Shopping for bacon at the lipstick counter


Volodymyr Tverdokhlib via Pond5.com

We can’t accept God’s invitation to help create a new story unless we are willing to take action. We become partners with God when we act in unfamiliar, untested ways.

–Richard Rohr (emphasis added)

As churches and faith communities continue to adapt to online platforms and socially-distanced gatherings in the era of Covid-19, I’ve been making some observations.

When the pandemic hit, we all scrambled to figure out how to move our in-person gatherings to virtual ones.

Some folks were already ahead of the curve, using Facebook Live, YouTube, Zoom, or other platforms to deliver Sunday morning worship services to people who weren’t able to join our congregations in person. Most of their transitions were reasonably smooth.

Others found themselves trying to learn how to use technologies they’d always told themselves they’d never need. Many were overwhelmed not just with the technical challenges, but with learning a “language” they’d never spoken before.

Regardless, most churches made the shift.

But largely it’s just been repurposing existing content (Sunday morning worship) from one medium (a church sanctuary) to another (a computer screen).

And while some leaders have been very creative in the ways they’re delivering that content, the issue remains that it is a product made for people to consume.

In fact, it may have exacerbated American Christianity’s already long-growing addiction to consumeristic religion.

When is an experience not experiential?

Admittedly, this has been a necessary first step.

Churches and faith communities had to do something to engage their congregations. They had to figure out some way to provide a worship experience for people who could no longer gather in their buildings.

The problem, though, as I see it, is that it’s not really an experience, is it?

Again, that might reflect back on how we were doing worship before Covid-19.

In many (certainly not all) cases, worship had become little more than religious entertainment.

A formulaic litany designed to evoke an emotional response, but not necessarily to encourage deeper spiritual engagement.

Our theology of worship became centered on adoration but lacked actual transformation.

We all love bacon

One of the things I’ve been talking about with a lot of my friends and colleagues is what I perceive to be a need to move past that first step of retooling content for a new medium, and to begin to think about completely different types of engagement.

And while most folks tend to agree with that concept, I’m finding that very few are able to actually imagine what that could mean in real, practical terms.

In fact, when I’ve floated the idea among people who have been involved in “digital church” and online content creation for some time and who are now advising churches in our current era, most of their responses are still just new ways of repurposing the same old stuff.

They’re really good at repackaging existing practices.

But ultimately, to me anyhow, it’s just new ways of putting lipstick on a pig.

When I was talking to a friend about this the other day, I commented offhandedly that maybe it was time we just killed the old pig. She quickly noted that we all love bacon.

That’s when it hit me.

I’d been shopping for bacon at the lipstick counter.

Wanted: Prophetic Imagination

That’s the problem with asking people who have been doing things a certain way for a long time to imagine not just new ways of doing the old things, but to consider what a whole new idea might look like.

And while a lot of leaders will acknowledge that there are elements within Christianity that have become toxic and need to die, they have a difficult time imagining how to replace them.

Part of the issue, of course, is that it’s what we would call an adaptive challenge. In other words, it’s not a problem for which there’s an existing solution.

There’s no formula, no program, no checklist.

It requires creative, situational thinking.

And that describes a lot of my frustration. The innovators in online church are fixated with how to do old things in new ways because that’s the only model they have.

They all start and end with the same pre-existing assumptions about what church “is” and how church “works.”

But I think we’re at a time that requires a little more prophetic imagination.

What if we quit just trying to do what we’ve always done in new ways and try to imagine all new forms of what it looks like to be the church?

Full confession: I’m as stymied by this as anyone else. I don’t have any brilliant insights or suggestions to offer.

Yet.

But I’m absolutely certain we have to move in all new directions. Create all new paradigms.

I want to change the world, but I don’t know what it wears

Someone asked me the other day why I do what I do. Why I went into ministry when I have such deep issues with institutional/corporate religion.

I admit, I didn’t do it to “save souls for Jesus” or sell people fire insurance.

And I certainly didn’t do it in a vain attempt to revitalize old traditions.

My reason is much simpler.

I want to change the world.

But the only way I know how to do that is by changing myself, and then fostering change in the places where I have influence and among the people with whom I have relationships.

My hope is that maybe enough of us will catch this desire to do whole new things that together we’ll begin to invent all new ways of creating and shaping communities of love, justice, compassion, and mercy.

We’ll never change the world by maintaining the status quo or simply repurposing old content for new media.

None of us wants lipstick on our bacon.

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