or other officiant). They rate the overall experience from one to ten, and the bride with the most points wins.

I will leave for now the distasteful – even creepy – spectacle of a ceremony that should be a celebration of love and joy among family and friends being opened to reality show cameras and a numbering system similar to the Olympics.

What most fascinated me were the specific criticisms of the various brides, particularly as they related to the “venue” (read “church”) and “officiant” (read “pastor”). Inevitably, if the wedding was happening in a more traditional setting, presided over by a pastor or priest, one or more of the brides would appear befuddled. “He was dressed like royalty,” sneered one bride about the priest in full vestments while the camera slowly panned up and down. About another pastor who was preaching from Galatians – “I had no idea what he was talking about – this is supposed to be about the couple, not whatever he was saying.”

On the other hand, pastors were praised who spent their time talking about the couple, sharing cute stories about how they met, personal quirks, and an occasional joke. These were celebrated as more hip because they understood the real meaning of the ceremony, narrowly defined as these two human beings and the love they feel for each other.

I asked Chandler, “Is this how they talk about all the pastors?”

“Pretty much,” she replied.

“What would you say the main complaint is about them?” I asked, knowing already I would not like what I heard.

“That they go on too long about stuff not related to the bride and groom. You know, too ‘preachy'”.

“Too preachy?! But they’re PREACHERS for God’s sake!” I was exasperated, and it was late, so I continued –

“This is nothing more than a celebration of narcissism. It is not all about the bride and groom, no matter what the “wedding machine” tries to tell you. They are in a church. They have a Christian pastor officiating the wedding. It should be a worship service. They should be focused on God. To focus on themselves alone is a rather small canvass, don’t you think, on which to paint their future. This is just selfishness. No telling how much they are paying for all this spectacle. They should spend less time planning the wedding and more time planning their marriage.”

I thought I made my point rather well, and waited, somewhat out of breath, for Chandler’s accolades and agreement.

“Well, duh, Dad. What do you expect them to be? Not everyone’s Presbyterian, you know. Most people aren’t even religious.”

The youth of our time are, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, more “sufficiently aware of conditions” in our post-Christendom era. I had traveled all the way to Montreal in order to experience and reflect on what the church might look like in a time when more and more people do not claim allegiance to any church, and my sixteen year old daughter became one of my primary teachers. She had reacted with more compassion, openness, and, yes, hospitality toward the children of God on the television screen than had I, and she opened a new understanding of hospitality with her simple question, “What do you expect them to be?”

If I expect them to be fully formed disciples of Jesus Christ and spend all my time sneering at those who are not while huddled with the like-minded behind the stained glass windows of the church, then those stained glass windows will slowly close in on me. Likewise, if I cater to the whims of a largely shallow and superficial culture in order to be “relevant” or, worse, “to grow a church,” then the power of gospel is diluted and the church ceases to be the church, becoming yet one more social club or special interest group that lives and dies by public opinion and polling.

But there is another way, beyond a self-imposed Christian ghetto or an anything goes capitulation.

The brides on the show (and the grooms hidden in the shadows) may not be aware of it, but they are beloved, and not just by their fianc├ęs and their families and friends. They are beloved by a God who created them, who pursues them, in spite of their selfishness, in spite of the brokenness which they share with us all, and who will never cease this loving pursuit. The longing they feel for this love is what lies deep within and behind all the flailing about on display in the frenetic search for “the perfect wedding.”

But they will not hear this word if it is spoken from high and haughty places. They will not hear it if it is spoken from a position of privilege, as if we alone have found the only proper way. They will only hear it if we can speak to them where they are, not where we want them to be, and speak a word of humility and authenticity.

This may be the biggest challenge facing the church in our time – how to engage a culture like the one exhibited on “Four Weddings” with an alternative word that acknowledges our common humanity while also calling us to go deeper.

I think this happens – albeit imperfectly – each time we open the doors wide and gather around font, table, and pulpit, proclaiming a God who did not stand at a distance from humanity, but came in Christ and suffered the cross for the sake of the whole broken beloved world. I hear the Lord saying to this pastor so prone to forgetting – “Now go and do likewise.”

A Sincere Word

Each day I visited with Douglas John Hall began with a journey from my hotel by bus about three miles south to the neighborhood of Notre Dame de Grace and then a short walk from the bus station. The first day, however, I decided to walk the three miles to and from the neighborhood. As I walked back to the hotel after my initial four hour conversation, my mind was filled with ideas, reactions, and…a song.

Billy Corgan, lead singer and songwriter for the Smashing Pumpkins, sings in my head as I walk-

“Time is never time at all.
You can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth.
And our lives are forever changed.
We will never be the same.
The more you change the less you feel.

Believe, believe in me, believe.
Believe that life can change
That you’re not stuck in vain.
We’re not the same,
We’re different tonight.”

When you think of Douglas John Hall, you don’t immediately think of the Smashing Pumpkins, a group formed in Chicago in the mid-1990s in the midst of the alternative rock and roll scene. Dr. Hall is a musician, and it can be argued he is alternative, but he is not an alternative musician. He began his college years training to be a classical pianist, and by all accounts he was quite good. All of his children are classical musicians, including a daughter who plays the violin professionally in Vienna, Austria. I doubt he has ever heard of the Smashing Pumpkins, and if he perhaps randomly paused on one of their songs while listening to the radio, I’m sure he consigned it to what he referred to me several times as the “noise” of modern music.

So why was I humming “Tonight, Tonight” as I sauntered past the cafes and boutiques of suburban Montreal? I first thought it might just be a random song I heard in a store, and was subconsciously playing it over and over. All of us get songs “stuck” that way in our heads. I walked, singing to myself until I was stopped short by a lyric buried in the finale of the song. The drums and bass are playing a perfect beat, the strings of the Chicago Philharmonic Symphony in the background build momentum, and Corgan sings about all the things that he will do “tonight,” the night “the impossible becomes possible” –

“We’ll crucify the insincere tonight, tonight.”

Of course. I just spent four hours with a sincerely faithful and truthful man; a person who, in the first conversation he had with this relative stranger, emanated the graciousness and integrity of the theology he has taught for over fifty years. It was challenging, frightening, and inspiring beyond words.

Douglas John Hall loves the church, but he believes the church in North America has forgotten how to tell time. We are standing at a moment when the church is losing or has lost much of its power and influence in western culture. The trends we saw happening in Europe fifty years ago and in Canada twenty-five years ago are now happening across the United States. We see it even in the southern United States, with a “church on every corner.” Dr. Hall and others I met while in Montreal all said the same thing in one way or another – “Welcome to the future.”

The church in Montreal – once a bastion of religion in Canada – is a tenth the size it once was. Over fifty cathedrals in Quebec have been sold and turned into museums or community centers. The vast majority of Canadians, especially among the young, do not profess any religion.

Douglas John Hall said to me over and over that what the church needs in this time of “disestablishment” is not another quick fix program, not more tinkering with worship styles in an effort to draw the disaffected in through entertainment, and certainly not a pining after “old time religion,” in an attempt to resurrect a time that is long gone. No, what is needed, and what he believes the people not only of this of of every land are waiting and longing to hear, is Gospel.

Religion may be dying, but faith will never die, and as long as we try to make sense out of our lives, to find purpose in our existence, then Christianity will have a word. The culture will no longer go for words that do not ring true, that do not spring from sincere hearts captured by Gospel. “Though they may seldom be able to articulate it, what the people in and around our churches are seeking is not just friendliness or communality or exhortation to moral improvement or a little blessed quietness in the midst of a world become ever noisier or the stirring displays of the rhetoric of American optimism or the assurance of ultimate happiness (heaven!), etc. etc. To be sure, some will snatch at anything that is well-advertised! But what the sensitive and the ‘quietly desperate,’ of whom the sagacious Thoreau spoke, both want and need is something far more radical than novelty and hype. They are waiting for gospel!”

What Hall is asking is not so far removed from what Billy Corgan envisions in his songwriting – that we “crucify the insincere” in ourselves, in our proclamation, in our church programming. He invites us to contemplate what a church might look like if it took as its first task the proclamation of gospel in a world hungry to hear it.

I think I understand why that Corgan song was looping in my head. I had just spent time with someone graciously challenging me not to fear the times we are moving into, but embrace them as a fresh opportunity for the church to be the church, which is to say, a community formed by the gospel, the Good News of God’s love, grace, and justice. To this pastor easily tempted by the hot new program offering “10 Steps to Revitalization” it was both humbling and deeply satisfying to hear a call for gospel.

When this sabbatical began, I thought I would spend most of my time analyzing statistics and listening to people describe what’s working in their congregations. What I have encountered every step of the way among the people I meet is remarkably consistent – the church of the future will be a church that speaks the sincere gospel that transcends all the categories we are so fond of in our culture. It will not be an “emergent” church or a “justice” church, a “liberal” church or a “conservative” church, an orthodox church or an evangelical church or a mainline church – it may not even be a denominational church! – no, what it will be, what it must be, is simply the church, the called-out people of God with nothing to offer but a word of good news for all the world.

Which begs the question – what is the gospel that lies at the center of who we are? That will have to wait for another post. But I’d love to hear what you think. What is the gospel we are called to proclaim?