Earlier this week, I posted on Facebook about a brief moment in the midst of a Sunday morning worship service that caught my attention. Responses to the post didn’t quite seem to understand what I was getting at–this is clearly my fault, since Facebook really isn’t the place for posts which carry with them a substantial amount of implicit information. I can’t expect my readers to know what exactly I had in mind. Consequently, after a few misinterpretations, I took the post down with the promise to elaborate here. Comments are welcome, as keeping the conversation going here will be easier. Here goes.

The brief moment I’m speaking about occurred during the children’s sermon. While the sermon itself was leading to a very significant yearly ritual in the congregation involving parents and their children, what I saw only emerged as a response to a particular object involved in the sermon, not to the sermon itself. As the speaker was beginning the introduction to the sermon, a variety of objects were brought out which would help communicate the lesson. One of those objects was a Green Bay Packers helmet. As the helmet was raised out of the bag containing the objects, a middle-aged woman in the pew in front of me nearly jumped out of the pew with excitement. I found in this particular reaction rather striking. It was one of those moments, I think, where the church’s liturgy inadvertently became complicit with a secular one. That is, unwittingly, unintentionally, and unpredictably, the use of that Packers helmet, at least in the life of one person (if not a handful of others), suddenly brought a burst of excitement about a sports team and their future role in Super Bowl XLV. What stood out to me was the difference between the kind of excitement that could be engendered by the use of a football helmet in the midst of a Christian worship service over and against any excitement (or emotional display, involvement, commitment, enhancement, etc) for  Jesus. I became concerned in that moment, how the church had simply reinforced that woman’s devotion to the Green Bay Packers over and against Christ.

[What do I mean by liturgy here, such that I can use it with regard to both the church and the secular? Quite simply I mean this: liturgy (understood broadly here) is a set of practices meant to shape and form our devotion in a particular manner toward a particular object or way of being. Christian liturgy is meant to shape our devotion toward Jesus. A secular liturgy, such as nationalism is meant to shape our devotion toward a country, such as America. An exemplar practice here would be the recitation of the pledge of allegiance. For this general understanding of liturgy and for various themes in this post, I am borrowing from James K. A. Smith’s work, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation.]

Before I go on to comment on this event, let me explain a few things. First, I want to be clear that the use of a Green Bay Packers helment, or reference to a sports team, or any other cultural artefact may well have a place in Christian worship–I think those places are limited, to be sure, but I’m not saying such things do not belong there outright. This is because we bring our identities as sports fans, Apple product fans, Coldwater Creek fans, Williams Sonoma fans, Lexus fans, into church every single week. It is impossible not to do so. And since, as Martyn Percy (Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology, 40) and others have pointed out, religion is part of culture and culture is part of religion, avoiding their interaction is impossible. So a sermon might have a cultural reference. The question is, why is it there? How you answer that is particularly important. Second, I am not condemning, criticizing, or ridiculing the preparer of the children’s sermon for their use of cultural objects (the Packers helmet wasn’t the only one). Third, as I mentioned above, there could have been no possible way to predict the reaction I witnessed. It must be assumed that all motivations behind the children’s sermon were innocent and/or praiseworthy in this regard. What else is a children’s sermon for than to bring the pure Word of God to the children (and often, more clearly than many “adult” sermons, to adults)?

What should stand out here is only this: the reaction of this woman to a cultural artefact in the midst of a Christian liturgy was symptomatic of her involvement in a different, secular liturgy, wherein her devotion toward the Green Bay Packers had already been shaped–and this phenomenon occurred in the midst of Christian worship which is supposed to shape and form our devotion otherwise, that is, toward Christ. The question that bugs me (and should bug you) is this: How often is the church inadvertently, unwittingly, and certainly unintentionally (I hope) complicit in forming the devotion of its members toward something other than Jesus Christ by invoking, involving, or using secular liturgies? How often, in the church’s self-perceived faithfulness, is it in fact subtly complicit in a simultaneous unfaithfulness? One might argue that the answer simply is, all the time, since the church is constituted by sinners. My question for us all strikes more pointedly. Are there times when the church is complicit which can be countered, corrected or undone? Can we become aware or conscious of our complicity such that we can make moves against it? Is the church willing to be considerate and self-critical enough to look for those places where such complicity might exist, and subsequently do something about it?

Here are some examples of where such complicity might be present in the life of the church in the 21st Century:

Nationalism

Many congregations have the American flag (and often a state flag) present in their sanctuary. Various post-Constantinian authors have argued implicitly that the practice of having these flag present is a form of Constantinianism–that is, that the presence of the American flag in the sanctuary of a Christian church reveals a certain implicit confusion about the relationship between Church and State. Under Constantine, Church and Empire were united. Such a relationship no longer exists, technically speaking. However, I have heard Christians speak about America as God’s promised land. In the minds of some Christians, and possibly many, there is still an implicit sense that the church is the same political body as the state–and hence, within many Christian circles, there is a significant effort to return the US to its roots as a “Christian” nation (various examples and the attending problems with this belief are highlighted in the first essay of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World). The post-Constantinian authors are attempting to recover a more faithful understanding of the church–that is, that the church has a politics of its own, that it is a unique political body with citizens of its own (even if they are simultaneously citizens of various other communities, societies, clubs, nations, etc.). I have written about this a little here. Theologically speaking then, having an American flag present during Christian worship confuses the point that Christian worship is meant to be a public disturbance–one which announces Jesus as Lord and calls everyone to account for their allegiance (or not) to Him.

In addition to the presence of the America flag, what kind of language is used in the celebration of Veteran’s Day, or Memorial Day? While I am definitely thankful for the service of members of the military and those who work to preserve the safety of our nation and many others, I am concerned about the language (or better, grammar) used when we refer to people who have lost their lives in the midst of their service, choosing to call it “the ultimate sacrifice.” Should not that reference of “ultimate” be used for Christ alone? What reference might we use then for the sacrifice they made, since it is still important to be thankful for that work? I am not sure. But in our shared use of the term “ultimate” with the rest of American culture, Christians are potentially complicit in a liturgy which works devotion toward something other than Christ.

Individualism

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written (in his work Unleashing the Scripture) that the Bible should be taken out of the hands of North American Christians. He notes this especially regarding the fairly typical practice of churches giving them out, perhaps to confirmands or visitors. Why has he made this rather striking argument? Because he believes, and I think rightly so, that the Bible is not just any other book, but one which people must be taught how to read. The Bible is a book which belongs to and forms a particular community. To treat it as something every individual has a right to, or to make some sort of missional effort at simply giving them away without any ongoing and intentional connection to a church community in which one might learn to read it, is problematic. Interpretation, which is treated in so much of the North Atlantic world as the native right and ability of any person, is actually quite the opposite. From our youngest moments, we are learning and being taught how to interpret. We don’t simply “just know” how to interpret. Reading the Bible is another way of saying interpreting the Bible, since all reading is interpretation. And since the Bible is the special book of the church–the very people of the Book–should those new to the church not be taught how to read and interpret faithfully? The church must continue to form the communal relationships which are the work of Christ, rather than simply further promote such individualism.

Commodity-Fetishism

Somehow, companies that sell products know how to get us to need their products–not just want, but need. Somehow, they are able to capture our devotion, even through simple things like television, internet, or print media ads. For example, Apple creates something new, and in so many words says to us, “Look what we made for you. See how it will make you life better? See how by having this product you will be the envy of so many? See how it will make you feel special?”

In our culture, our imagination has in many ways been passively formed to the extent that we see our lives as being filled with work so that we can have things. Indeed, in many ways this is true almost beyond our ability to resist. How can one have food, shelter, and other basic necessities as well as support a family with the same things, without working? Fair enough. But in many ways we take this too far. Our culture, it has been argued (by such thinkers as Josef Pieper, in his Leisure, the Basis of Culture), is one of total work. We work more than we have to. We work in order to have, and to have even more than we need (Apple knows how to make us need through its own liturgies). We work because work defines us. We work, because somehow we were taught that to be a good citizen in our society, we need to productive (with the underlying agenda there being, so you can be a good consumer, and so the economy can keep booming, and so we can keep being happy–another liturgy working devotion to a particular image of what it means to be human).

Many church workers that I have known work more than 50 hrs per week (in some cases that’s too much already). Some work 80 or more. How is this a witness to those in the church who also hear these same workers speak about Sabbath, rest, peace, the light burden of Christ, resisting busyness, and other topics which imply that work for the sake of work is not honoring Christ? Church workers who work so much, for whatever their justification for doing so, are complicit in living an implied theology which serves as an unspoken (and likely unintentional) witness to those whom they serve. The devotion they teach is not toward Christ (as much as one might say they work so much for His sake, because He would not want one to do so), but rather toward the secular imagination’s image of a good citizen–one who is productive, and therefore a good consumer. There are a handful of problems here, and I’ve written about some of them here. Suffice it to say that the church’s complicity in this cultural liturgy is widespread, and likely quite harmful.

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What shall we conclude? That’s probably not the right question. Since I write to try to “do” something to my readers, the question is more directly, what should we do? The answer is simple: pay attention. I’ve written this to raise awareness, to bring to conscious thought something we might simply be taking for granted and therefore missing altogether–something which is immensely influential for the church, yet subtly and subversively so. But don’t just pay attention. When you notice the possibility of something you or your church is doing that might be complicit with a secular liturgy, think, converse, and analyze with others about whether your estimation is on track. Then begin to explore how you might change your practices for the purpose of being more faithful and helping those around you to do so as well. I write this as someone who is regularly haunted by these questions–AND regularly convicted about my own complicities. Christ comes to give freedom. The liturgies of His church are meant to work that freedom and form us in devotion toward Him. Thanks for reading.

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