Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Seriously Seeking Mysteries” first appeared in the September 2003 issue of Touchstone.
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Seriously Seeking Mysteries
Louis R. Tarsitano on Seekers, Liturgy & Baseball
I have a very dear friend who has attended Willow Creek Church for years, and he has never moved much beyond his original attraction: a jolly good religious show that does not require him to do anything “demeaning,” such as worship or getting too involved with the other members of the audience. When one of my children was visiting his family, they tried to attend a Saturday evening service. Since, however, only a few hundred people showed up, the service was cancelled as impractical for so small a group.
I recognize that my sample is a small one, but I have read carefully the literature from Willow Creek that my friend has provided. My conclusion is that Bill Hybels has reinvented and repackaged suburban “churchianity” in a big way, and unabashedly so. He has managed to banish—along with the cross, a supposed “downer” for “seekers”—those bits of Christianity that many people in my own suburban church experience considered grit in an otherwise well-oiled ecclesiastical machine. Again, my sample of churches may be too small, but even 25 years ago people were advising me that if the Church could only get rid of gloomy and annoying stuff like sin and redemption, then the Church would be much more popular and successful.
Folks, they argued, should be encouraged to find their identities as “spiritual people” (the term “seekers” became more common later on) and be affirmed in those spiritual identities, rather than expected to conform to the common disciplines that had made disciples for the previous 1,900 years. There is something flattering and heroic-sounding about being called a “seeker” that being one redeemed sinner among billions of others just doesn’t provide.
Neophytes & Baseball
The Liturgy is what it is, pretty much the same since St. Paul or Justin Martyr wrote about it: the common work of the people of God, expressed in local uses (styles) around the world. While visitors should not be excluded, and certainly not ignored or left to their own devices, the main purpose of the Liturgy is to adore and worship God.
A visitor who does not know God or his kingdom should expect to encounter some mystery and a challenge to learn some things that he does not yet understand. He is, after all, a visitor in what should be a foreign land, the Kingdom of Heaven, unless the local church is just another expression of the surrounding earthly culture. If this foreignness shocks him, that shock is a part of his education by the Holy Ghost (who alone converts hearts), and we really have no right to try to truncate that education, as long as we make every effort on a human level to make him welcome in God’s house.
A guest has some responsibilities, too, or else he will end up behaving rather like the sort of obnoxious tourist who, say, travels to Europe and then buttonholes everybody he meets to complain that things aren’t the way they were back home. Patience is a virtue in such circumstances, but it isn’t the only virtue. A culture or society that conforms to such tourists’ expectations becomes a Disney-land and a tourist trap, losing the identity that made it what it was and worth visiting in the first place.
Few activities that people take in genuine seriousness are “seeker friendly.” I’ve tried to imagine a seeker friendly baseball game, for example, and I can’t. Oh, there are such things as “Bat Day” and “Ladies’ Day,” but the game and its purposes go on unperturbed. The neophyte is not consulted about anything, except whether or not he would like a hotdog or a beer. He can buy a score card, and he may even find a friendly person to explain the way to fill it out. But the base runners travel counter-clockwise, whether he wants them to or not. The shortstop probably isn’t “short,” and that’s just one of the things that he will have to learn about to understand the proceedings, most likely at a later date and with the expenditure of some effort.
He will, if he desires to understand the game, have to learn a multitude of terms and rules that he has never known before. And no one thinks that because of this necessity he is being done a wrong, that he is being made unwelcome, or that baseball fans are not serious about the game. To see an exhibition of real passion, ask a baseball fan about the designated hitter rule.
The hallmark of a group’s seriousness, I think, is their lack of apology for being who they are and for doing what they do. They may be very ready to teach, but the more seriously they expect to be taken, the more uncompromising they are about their identity and traditions. Think of the Marines or of Orthodox Jews. Love them or hate them, almost everybody takes them seriously. Cops, firemen, and doctors form very tight, often closed societies, but network television is full of shows about them and the arcana of their professions.
People are not repelled by serious mysteries, but drawn to them. There aren’t any baseball, football, police, medical, scientific, or military equivalents of Willow Creek or similar seeker-friendly enterprises because those societies or institutions have taken a stand that they are engaged in serious business. The only major enterprise that has dumbed down as thoroughly as the Church has demystified herself over the past couple of generations is entertainment, and in Willow Creek and the like we see really a fusion of the two.
This fusion may produce a few stars and generate a great deal of income, but it won’t provide a time, a place, or a Liturgy where needy human beings will encounter the mysterium tremens. That encounter requires a Church that will share and teach her mysteries, but not compromise them or apologize for them.
Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).
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