Here’s how the Participation Problem goes in my head. Biblically, participation is where it’s at. Priesthood of all believers / everyone has a gift to share with others / equipping the saints for the work of ministry. It’s all over the place, and it’s a beautiful picture. However, in my experience, people resist this. We have been taught that things should be left up to "experts", and in most areas of life, we have relegated our normal participation to the experts. For example, people don’t fix their own cars anymore, because they’re too complicated. We hire experts to fix our cars. This is probably fine, but we do the same thing with our spirituality, and that’s not fine. We relegate our spirituality to experts, and we somehow come to the topic as though we have nothing to offer, no way to genuinely participate, because there’s probably someone else out there who does it better than me, so can’t they just do it for me? An example:
Bill Simmons is my favorite sports columnist. In a recent article where he details his exercise of picking which English Premier League to follow this year, he mourned the death of participation in American sports, especially when comparing American sports fans to
European soccer fans.
European soccer stands out because of the superhuman energy of its fans
— the chants and songs, the nonstop cheering, the utter jubilation
whenever anything good happens, how the games seem to double as
life-or-death experiences — and I can’t help but wonder if that same
trait has been sucked out of our own sports for reasons beyond our
control. … By pricing out most of
the common fans and overwhelming the ones who remained, professional
sports leagues in this country made a conscious decision: We’d rather
hear artificially created noise than genuine noise. That’s the biggest
problem with sports in America right now. And there’s no real way to
We’d rather hear artificially created noise than genuine noise. Wow. In the church, would we rather hear 5-6 great singers and musicians perform a song, or would we rather sing the song ourselves? Would we rather have our sound systems make noise, or make a joyful noise ourselves? G.K. Chesterton began to see this kind of trend even in his day, saying that men used to sing choruses around tables, but instead now we have one person sing the chorus into the microphone for the "absurd reason" that they can do it better than everyone else (I love the way that guy thought!).
I have sometimes wondered if our own technology (or more accurately, the way we use
our technology) often conspires against us as we try to build
missional, participational communities. I wonder if the way we use our
sound systems and video projetors and multi-media presentations have
turned our congregations into compliant spectators, and it’s no wonder there’s hardly any genuine participation or spontaneous emotion in our meetings. Of course, those technologies aren’t doing anything in and of themselves, but the way we use them is doing something to the character of our communities.
Part of the problem, of course, is that this is the direction our entire culture is heading. There isn’t nearly as much spontaneous, genuine cheering at sporting events; people wait to be prompted by the jumbotron, or goaded by the announcer ("I CAN’T HEAR YOU!"), or awoken by the blaring music. We watch hours and hours of TV every day, hardly ever choosing something to watch. It’s like our culture has been numbed into apathy. Normal rambunctiousness and precociousness has been called ADHD, we’ve been told to take our
soma Ritalin, calm down and not be a nuisance.
With these kinds of cultural forces occurring, it’s no wonder we see similar things happening in the church. The problem is that the space between the biblical ideal (participation, mission) and the current reality (spectatorism, consumerism) is a big one. I can understand why people create communes and monasteries. And I’m not talking about retreating from life in a pouty way, like someone who can’t deal with reality, so they suck their thumb, pull the covers back over their head, and go back to sleep. The best monasteries aren’t ones that completely close themselves off to the outside world, but instead they are simply trying to create enough space to cultivate a genuine community in the midst of a culture that is hostile to community. From that place of strength they can engage the world.
Part 2 tomorrow: Old-school Celtics games, the 1% rule, and a way forward.