My dad used to cuss the television. Well, more precisely, he used to cuss what was on the television, and that only when it was football or hockey. He'd hurl invective at players, coaches, referees for bad plays and bad calls. These were no mild outbursts; they were wild-eyed tantrums, and deeply personal. If "his" receiver dropped a pass, he'd let loose a stream of expletives that could cut boilerplate. If the referee took "his" left-winger off the ice for a minor infraction, he'd tell the official to relocate to the nether regions.
I grew up disdaining the man for such childish behavior. What grown-up acts this way?
Well, let me think.
See, there's this thing I do: I pantomime, quite involuntarily, any action movie I watch. A movie's a kinetic experience for me. It's visceral.
Watching Matt Damon do a take-down, I'm in there with him, dodging blows, raining them down.
Watching the latest Roman legionnaire hew and hack his way through a band of Picts or Teutonic warriors, I'm in the thick of it, making the world safe for civilization.
Even watching Angelina Jolie leapfrog semis or cakewalk the walls, I'm her shadow. My body twists and twitches, my pulse races, my jaw clenches. Afterward, I wonder if it's not too late for a career change.
Now the point: nobody, I notice, engages my sermons this way. Nobody seems viscerally involved, vicariously transported, by my exposition of 1 Corinthians or my teasing out of the nuances of the Chalcedonian Creed. Occasionally, on one of my better days, my humor tickles them. My urgency moves them. My pathos touches them. And, quite often, a number of people get physical during the singing—arms lifted high, head tilted back, eyes closed. Some even dance, in a Baptist kind of way, which is to say they weave their shoulders slightly and do a little two-step with their feet.
But no one seems to lose themselves. No one gets as personally involved in word and worship as my father did with linebackers or as I do with action heroes.
Maybe that's a good thing.
But it troubles me. Why are our deepest passions awakened, not for God and his truth and his Kingdom, but for sporting events and motion pictures?
We openly, unabashedly show emotion at NFL games—screaming, leaping, bear-hugging elation, or screaming, groaning, head-slapping grief—that we'd never dream of showing in church. What we unleash in a stadium we restrain in a sanctuary.
Actually, we don't restrain it at all: we simply don't feel it. A man at the Super Bowl can barely suppress his inner diva, and so he doesn't. A man in the pew can barely suppress a yawn, and so he doesn't.
I'm reminded of Dorothy Sayers's famous observation:
We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine, "dull dogma," as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama …. this terrifying drama in which God is the victim and the hero. If this is dull, then what, in Heaven's name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certifying Him "meek and mild," and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.
We will never out-entertain the world. In fact, our attempts at it generally are awkward, ridiculous, and miss the point. But what we do in pulpit and pew, and on highways and byways, matters infinitely and eternally more.
We are not entertaining anybody. We are declaring good news. We are chasing the Kingdom. We are making disciples. This is not some vicarious experience. This is not pantomime.
This is the real thing.
Mark Buchanan is pastor of New Life Community Church in Duncan, British Columbia.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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