Yesterday I introduced something called the Participation Problem. 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
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).
So let me propose a way forward out of our Participation Problem:
First, the church cannot lay down her responsibility to call the world
to the new kind of life offered in Jesus. This means that we cannot
simply accept consumerism as a benign cultural force and just design
our services for religious consumers. No. Despite the fact that our
culture mitigates against participation, it is something the church
needs to be calling people to. I see it as part of the church’s
prophetic task to call the world to an engaged lifestyle instead of a
passive one. A servant lifestyle instead of a consumerist one. If it’s
better to give than to receive, and if we’ve been enabled to serve one
another, the we’d best get on with it the best we know how. Despite the
difficulties and the steep-ness of the incline, we have to keep
pedaling the bicycle of mission and participation. Bulk up if need be,
get plenty of rest and plenty of people to support you, but keep
Second, we need to become good at creating organic, flexible structures
where people can figure out what their gifts are, learn how to use
them, and have opportunities to use them. The place we need to improve the most is in the "opportunities to use them" department. For too long, the only time and place to use your gift was during a church service. Now, there’s nothing wrong with services, of course. They serve a vital function in the life of a church, I have had some of my most profound experiences with God in church services. But if we send a message that the service is the only place to use a gift, people will get the impression that the only gifts that are really worth anything are leading worship, music, preaching, and ushing (is that what ushers do?). The list is different for every church, of course. It might be organ-playing and public praying. Or video editing and DJing. The end result is that whatever goes on in services is viewed the end-all, be-all of ministry.
So we need to expand the places and times where gifts can be expressed. How? That will be directly affected by the gifts represented in the church. Remember these structures need to be flexible, organic, bendy. When we get people serving side-by-side in new contexts in their area of anointing and gifting, a great side-effect is going to be a genuine sense of community being built. More and more I believe that true community is built in the context of mission. That is to say, if we are moving together for the same purpose, we’re probably going to end up as friends. Community for community’s sake fizzles unless it is linked with mission (and mission and community linked together also needs the fuel of spirituality, but I’ve talked about that elsewhere).
I hope and pray we can move forward from the current Participation Problem ("How on Earth can we encourage people to truly participate?") into the Participation Problem of the future ("What on Earth are we going to do with all these people who want to participate?"). Those are the good problems to have.