Have you noticed how sermons are increasingly jokey, how it seems we are bending over backwards to “attract” people’s attention?
How some ministers openly speak of the work in their own churches as “competing” with American media – TV, movies, etc, for “attention,” and “whatcha gotta do to get folks’ attention?
Has it ever occurred to you that the church, having a majority of America’s social capital, is in some way contributing to our attention deficit? Or that their competition with one another might in some way be contributing to the American attention deficit?
Have you ever wondered if people in nations other than this one, when talking about “ministry” and “what our church needs to do,” aren’t going on and on about “what people want these days” – that this might actually not be such a necessary thing, that it might be more an American thing than anything else? Has it occurred to you that maybe the people just need to be taught, not to go on and on talking about what people want, but instead to try to teach people – “what you want isn’t always what you need!”?
Such rather simple things have occurred to us, yes.
Our “main project” – which is sort of on the back burner for the moment – it’s about addressing such things.
But the way people behave, and the way churches compete – it’s not exactly a joking matter. It’s a reality. Here, in the buckle of the Bible belt where our project lead lives – it is a thing which is of such proportions it is practically unspeakable. It’s a huge thing, yes. But then “people” want evidence. And you can’t give that evidence without – yes – saying things that aren’t nice. And the people get confused at this very quandry. You’re saying something that makes no sense, there’s no evidence! [evidence is brought forth … ] – Well who are you to criticize an important church pastor in a vital ministry etc. etc. etc.. -, anger anger anger.
What many don’t seem to realize is how their social rules make things impossible. On one hand, they insist on very concrete, named persons, hard empirical evidence. It’s not enough to ask them to search google for some general topic. And on the other – when that evidence is brought forth – it goes against the social rule of always being a nice person.
[ Note to self – find a way to bring this matter forth without the buckle-of-the-Bible belt folks feeling bad ]
This is one reason things around here never seem to change. It’s our social rules, our “unspoken expectations.” Of course, all cultures have them – but they aren’t always so contradictory, or strangely working together toward stasis and stagnation as they are in the Bible Belt.
We’d love to be a “local organization,” with local funding. But that just doesn’t seem possible ’round these parts. Those who see the problems – are so overwhelmed with work and ministry commitments, they need to focus on their local congregations in a culture which is, frankly, hostile to contemplation and learning – while giving all appearances of “just lovin’ it!” (but then shaking it off real quick, and getting back to our obsessions).
We’re in a kind of crisis of attention – where our business has so overtaken us (you can read about how business just a decade or so back was associated with social class and success in David Brooks’s book Bobos in Paradise) – we believe that there is a lot of justification for all this clickbaitey “made you look” type approach to doing God’s good work – but we want so very much for this to change. But it will need to be incremental change – change in the body. It’s impossible for one man to simply stand up and say, “an end to this all!” Because no one listens, and if anyone does, they chuckle.
We’re not big guys. We aren’t Johnny Hotspeaker who’s on all the Hotlists and has got Christians a talkin’ talkin’ about how he’s just wunnnnderfull – OR – how he’s a vile heretic! Neither of our project leads is on an NFL team, so we can’t make a touchdown, and then bring a – ya know ya know – really positive Christian message to the nation!!
So we thought and we prayed and thought some more and prayed some more – over the course of many months, almost nearing a year. And we came up with Tracts with Legs. And though we’re convinced “it will work” – and moreover, that we can, and are, doing this to the glory of God – we’re convinced it can only be done to the glory of God if we also warn you – you need something better.
This is – “what you want.” This is “what you asked for.” Your attention span has so diminished – well – you like looking at t-shirts!
But in a way we are like a metaphor for what’s happened to the church. We’re coming from a dystopic place.
When God is glorified, when the church is largely obedient – His glory shines forth in natural ways. It is consummated in everyday, normal social interactions. It is the beauty of life as God created it to be for his dear, cherished creatures.
When God’s people disobey Him – we begin entering a story in which angels and demons become more important. When the truly and utterly strange can arise and, to those who are ready, watchful, and obedient – show forth the glory of God. It’s the kind of time when a donkey might talk, to tell someone what God is saying. But it’s important for us to see: this is not really the way that God intended for His world to work, this is not how creation is ordered. And in such times – tracts even might sprout legs.
A tract with legs is not a natural or normal thing. Tracts do not move by themselves. There is something a bit dangerous about tracts with legs. We’d like you to ponder that. It might even be one very small sign amongst many that things are not bearing so wonderfully well in this dear nation. We believe a lot of things are rather topsy-turvy.
We do believe it’s come to this, where we have become such a clickbait type of culture – that we truly do need this Tracts with Legs project. God’s people won’t allow themselves to hear His words through the normal, healthy, natural channels.
It gotta be ironic. It gotta be t-shirts. “What the people want!!”
“What the people want!!” – well so therefore what the people get. They get t-shirts. Nice, purdy, clickbaitey t-shirts.
But we must warn you: We Rick-Rolled you in here. We clickbaited you with a t-shirt to come read something about the Bible and theology. But we need you to learn to be just a little bit less clickbaitey.
We aren’t your “role models.” Please don’t go “be like us.” We’re hypocrites, teaching one thing and doing another. But hypocrites for a reason.
Please learn to love God with your mind.
Please try to work in your community so it’s no longer necessary to click-bait people in order for them to hear anything.
Please work on kindness, gentleness, self-control.
And when you do put clickbait out there – submit it to the church. Don’t “we just, we just, we just.” If you are planning on taking “the low road” – darting like a hungry piranha at people’s lesser-instincts, their feely side – please first ask the church. Find folks to pray with. See if they approve. See if your church approves. Don’t “Ready, Fire, Aim” the whole thing.
We’ve been working for far too long with a kind of implicit model that assumes that language, music, ideas – are all “just” – tools for God’s good work! Tools for bringin’ folks to Jesus!
Whereas Scripture gives us little warrant for such thoughts or behavior. James tells us about how language forms the mind. Paul tells us to be careful with all of our thoughts and imaginations. We don’t “we just we just!!”
If you have RickRolled people into coming to church – if you are “all about what people want!!,” “these days, these days, these days!!” – at the very least, please clean up your own mess. Show the people how it was that you were appealing to their lesser sides, those gut instincts not very much under control, the softer and weaker side. Show them how they can learn to think more, to not keep their minds in feely land. Find ways of helping God’s people increase their attention spans, rather than always breaking things into bitty-bits, and making them expect such as in some way being “peopley” and “inviting” and “reachin the masses.” Do a populist, “reachin the masses” thing one day, but then another day – make sure the folks of your church know that we all need to figure out how to do things better, and – that they, your people, your flock – they must improve their attention spans, and that they are not themselves “the masses.” They are expected to learn stuff. Adults too. It’s not “all for the kids!!!,” all the time. Adults get to be mature, too! It’s okay to not have to feel like a kid, all the time, and it’s okay to be a mature person! We don’t have to frowny frowny at mature people or tell them they are snobs and they don’t care about kids, if they are asking questions that the people don’t like to talk about, or doing something that’s not for the kids, or makes our kids feel uncomfortable, and we get angry because we can’t go, because we always gotta be with our kids, and that means that and that means that and therefore and so on …
Thomas Bergler tells us – we don’t even want maturity any more!
We must learn to love God with our minds. And we must teach the people to do so as well.
The “better way” – the one that is less “Broadcasting, broadcasting!! Masses, masses!! Impact, Impact!!” –
It’s about the possibility in which someone can say something serious in church and people won’t walk off so they can talk about football.
It’s where we can frankly discuss problems in the church without getting snarky or finger pointy or all worried or you’re not very positive are you.
It’s a world where it might not hurt Jesus so much if somebody in church had a thought or two every once in a while. Or where churchy church is allowed to be “inviting” and “accessible” to people who are mature, and the hallmark for maturity isn’t having a flashy car and saying “we just we just” when problems arise.
So yes – we’re using a jokey medium that’s not especially associated with thoughtful behavior.
But it has some amazing advantages. It is a great discussion opener. It will also get you “in the door” with people who are t-shirt oriented. It will make conversations possible, where previously they really weren’t. Joe and Tina Smithers who, unfortunately, were previously attending an “Impact!! Impact!! Relevance relevance!!” church – and kinda sorta got socialized into that kinda thing without really seeing it. You know they’d walk away if you started talking about folk theology, or inward directedness.
But guess what?
They like talking about t-shirts! And t-shirts often – they often got football on them! And guess what? T-shirts, in 2017 – they make money! Millenials love them!
The t-shirt – it hiddenly taps into so many of our obsessions. And it’s not imposing or threatening.
And guess what? It’s jokey-jokey! Why, no dude, this ain’t a t-shirt. It’s a tract.
And guess what? Other-directed American Christians juuust looooove tracts …
They’ll “eat it up.”
But also guess what?
There are limits to this kind of thing.
It won’t “work” all the time.
And in a way, you’re clickbaiting.
You also have to teach the people – let’s just try to be a little less superficial now. Maybe the Boomers – well ya know ya know – but the Millenials, they like truth and authenticity.
And after you’ve clickbaited them with their Millenials obsession –
You can go right in for it.
Jesus is the truth.