A few days ago I posted the first part of a little blog series I wrote almost five years ago called “The Participation Problem.” I still cringe a little at some of my phrasing from five years ago, but it’s exciting to look back and realize that I’m participating in creating the kind of reality I was calling for give years ago. Here’s part two.
The Participation Problem, Part Two
The biblical ideal is for participational, missional communities, but the cultural reality is that people don’t want to participate, because they’ve been trained to simply consume and stay quiet (oh, and give us your money). How do we bridge the gap?
In the same article I mentioned before, Bill Simmons thinks back to being a Celtics fan during the Larry Bird era in the 80?s (for those who don’t know, Larry Bird is regularly called Basketball Jesus, for his phenomenal play and the way he “saved” the NBA, so to speak), and how things are so different now:
We didn’t need a Jumbotron or musical prompts to tell us what to do. When the Celts were introduced, we screamed for every starter and saved one extra decibel level for Bird. When we needed a defensive stop, we
stood and shouted at the top of our lungs. When Bird found a wide-open cutter for one of his gorgeous no-looks, we were cheering even as the pass was being delivered — that’s how attuned we were to his passing skills and how they spilled over to everyone else on the team. The best moments happened when the C’s would blow someone off the floor and force a timeout, and the roof would practically come off, and we’d keep cheering and cheering — all the way through the timeout, no organ music, no other noise, nothing. That’s how we judged the level of
excellence, by how long everyone felt obligated to cheer. If we made it all the way through the timeout, the horn would sound, which only made us cheer louder because we had lasted so long. I’m telling you, there was nothing quite like it. And this happened all the time.
Things are different now, though:
During Angels games in baseball, the crowd waits to make noise until a monkey appears on the scoreboard. You can’t attend an NHL game without hearing the opening to “Welcome to the Jungle” 90 times. Even our NFL games have slipped — you cheer when the players run out, cheer on third downs, cheer on scores and sit the rest of the time. It’s a crying shame.
I agree with Bill. And I think we’ve seen the same stuff happen in our churches. When was the last time we couldn’t sing the next song because everyone was singing too loud? When was the last time we got a little too rowdy during worship? We’ve settled for spectatorism and consumerism because we’ve found that fighting it is a very steep hill to climb. Also because we recognize that we can’t simply “hype” people into participation. We can’t be the announcer at the ballgame, whipping people up into obligatory, forced applause (“I can’t hear you! Lemme hear you make some noise!”). It has to come from somewhere deeper inside if it’s going to be authentic.
But how realistic is it to think that everyone will be a participator? A recent Guardian article suggests that there is an emerging rule of thumb that says if you get 100 people online, one will create content, 10 will interact with the content in some way, and the other 89 will just view it. It’s called the 1% Rule (1% of people will create online content, 10% will interact with it, and 89% will just look at it). At the very least, it should give us a reality check about the plausibility of an entire congregation interacting online. The article was specifically talking about online content, not church services or community life, but I wonder if there are similar percentages in churches, and if this is just the way it is, or if we should be thinking bigger.
The 1% Rule reality is that not everyone is going to code web pages. Perhaps an analogous reality is that not everyone is going to plant churches. Not everyone is going to preach. Not everyone is going counsel, etc. It’s the whole “Do all prophesy? Do all speak in tongues?” thing that Paul talked about. A similar reality in the software world is that even in the Web 2.0 world, you can’t rely on your users to innovate. You have to do that yourself, or it won’t happen. Beethoven didn’t wait for his listeners to suggest the motif for his Fifth Symphony. His listeners didn’t even know they needed the Fifth Symphony, until he wrote it. So we’re not all going to be entreprenuerial, pioneering leaders.
However there are some things that we’re all supposed to do, like sing. And love each other. And bear each other’s burdens. And be holy. But the church isn’t made up of a bunch of church planters. It’s made up of a few church planters, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers, some who are
magnificently hospitable, some who excel in mercy, some who are anointed to sing or dance, some who just love to serve unnoticed by others, some who are gifted in healing, some who do great interior design, etc. You get the picture.
My point is that perhaps we’re encouraging people to participate in ways they aren’t gifted for, and we need to broaden our vision for what participation can mean. We need people who can identify spiritual gifts and train people to use them faithfully. And we need people who can create organic structures so that people have space and a foundation for using their gifts. And we have to get away from ranking gifts, as though one were more important than the other (I seem to remember Paul saying something about that, too).
What suggestions do you have for churches to bridge the participation gap? What can we do if simply asking people to participate is not enough?
Part Three on Tuesday: a way forward.