Saturday, June 14, 2008

Making Repentance Fun

Tom Raabe’s satire hits close to home in his book, The Ultimate Church: An Irreverent Look at Church Growth, MegaChurches, & Ecclesiastical “Show-Biz”(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991. These little vignettes are as entertaining as they are exposing and are well worth squeezing into your already over-crowded bookshelf. The following appears on pages 29-32.

It’s finally happening. After all those years of dreary, vapid, monotonous church services, at long last we’re finally putting some life into our worship. No longer are we slaves to a prescribed liturgy week in and week out, but now worship is celebration, a gala event replete with chancel drama, liturgical dance, dialogue sermons, and anything that’s new, exciting, meaningful, and relevant. Neither are we bound to a traditional hymnal anymore, as guitars and synthesizers offer commonplace accompaniment to contemporary praise music.

Everybody has a children’s sermon these days. The passing of the Peace is de rigueur in most churches, with the more liberated ones opting for a kiss of Peace in its stead. Worshipers feel no compunction whatever against whooping it up when the spirit (small "s") moves them during a service. People clap in church as if they were at a ball-game. Pastors deliver multimedia homilies; they roam the sanctuary as they preach; they offer monologue sermons, discussion sermons, audience-participation sermons. And parishioners dance in the aisles, break into small groups, and voice their liberation from the pews.

Yes, it took a couple hundred years, but finally the scales have fallen from our eyes, and we can see that the conclaves in the big rooms with the funny benches and funny windows that we go to every Sunday are not atrabilious exercises in somber redundancy anymore. They are alive happenings now, “with it” celebrations where anything goes. Worship these days has finally come around to being what worship always should have been — fun!

However, there remains one area of worship where the shackles of tradition have yet to be unloosed — one integral part of the service still untouched by the revolution.

I speak of repentance — the confession of sins.

Oh, those indefatigable, guilt-inducing words — how ponderously they lay on our lips: “I, a poor; miserable sinner; confess. . . all my sins and iniquities. . . offended Thee . . . justly deserve temporal and eternal punishment . . . heartily sorry for them . . . sincerely repent of them It’s enough to get a guy depressed, these doleful, heavy-hearted phrases, underscoring all sorts of sordid, unpopular; theological concepts.

And the people, quite understandably, are not enamored with this type of material. Consider the ordeal we subject them to, dragging out their dirty souls for inventory every week and finding — without fail — that they do not meet the supernal requirements. All that groveling, all that mental and emotional prostration — let’s face facts, people do not get into that scene. No wonder they aren’t coming to church.

It’s a pity we can’t simply write the whole business out of the Service — just forget about it and get on with being happy. But, alas, we are Christians. The Bible does have a few words to say about repentance and forgiveness, so we have to keep some of this stuff in. But nobody said we had to make it so depressing.

The solution to this problem is simple: We must make repentance fun. If our theology prescribes that we do this confession thing, we might as well make it something that people can get into.

However; changing minds in this area is difficult — so high have the walls of resistance been built. Bringing a congregation into the fresh rays of new meaning is bound to be a tough sell. But it can be done.

A variety of innovative methods can be used, including the passing of mirrors down the pews, followed by spoken confession, or the artistic rendering of individual transgressions via canvas and oils, finger paints, or even crayons. Such methods are far superior to the incantatory droning from pastor and people currently used in most faith communities.

However, lest the penitential environment grow too cumbrous during any of these Soul-searching activities — and this incidentally represents a real concern, because we all know the kind of guilt trip repentance can lay on a person — the pastor would be well-advised to bring perspective back into the proceedings. My recommendation is to apply great quantities of happy-face stickers to the kneelers as constant reminders to worshipers that repentance is not some lugubrious hand-wringing exercise of blame, but that, an contraire, it is fun.

Perhaps the most effective means of rendering repentance enjoyable, however; is the role-playing sermonic drama. Here’s how it works:

At a foreordained point in the sermon, the pastor; pausing to espy a forewarned parishioner reading his bulletin in an ostentatious manner, points toward the play-acting miscreant and reprimands him from the pulpit: “Byron Beanface! You’re not listening to my sermon!” The congregation will likely gasp in outrage, and the inattentive parishioner raises his back in feigned anger.

A parishioner from the other side of the sanctuary, again a willing player in the drama, then yells, “None of you people over there are listening. You’re all lousy Christians!” to which a retort such as “Oh yeah? At least we have our eyes open during the sermon” is issued from the first side. That comment is followed by something like “We close our eyes because it helps us to listen better,” from the second side, which is answered by, “Then why do you have them open during the prayers?” from the first side, which in turn draws a response of “How do you know we have our eyes open during the prayers unless your eyes. are open, too?” from the second side, and so on, back and forth.

The pastor, for his part, need do nothing more to stoke the fires of acrimony than lean over the front of the pulpit, point randomly at individual parishioners, and scream, “You whited sepulcher!” “You stinking hypocrite!” “You lousy, smelly sinner!” and such like, over and over again.

If handled properly, the scenario can easily escalate into a vigorous, Comminatory shouting match, with participants from both sides of the sanctuary rising to their feet to castigate, en masse, those of the other side. When the anger has reached an acceptable level, the creative pastor then descends from the pulpit in the irenic splendor of a circus clown suit, into which he has furtively changed while in the pulpit, and juggles a few Bibles. This readies the group for the Absolution. And what of this necessary part of the service? Must it whither into obsolescence through the usui staid pronouncement of forgiveness? Not if the pastor is smart and creative.

The Absolution must be made fun, too.

Difficult though it is within the constructs of some liturgies, Absolution can be rendered in an effective and meaningful manner. One soul-releasing moment shines brightly in my memory. During a service once, the fellow sitting next to me fell victim to intense feelings of guilt. The Absolution had been pronounced, yet he sat moping in the pew, head bowed, shaking from side to side. He represented a disgusting reminder of the power of false guilt. So, at the pastor’s direction, a group of parishioners descended upon him, picked him up, and to a spontaneous ovation carried him on their shoulders once around the congregation in a sort of victory lap for forgiveness, after which they deposited him in a nearby locker-room shower, turning on the water and cleansing him ritually. It was a beautiful moment.

Sure, it wasn’t all that much fun for the guy — he had a five-hundred-dollar suit on — but it imbued the ritual with meaning and brought home the significance of the Absolution in a very real way to the congregation as a whole. Be it Confession or Absolution, repentance or forgiveness, when we can render these abstractions palpable and active-in short, fun-then we know that we’ve done our job.

Send them away happy. They will come back.

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