Of gimmicks and Gospel

Too often, we decide that some gimmickry will make the church interesting. Whether it’s music styles, feel-good therapeutic preaching, or some other way of expressing “relevance” we think that these things will make us as interesting as all that glitters. While I do think the church needs to change to meet the needs of a changing world, we have to be careful that we are presenting ourselves in an authentic way. Gimmickry for its own sake is a mockery of the Gospel and makes the church less interesting, not more. The only compelling thing about the church is the Gospel. Let me say that again. The only compelling thing about the church is the Gospel.

This tension is not new.

As unbelievable as it sounds, I still hear people say, “We need new music to reach ‘the young people.'” Balderdash. Many if not most “young people” these days actually want transcendent worship with ancient music. Now, I have nothing against new music on its own terms. A guitar mass isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it works for lots of people. So if a guitar mass is an authentic expression of your community, it will be terrific. If Solemn Mass with all the trimmings are authentic for you, by all means do it. But trying to slap a coat of look-at-how-cool-we-are onto your authentic self won’t do.

Now, this time of year, I’m likely to be accused of sowing confusion on this topic, because I’m a proponent of Ashes to Go. How can this be? Isn’t it a gimmick? Depends on your perspective, I suppose. The chief complaint about Ashes to Go is that it is cheap, since you don’t have to go to an entire liturgy; one merely receives ashes in a public place. My sense is that in our culture, wearing ashes is costly. This is why Christians love to rationalize wiping them off pronto. Indeed, the Gospel for the day exhorts us to, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

ash-wednesdayIf wearing ashes on your forehead were viewed as cool (and you’d know this because celebrities and powerful people would wear their ashes on the teevees), then we would want to remove them pronto. But I suspect a smudge on one’s forehead is actually a bit embarrassing to most people. It invites questions, “What is that, and why is it there?” In other words, there is a cost to that ashen cross. So when someone in a train station receives this reminder of their mortality, they are doing it at some cost — as opposed to the socially acceptable way of getting into a station wagon and driving to church where the ashes are quickly removed in the narthex after mass, which is, from the perspective of culture, cheap and easy. My point is that what is in our hearts matters more than some other measure. Like a good GenXer, I view this through the lens of authenticity. I like Ashes to Go, because I think it can carry deep authenticity matching what happens in church.

Back to my main point. If the zydeco mass is authentic for your community, then by all means do it. But make sure it includes a proclamation of the Gospel. We must never neglect that, because it’s all we really have. When St. Paul said we should be all things to all people, he didn’t mean anything goes. He meant that we should proclaim the Gospel so that it can be heard.

The church will not be saved by guitars, or modern language, or restructuring, or anything else. The church will be strengthened when we are doing what we are meant to do, when we preach the Gospel.

Of course, that Gilbert & Sullivan Mass sure is tempting…

Image: Copyright: Brian May, U.S. Navy. License: public domain.

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14 Responses

  1. Amen! Thank you for a thoughtful post and response to the Ashes to Go debate. (And now I’ll spend the entire day attempting to adapt G&S lyrics to the Eucharistic liturgy.)

  2. relling says:

    How is stopping briefly for a cross of ashes as authentic as attending a service which places those ashes into a context which gives them meaning and purpose? I am not opposed at all to Ashes to Go. I simply don’t understand why people think this is a good idea.
    If worship is a process, then how can you truncate it in this way and still call it valid for the worshipper? Really, I just don’t understand.

  3. David Lucey says:

    Scott, understand your point. I am still not a “to go” kind of guy, because even though it is costly by today’s standards, the deep reflection provided by the service that goes with it is an important part of the process. Ashes to go is not all that different then drive by Ashes practiced in NYC where suddenly all the Catholics of various strains popped in fresh faced and popped out with ashes. It was stunning to see all the anonymous Christians, but I am still trouble that we miss something.

  4. Catherine says:

    I’m grateful for this posting Scott. When we offer ashes in Providence on Ash Wednesday we frequently spend time with people in prayer. My experience is that there is often deep gratitude in our presence. For some it may be surprise that the church cares enough to “come to me”, or because it provides a tangible symbol of the start of Lent, or it helps someone whose commuting schedule does not allow for attending a service because of travel or long commute times, whatever the reason, I have always found this practice of reminding people of their mortality Holy and life-giving.

  5. Verdery says:

    YES! YES! YES! Authenticity!

    For many years I’ve cringed inwardly when various folks–mainly of my Boomer Generation–have said “What the young people want is ____” or “We need to bring in more young people so we need to do ____.” And the blank is filled in by what we did when we were 20. Or what some mega-church down the street might be doing. You’re right–we need to be ourselves, worshipping the God we love with the people we love in the ways that resonate with us. And people will find us.

    But I agree with you and Cynthia about Gilbert and Sullivan. (Are you familiar with Mark Schweizer’s Liturgical Mysteries?)

  6. Rob says:

    I’m not really sure I follow you… Is the issue of cost of it really the point? Isn’t cheapness subjective and arbitrary in this matter? Who is the arbiter of gimmicks? What is authenticity? I’ve seen several–not all but some–proponents of Ashes to go put it out there that it’s for “people who don’t have time to go to church” on Ash Wednesday. And that’s fine, but to me, that puts it alongside what I have viewed as other gimmicks of the church. I have not yet seen the same marketing for foot-washing-to-go, communion-to-go, anointing & healing prayers-to-go, confession-to-go, baptism-to-go and other liturgical and sacramental possibilities. I’m sure–and your blog post does a fair job of this–that there are other theological reasons for offering Ashes to go than just plain gimmickry.

    Couldn’t I argue that there is a cost to my wiping those ashes away, that not wearing ashes on my forehead all day long to be seen by everyone I meet has a cost? Couldn’t we argue that wearing ashes at all–whether imposed in a church service or in a train station–is gimmickry?

    According to your post, the fact that I usually do wipe my ashes off my forehead might be viewed as cheap, in some respects. Very well then, it is cheap. Much of what I do has a cheapness about it. I am a cheap person, in and of myself. (Is it less cheap if I don’t overtly rationalize it? Or if I do it at a speed less than “pronto”?)

    But as you point out, the gospel is not cheap. Grace, though free, is not cheap. And I don’t think we can cheapen the gospel. We can, of course, cheapen ourselves. For myself, I think, if I criticize something about the church–ashes to go is probably a good example–as cheap, it is likely just a way to distract from my own cheapness, right? If I don’t like it, if it doesn’t provide the right context, doesn’t have the right meaning, then it is a gimmick. But if I do like it, and it does provide meaning, then it couldn’t possibly be a gimmick.

    I don’t know that I really appreciate ashes to go. I have a hard time not viewing it as a gimmick. It seems a little bit like a gimmick, that it lacks “authenticity” and I want to say that it’s a bit cheap. And I do want to be critical so that I don’t appear to be cheap in my view of and participation in Ash Wednesday…even though my cheapness is undeniable.

  7. Bob Chapman says:

    Catherine got it in one.

    “For some it may be surprise that the church cares enough to ‘come to me,’….”

  8. Fr. Scott Russell says:

    Arthur Sullivan did write “Onward Christian Soldiers”!

  9. Beth says:

    I’ve been in a search process for several months, and I would say many search committees I speak with are both extremely concerned about how to “attract more young people” and baffled by any answer that does not involve guitars.

  10. Carlton Kelley says:

    Bravo! It is refreshing to see in print what I hope more and more of us begin to say. “The only interesting thing about the church is the Gospel” might be modified to say the only interesting thing about the church is how the Gospel we preach reflects the Jesus who we love.

  11. Laurie Atwater says:

    As tempting as a G&S Mass might be, we wouldn’t want you getting stabbed in the kidneys during the Benediction. That would be bad.

  12. Lane Hensley says:

    Ash Wednesday 2010 is not the first time anyone ever offered ashes at a train station, but not having heard of it at the time, I thought I was doing something novel and interesting. Turned out two others in the Diocese of Chicago at the time were doing the same thing, and none of us were aware of the efforts of the other.

    I was amazed at the public reaction. Clergy in California protested that they had done this years before, and that we didn’t deserve the credit. OK. Some thought we were geniuses. Some thought we were heretics. Both reactions seem odd to me.

    There are certain questions that seem to bring out not just strong opinions, which is fine by me, but also a near-panicky sense that the way I think is the only way it can be. For example, imagine that a woman were to post this on her Facebook page: “I’m pregnant. Not sure whether to breast or bottle feed. Not sure whether to quit my job or find child care. If the latter, not sure whether a day care or a private nanny. The doctor says it’s twins. Not sure whether they should be in the same or different classes.” When my wife was pregnant 16 years, ago, we faced all these questions and asked for advice. People went nuts. No one said, “I think it depends on your situation. For example …,” or “We found this or that helpful or unhelpful.” On some issues, people need to be absolutely sure that their own decision is right and that no other way has any merit at all. Anyone who makes a different choice is a dangerous threat to all we hold dear. (To be clear, I don’t think that Scott or any of those who’ve commented above are saying that, but you don’t have to look far to find plenty who do.)

    In 2010, 2011, and 2012, I administered ashes in public on Ash Wednesday. Last year, I didn’t, and this year, I’m not planning to. I don’t regret doing it, and I don’t regret not doing it. The people who chose a different path weren’t wrong, and neither was I. I responded in good faith, listening to the voices of others I trust, and made a decision. In 2012, the paschal mystery played out in spite of my on-the-street antics, and in 2013, the same happened. God is not mocked.

    I don’t suggest that this all is up to the individual. We are bound to one another and accountable to one another. We discern God’s will by listening to each other humbly. And then we act. And as Paul describes in 1 Cor. 3 and as Scott seems to be saying above, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on [the foundation]. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”

    The spirited debate and the defensive posture assumed by some in both directions suggest to me that the ashes themselves and the truth they represent are powerful, and speak to what Mike Angell called a “holy hunch” about the reality behind them.

  13. Peggy says:

    I agree that contemporary music will not necessarily attract youth, although my own teenagers attended U2charists for months after they quit going to “regular church”. But if I EVER find a church with a Gilbert & Sullivan mass, I will be there! and maybe even have a couple family members in tow.

  14. Martie Collins says:

    Anything offered in the right spirit that gets people thinking is good. Maybe you could hand out Lent Madness brackets too.