The Sharknado Church

After my recent blog post on zombie churches, the Crusty Old Dean rightly pointed out over on Twitter (where I hope you’ll follow me) that zombies are so 2012. The COD challenged me, nay, triple-dog dared me to write a post about sharknado churches. As everyone knows, one cannot refuse a double-dog dare, let along a triple-dog dare. Since we’re in the midst of Shark Week, it seems meet and right to say a few words about sharknado churches. I am indebted to an anonymous friend (who lives in a place where the sharknado threat is as real as it gets) for some insights here.

sharknadoIn the unlikely event you are one of six people in the universe unfamiliar with sharknadoes, the concept is simple: A tornado full of sharks. As a plot device for a campy b-movie, it’s perfect. We’re afraid of tornadoes! We’re afraid of sharks! The sharknado twists several of our fears into one giant tower of terror, including our quite sensible fear of bad acting and terrible screenplays. On TV, sharknadoes can be delightfully entertaining. But there is another dimension here, underneath all the silliness.

Zombie movies and cultural atrocities such as Sharknado are popular now because they are Hollywood’s way of answering our culture of fear. There are loads of cultural studies on how films and television reflect the hopes, fears, anxieties, and joys of society. In an era in which we are so afraid that we’ve surrendered any notion of privacy to secret government courts and in which we put up with humiliating searches for the sake of security theatre, it’s easy to see why Hollywood would both celebrate and mock our fears. So last year it was zombies. This year it’s sharknadoes. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict next year’s meme will involve robots.

Anyway, as usual, I have digressed. The point of this blog post is to make an edifying connection between sharknadoes and church. It’s actually not hard to do. Despite the fact that Jesus said, again and again, “Do not be afraid,” the church is gripped by fear. We create one giant fearball after another. Witness the endless hand-wringing about whether or not “young people” will come to church, stay in church, or leave church. Witness the fearful fights over, say, arcane government policy issues while we refuse to engage in transformational discussions about our life together in Christ. Witness the fear of change, which gets down to the bizarre desire to avoid moving any furniture, ending any church activity, or starting any new ministries. Witness the strange ways the church grabs onto every blowing wind of cultural currency, hoping desperately to be relevant. Corporations are doing strategic plans, we should too! People are listening to a certain kind of music, we should play that! Consumerism is taking hold, let’s make ourselves into a browsable commodity! People like to be amused, let’s be entertaining! Everyone is busy, so let’s squeeze the entirety of our Christian commitment into one hour a week!

We often try too hard. We become gripped by fear, and we sacrifice the point of church in order to make it convenient or easy. Of course, if one reads the actual Gospels, one is confronted with a faith that is not easy at all, and there is nothing “approachable” about following Jesus. Sell all that you have! Go, and sin no more! Take up your cross! Give up your life! Put that in your “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” pipe and smoke it.

So maybe while we are laughing at the ridiculousness of the sharknado, we should take a good, hard look around our church. Maybe we can see that the refusal to change, to grow, to risk, and even to die is every bit as laughable as sharks flying through the air.

Jesus kept going on about fear, and how we should’t have it, for a reason. Jesus knew his followers, as human beings, would be consumed by fear left to their own devices. Jesus knows that we too will be eaten by fear, if not by flying sharks, without him. Do not be afaid! Words, literally, to live by. Or to die by.

Here’s some reality:

  • The Episcopal Church and other denominations will get much smaller.
  • Committees will end.
  • Clergy will lose their jobs.
  • Beloved ministries will go away.
  • Diocesan and churchwide staffs are about to shrink, if not by design, then by constrained resources.
  • General Convention is about to get a radical overhaul, like it or not.
  • Loads of church buildings are about to be closed and sold.
  • Congregations whose identity is rooted in “we are a family” are doomed.

But here is some more reality:

  • If we can let go of our brittle institutional insecurity, the church (as an actual church) is poised to thrive.
  • Committees are so 1950. We can get stuff done these days on Facebook.
  • We don’t need to have full-time paid clergy to have thriving congregations.
  • There is a whole world of new ministries waiting to be undertaken.
  • The early church did not have any program staff, and they did fine.
  • A church does not need a building.
  • In dying to our old selves, we find eternal life.
  • Jesus Christ is ready to transform our hearts, our lives, and the world itself, if we are open.

So laugh at Hollywood gimmicks. Then look around the fear-filled church. If the sharknado was defeated by bombs thrown by helicopters, how we do conquer fear in our congregations? Fortunately, I do not think we’ll need either helicopters or bombs. (If you want a more thoughtul approach to all this, the kind of blog post that wasn’t based on a dare to write about the “sharknado church,” go read Ed Watson’s excellent piece on numbers and decline.)

Meanwhile, I end with two lines. One is from the canon of sharknado, and the other is from Jesus. We need to hear both of them.

We can’t just wait here for sharks to rain down on us.

Do not be afraid.

10 Comments so far

  1. Lois Keen on August 9th, 2013

    Brilliant! I also liked the Zombie Apocalypse post as well, but then, I was one of those six who didn’t know what a Sharknado is until I read this post. You are very funny. And what you say is 100% true. Thank you.

  2. Gary Goldacker on August 9th, 2013

    Next, you’re going to take on the “early” service for people who just want to worship quietly and privately in their special pew without being bothered by music, children, strangers, etc!, Even if the congregation has an ASA of 50 or less!

  3. Nicole Porter on August 9th, 2013

    The real issues will start when you have an influx of clergy retiring. These seminarians better have another skill set.

  4. Michael Russell on August 9th, 2013

    For me the sharknado is more about the turbulence caused by our combined anxiety. It swirls above our parishes, diocese and TEC as a whole. Because we measure everything against the incredible livelieness of the 1950s and early 60s we see sharks where it might actually be carp.

    Pick nearly any moment in Christian history and the same sort of anxieties expressed themselves. Christianity has gone through periods of expansion, collapse and disinterest. And in every age the bewailing has been pretty similar. We are not at a unique moment in history even to the point of doing what all those previous generations did…..find someone to blame.

    As participating numbers have dwindled in the English Church parishes have adapted to become mixtures of worship, community service, the arts and museums. Perhaps their leaders are all perseverating over numbers like we are, but there is a vitality around many of the London parishes that comes from them immersing themseves in the community life right at their front door.

    Becoming centers of other life giving activities may bring in partners who share in the upkeep of the building and free the people to do worship and service. The ABC may well have them all become credit unions!

    One of the various speakers on the circuit (perhaps Diana Butler Bass) commented that we can not have some other “time” back, this is our time and our moment. I for one wish we would stop the shambling in the pews dully moaning “numbers, feed me numbers” and engage people as the Advent Blessing booths and Ashes to Go have done. Find creative programs and publicize them.

    And just to get a more Zomber note in. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a Zombie Apocalypse panel while working at Comic Con in July. Several of the writers said that the stories were not about what Zombies represented but about what the supposedly living people did in the face of the Apocalypse. The depressing part was that in most such stories people revert to a Hobbesian sort of world, killing other living people to protect what resources they had scrounged.

    So too for us, the Zombies are there, but what matters is what WE do. And what we have done too much of is to moan about the Zombies being there instead of building where and how we can without becoming a different sort of “Walking Dead”.

  5. Nicole Porter on August 9th, 2013

    I think it’s a bit disingenuous to act as if numbers don’t matter. Without people, there is no church. And I think that having our heads in the sand about this dire situation is part of the problem. It’s high time someone told the truth.

  6. Chrisc on August 10th, 2013

    Check! Check! And triple check! Realities we need.

  7. Skip on August 10th, 2013

    Absolutely brillant as Lois wrote. I love your posts. They always keep me thinking. Keep them up.

  8. Lecia Brannon on August 10th, 2013

    I read with interest your Zombie and Sharknado posts. I was also taken with your comments Scott at the Episcopal Communicator’s conference in April that “the dead should bury their dead.” These powerful words and thoughts have been on my mind since then. I wonder where that leaves seminarians who are still being educated and trained in schools that are trying to keep up? I am one of those seminary students. I do have other skills sets and am not unaware that there are even more I will need to cultivate in order to serve the Church. Where will I fit in? As Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.”

  9. Nicole Porter on August 10th, 2013

    When I mentioned skill sets, I mean skills in which to earn a living, because the gravy train is about to run off the tracks.

  10. The Rev. Dr. Michael Tessman on August 12th, 2013

    If Zombies are “so 2012″ then much of the present fear-mongering is “so 1920-30s” – reprising the concerns about which the Rev. Roland Allen wrote so eloquently, correctly diagnosing the fundamental problem of “established church” (whether de jure, as in the CofE, or de facto, as in the Episcopal church’s pretentious claim to the “national” cathedral and by extension, the “national” church).

    Dis-establishing the church, in whatever form (Cf. writings of Douglas John Hall) will go far in realigning Christian life and church culture to Christ-centredness, having for so long been maligned by clergy-centredness and institutional survivalism.

    One mark of such dis-establishment can occur if
    our congregations are assessed on (or “donate” to) the municipal tax rolls. Like “non-profit” universities, we should help foot some of the “community’s” bills, rather than being treated like just another “charity” (and a rather poorly performing one at that)! Imagine what this would do to parish budgets? We might be viewed more respectfully by the society we inhabit; taken more seriously! Jesus was eloquent on the subject of using “unrighteous mammon” for greater good.

    As for clergy, I recommend reading Hans Kung’s early (short) book, Why Priests? and the recent Gary Wills’ (long) volume by the same title (yet without any acknowledgment of Kung) as primers in reforming a misnomer(ed) ministry. The Episcopal church’s clergy-centrism will die a hard death unless we do!