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.”
If 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.