Song of the South

We recently took a trip to Disneyland as a family.  Our children were too small on our last visit to enjoy all of the funnest rides, but this time, they’re tall enough to go on all of them.  Space Mountain was out of service, which was disappointing, but we were able to go on all the other rides we wanted.

In tangentially related news, Disney has announced that one of the attractions at Disney’s Epcot Center is going to be eliminated and a Frozen-themed ride will replace it.  This has elicited a lot of argument and sorrow from various people on Facebook.  Since I’ve not been to Epcot, I don’t really care what ride they’re taking out.  From my vantage point, they’re responding to what people know and love at the moment.  It only makes sense.

Back to Disneyland.  Most of the rides there are themed around Disney classic movies or Disney-fied story classics like Alice in Wonderland.  Many of them I’m familiar with, though quite a few of them I haven’t actually seen.  Some of them, however, I’m not familiar with either from reading or viewing.  Take for instance Splash Mountain.  When you say those words to someone, generally what is elicited is a squeal of excitement or terror related to the 50-foot drop.  Or the big splash at the bottom.  Or the indignity of having your picture snapped just as the g-forces are beginning to take hold of the skin on your face or neck.

What most people don’t immediately connect the ride to is the story or movie Song of the Southor the Brer Rabbit story the movie was based on.  I only vaguely know the fable, and I’ve never seen the movie.  Yet the vast majority of the ride has to do with this story.  I suspect that many riders today simply endure the rather antiquated majority of the ride that has to do with the movie, all for the thrill of that 50-foot plunge and subsequent soaking.

They don’t know the story, but they associate the ride either with an actual thrill, or through nostalgia with the thrills they enjoyed as a child.

It struck me today that church is similar in some respects.  In how many congregations today would you find people that no longer know the story – they don’t know the meanings of the symbols in the sanctuary, they don’t know the nave from the narthex, they don’t recognize the architectural features that were carefully designed decades ago.  But they continue to go because of nostalgia.  Or because there is one aspect of their worship time that thrills them (for children, this is often the snack line after the service, but I suspect for many adults it’s the fellowship as well).

The Church must continually be telling the story.  Acquainting people intimately with the reasons and the purpose and the function of what is around them and what they are hearing.  We can’t assume that nostalgia will keep them coming back.  We can’t assume that there will continue to be a thrill that keeps them coming back.  The primary draw must be connection with the story, much as Disney anticipates that the connection of younger people with the Frozen story will be a greater draw than whatever ride it is replacing.

Connection is what keeps people coming back, and connection needs to be part of a story.

Otherwise, whoever comes up with a bigger thrill is going to lure people away.  A 50-foot drop is child’s play for a roller coaster enthusiast, who will go to Six Flags because their roller coasters are more impressive.  But you can’t get Splash Mountain at Six Flags.  You can’t get the Tea Cups ride or the monorail or any of the other intricate parts of the story of Disneyland.

Congregations need to know this – they are part of a story and it is that story that matters and that story does not exist anywhere else.  No other cultural institution or NGO or government-sponsored program or non-profit or rock concert has that story.  We need to connect people to the story rather than assume that they know the story.  We need to connect people to the story rather than just promising them a bigger thrill.  Maybe that’s really what I worry about churches like Hillsong.  I fear that they emphasize the thrill and the coolness factor at the expense of the story.  I fear that faithful and desperate congregations around our country are tempted to make the same mistake.  Maybe if we had a bigger sound system.  Maybe if we had cooler lighting.  Maybe if we had a rock n’ roll praise band.  Maybe if our pastor got a tattoo.  Maybe if we spent less time telling the story.

None of these things are inherently bad or wrong.  But there will always be (or eventually be) someone with a bigger sound system, a more impressive lighting display, a more talented or more extensive band, a cooler tattoo (or maybe just a younger pastor).  The focus must be on the story, and on conveying it to each generation in a way that they see themselves as part of that story.  This is not just our goal, it’s our commission, and it’s great.  But it isn’t necessarily easy.

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