Friday, July 1, 2016

Against Congregation As Echo Chamber

This article recently made the social media rounds. The writer reinforces not demonizing folk, listening to people, and that the "other side" isn't stupid, but has experience and reason for their position. The "Controversial Opinion" game is especially useful to explore only asking questions as a way of dialogue on "hot topic" issues.

Earlier in my career, and occasionally today, I experience churches with a variety of people in the congregation who wouldn't be lockstep in their thoughts, but highly relational and effective in both church and community due to their ability to work together.

Today it seems more and more of our congregations reflect rather narrow perspectives with some sensibility that "we are all alike." Church often looks like our political affiliations, our social organizations, and our network of friends. Dig into the above article and consider the role false-consensus bias plays in your congregation and your communication of the gospel. This can also play to a "Holy War" mentality when combined with the way a group interprets faith and "the other." In our day when folk self select their media/ news, with tendencies to only partake in communicators who already state what the listener believes, it is important for churches to be aware of the dynamics as well as the challenges and possibilities. Yet, our community and world is rather diverse (and maybe even our faith or denomination if we get beyond our particular congregation).

What is the opposite of an echo chamber?

An echo chamber is a description of a closed system with limited views and voices which reinforce each other. There is little to no room for true dialogue, for variety of opinion, or for the tension of unresolved issues or what might be in a state of becoming.

If your church, or group, is an echo chamber you probably need to figure out how to get beyond that.

In my experience, church - think holistically of the living, dynamic Body of Christ in worship, discipleship, prayer, action, etc.- ought to be an ongoing relationship and dialogue with God, with one another, and with our neighbors. I'm not sure what the antonym of "echo chamber" might be, but I think of this with imagery like visiting with someone in great conversation on a front porch or in a coffee shop. It's more like the free flow of activity and conversation on a playground, at a festival, or in a concert. It gathers folk of the variety of political parties, the variety of experiences and expectations, the diversity of the community. It would look more like that odd bunch that Jesus gathered together long ago. Such a church would be a practical glimpse and everyday reminder of what heaven looks like.

In many respects a stronger theological and practical expression of church also seeks a congregation that is an oddball collection of sinners and saints. And the truth is this is both a corporate and individual reality! None of us have it all figured out, none of us have attained perfection, and none of us should be confused for God, Jesus, or Holy Spirit. Instead, we continue to practice loving God and loving our neighbors as we do ourselves, yet we are prone to sin, failure, idolatry, and seeking our own kingdom rather than the Kingdom of God. Imagine Jesus and his early entourage; the variety of people and personalities and expectations are a key part of the story which we too often overlook. We are much stronger together, and better able to be the Church God desires, if we allow this sort of tension to remain yet with a discontent that doesn't demonize the "other" and instead pushes us to continue following Jesus in the larger community. This variety of people following Jesus better allows us to communicate with and reach more of our neighbors.

The greater adventure is outside the walls of the echo chamber and in the streets of community where we follow the way that Jesus has shown us into abundant life!

Worship & Community Voice

In the last couple of years I have found myself in MANY different church and conference worship services. In recent months I have again been reminded of the power of having many people and voices as worship leaders. Often I may have a Sunday morning where I go from a suburban to an urban setting and I'm becoming more aware of some dynamics at play.

Sometimes I'm in church worship and it is dominated by one voice, one presence, one personality. I'm not sure if we fell into this with emphasis on preachers, or revivalists, or paid staff, but the "one talker" phenomena is a tough gig. It takes a lot of energy, presence, and work for one primary player to fill the role. It may be strong in some respects- continuity, expectations, control, etc. But it also has a down side in connecting to many people and personalities in a community. If the community is all the same this might work though eventually boredom is liable to set in. Even professionals with monologues tend to have a stable of writers, and take a lot of time (and time off) to keep up the creativity and sharpness of their work.

The solo voice also lends itself to worship being primarily a spectator sport. It's like attending a performance where the music is presented and then an actor shares a monologue.

Of course, theologically, there are serious deficits to this as well. How does one person, from their experience, intellect, and voice, adequately share a message from God in worship Sunday after Sunday? More voices, developed and working together, may better represent both God and community and therefore enhance our church communication. Practically, one voice seldom represents and communicates well with a community and all the sub-cultures and people groups that call the place home.

My experience in worship has been wonderfully stretched by my involvement with the larger Church. I deeply appreciate the variety of languages, musical styles, and voices which can enliven worship and our experience of God. Often you may only see this on a mission Sunday or at a large worship gathering that is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic. Again, this reminds us of the deficiencies of some of our practices which too quickly narrow the possible audience of the entire community to only one group or sub-culture of the community.

I recently attended a suburban church that had a somewhat typical format where a liturgist also served as the music director, and the preacher had most of the speaking parts in worship. There were a few hundred people present and a certain "sameness" to everyone in attendance. There was a time of prayer where folk from the crowd could share a joy or concern, but often in the sanctuary the sharing couldn't be heard. So, even this, proved not to be intimate and community building, and instead seems to reinforce the suburban isolation and separation. Of course, there was a choir, and the congregation shared music. It was all very routine, easily anticipated, and carefully scripted and managed. In this more formal setting a video of recent church ministry seemed to be the primary way to get more voices into worship. Such worship seems more like a production, more like a monologue, and is interesting yet predictable as a spectator sport.

I also recently attended worship in an urban church. Think tough, declining neighborhood and a church which has grown in recent years to match the folk from the immediate community. The church was formerly all white and is now about 50/50 black and white. In contrast to the highly scripted suburban church this was a little more like a "pick up" game of basketball. Now, don't get me wrong, some of the key players knew their role and had rehearsed for music, solo, readings, and sermon. But you could tell everyone had a voice here and so the banter, the invitation to talk, was modeled by many. This gathering of 60 people had most actively participating in some way. When there is a call to prayer the various individuals who spoke could be heard and got into details- e.g. challenges of a job, friend in prison, family with cancer, the state of the neighborhood, a recent ministry of the church, etc. In this less formal, highly relational setting there were a variety of voices which lent to a strong sense of worship flow and balance. While the preacher did have 20-25 minutes of the hour there was something about the authenticity and revealing of it all that was more like a dialogue which called for participation.

As I continue to hear what this is teaching me I'm drawn to concepts of worship better reflecting the community. Any church interested in greater effectiveness in reaching the community, especially multi-cultural or multi-ethnic individuals or families, would do well to always have a variety of people consistently active in worship and church leadership. This may run counter to some church cultures (e.g. "What are we paying the preacher for?"), or some clergy personalities (it takes more time and energy to engage more people in worship as opposed to it being a "one man show"), but there is a great power in this in terms of better reflecting the community and reaching more people.

A church culture which leans toward authentic following of Christ in the neighborhood, and reflecting God through the variety of people found in those streets, will greatly benefit from engaging everyone in the sanctuary in some element of active worship leadership. Giving the community voice in the sanctuary and church life will help people of the community to find God through the ministries of the congregation.