life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

the exciting church...

Last spring I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Such-and-such church... the exciting church.” (Name not included to protect the guilty ;-) )

You can bet I wrote a reminder note to myself on this one!

Well, a conversation I had with first-time visitors several Sundays past has resurrected this experience. It’s not the first time I’ve had this conversation, but it’s the first time it hit me exactly this way.

First, some background...

I lead worship at Central Church in Bakersfield. We have roots in the Church of Christ and still maintain a cappella music (i.e., voices only – no instruments) in our Sunday morning worship. We have, however, moved to a more contemporary expression, using many of the new praise choruses, some dramatic readings, once in a while a participatory experience, even communion at smaller round tables once a year. We also have a vocal praise team of about 12 people every Sunday.

On the Sunday I am referring to, four women who were first-time visitors approached me after service saying that they enjoyed everything about the experience except the music. It was… well, too sedate for their tastes.

I guess it was.

And I guess this was one of the more blatant examples I’ve seen of the consumerism that is so rampant in our culture. There is a drive to find what excites, what titillates, what fires the heart and raises goose bumps, even in church. And this becomes the focus of worship – how can I become “excited” and “fulfilled”?

Now I have to be careful here. For the longest time in my tradition we’ve squeezed every last ounce of emotion out of our worship experience until it has become as dry as Death Valley in the middle of summer, leading some of us to ask God’s question to Ezekiel as to whether “these bones can live.” I’m not decrying our return from that desert wasteland. What I am saying is that a close encounter with God – which is what worship at its heart is in my definition – involves all of me – heart, mind and will – as I am caught up in the story of God’s ongoing activity in a clearly fallen world. The focus of worship, from my perspective, is a focus on God, not us, and on his presence and activity in the world, not only inside the four walls where corporate worship is occurring. For it to become simply about my becoming excited or moved or whatever, smacks of manipulation AND places the focus squarely on me and “my needs” as opposed to God. Reminds me of St. Paul’s description of fallen humanity in Romans 1 when he says they have been worshipping and serving the created rather than the creator.

Tones and I have had this conversation many times. Executing the Soul’d Out service (generally) once a month is a lot of work, and we don’t get much help to do it. People come and experience it and leave. I’ve told him a number of times that it is easy to make religious consumers, but quite hard to make disciples.

When we as churches get caught up in becoming an “exciting church,” we seem to pander to religious consumerism. I think that is a very bad direction to be going. No question that we need to allow people to encounter God in their own heart language rather than in words and ways that suited people in the 1850s. But that effort can easily degenerate into feeding an experience addiction. And like any addiction, the craving grows voraciously, while what is supplied grows more and more unable to fulfill it.

On the suture zone, there are people who are searching for authentic meaning in their lives, trying to make sense of their world and of themselves, “searching,” as Donald Miller has said in the title of his book, “for God knows what.” A whooped up and hollering, head-banging music experience is likely not going to answer their deepest questions and longings as they try to fill what I believe is a God hole in their lives. (BTW, I’m not against any kind of music – except perhaps country ;-) )

I believe what they are truly looking for has not much at all to do with what happens on Sunday morning for an hour or so. I think they are looking for authentic conversations with other people who don’t have all the answers, who, like them, get up on Monday sometimes and look in the mirror and wonder what in the hell all of this is about and why they should continue, who experience things gone wrong and constantly nagging questions about life and the why of it all. And, most importantly, they are looking for those people, who in spite of the descriptions I’ve just given, have a firm faith in a living and present God who provides at least some sense of direction and purpose in life. Some are so jaded in the search because they haven’t found such people that they are nearly despairing.

There is a place for religious experience. I believe that place is in the company of God and each other. At least that’s the way the writers of the Christian Bible have put it. (Take a look at 1 John.)

As patiently as I could, I explained to these four women that it was unlikely that we were going to vary from our tradition on Sunday morning in the near future, that we valued our tradition for a number of reasons, that the challenge musically was that we lose the eighth notes supplied by a drum set, bass and guitar strum pattern, and that, yes, we were relatively sedate in our approach to worship most of the time.

They haven’t been back.

I hope they find what they are looking for. No, rather, I hope they find God in the process.

Grace and peace,



Blogger Malia said...

Well this doesn't have a whole lot to do with your post but while I was reading it I was reminded of a long ago memory.

One Sunday morning while we were visiting Grampie and Grammie in Bakersfield I overheard a conversation between my parents and my grandparents about a discussion/debate going on at Central regarding putting something (decoration) on the wall above the baptistry. It was a large blank wall. In my childhood innocence and lack of understanding about "church" stuff I piped up and suggested that they should put a picture of Jesus being baptized up on the wall. My suggestion was quickly discredited and I was given a pat response, something to the effect of how it wouldn't be a good idea. In my youth I couldn't understand why that was such a controversial statement and why it wouldn't be such a good idea.

Of course time, maturity and more understanding about "church" stuff especially regarding our fellowship have answered that unspoken question in my mind. Judy Thomas had this posted on her blog yesterday, "I do know that our senses lead our hearts to worship when there is something to sense. If there is nothing to sense, we have to work harder to conjure up awe, mystery, and hallelujahs." It's in reference to the icons in the Greek Orthodox Church. I think my child brain knew that back then. Years of rhetoric faded that conviction and now I'm back to believing it again.

So, will we see that baptism of Jesus on the wall above the baptistry any time soon? ;-)

2:17 PM  
Blogger Clarissa said...

You're against country music?!?!?!

7:21 AM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Joke, Clarissa, joke! (Not my favorite, but I've gone line dancing at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace twice!)

Malia, we don't have anything above our baptistry right now, except a hung banner with the logo of our church. The reason is that it is hidden in a side extension of the stage and there isn't any place to hang anything much.

However, in our old building (now gone) above the baptistry one of our members who is a gifted artist created a marvelous stained glass picture of the cross with a dove superimposed on and above it, a long white ribbon in the dove's mouth reaching from top to bottom. It is actually a tryptich now and is on the back wall, back lit, center stage. It has been around for as long as I've been part of the church.


8:20 AM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Malia, excuse me, I said "back wall" but I meant the wall of the stage facing the congregation.

And, Clarissa, I do want to point out that bluegrass is some of my favorite music. Does that redeem me a bit?

8:22 AM  
Blogger Malia said...

Well, I'm sure I saw that cross/dove mural at some point and just don't remember it. We so rarely got back to Bakersfield and Central after we moved away from California. That artist didn't happen to be Norma Savage? I know she is a gifted artist, she taught my Dad in middle school.

I saw you posted on BST's blog that you will be at Zoe this year. I'd love to meet you and your daughter. My e-mail address is Maybe we can meet up sometime over the weekend.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

yup. It is Norma.

I'll email you my cell number. That will probably be the easiest way to connect.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Clarissa said...

You've been redeemed. Just givin' you a hard time. See you soon!! Even being from Tennessee I'm not a big country music gal, m'self ...

8:20 PM  

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