Sunday

The Failure of Christian Street Festivals

I recently attended a major Christian street festival.
I was embarrassed.
Don’t get me wrong, it was well produced; it wasn’t a two-bit “guy on a soapbox” preacher with a cheesy “sound on a stick” PA. These folks had very good bands on a real stage with a professional sound system and it really sounded good. The administration was tight: the right supplies and the right people were in the right places at the right time. It was a well done event.
Christians often get that one wrong in street festivals: we often look stupid because we can’t handle the simple tools of a basic public event. When we’re in the public eye, when we’re speaking to the community at large, we need to use the vocabulary and the technology that speaks to the community, and we need to use those tools with a basic level of competence that they can respect. It doesn’t do to speak Swahili when talking to Vietnamese neighbors, now does it?
This festival got the technology right, and that was a nice change. But they got the festival completely wrong.
Let me describe it this way: Sometimes when I have a day off, I like to relax, and sometimes “relaxing” means lying on the couch in my boxer shorts and a worn out t-shirt eating nachos and reading a paperback novel with an unshaven face. Or I may wear my grubbies, and my closest friends or my family are welcome to come to the house and hang out with me; we’ll eat chips and slurp Pepsi and talk about the game in our grubby clothes. In the privacy of my own home and with family or close friends, it’s appropriate to hang around in clothes that we wouldn’t generally wear out in society.
But when I’m going out in public (to go to the mall, to work, to a restaurant…), I try to remember to put on decent clothes. I don’t particularly like to dress up, so I may wear Levis and a t-shirt without holes, or if my bride and I am doing something together, I’ll probably wear a button-up shirt with Dockers, and real shoes. I really don’t feel comfortable in public in my skivvies; in fact, if I showed up in the grocery store in my boxers, I’d embarrass both myself and anyone who saw me.
But that’s exactly what most Christian festivals do. We the church are in public, but we’re dressed for the casual environment of our homes. We’re in public in our skivvies.
What do I mean?
The bands that come out of our churches pretty much always play worship music; that’s all they (we) know. The world doesn’t “get” worship music. That’s for ourselves in privacy, not for public display. In fact worship is supposed to be all about intimacy, and intimacy doesn’t really belong in public.
Often enough, we have “intercessors” scattered around the park or plaza where we are. I don’t know how to say this any way but blunt: intercessors are weird. They accomplish miracles, and I’ll be the first in line to ask these weird brethren and sisteren to slap hands on me and pray, but that will be in private, away from the public eye! Come on, have at it, but do it in private! Waving our hands and yelling weird stuff to an invisible God is going to get in the way of anyone outside the cultural clique of the Pentecostal church.
Worst of all, when we speak to the crowds – when we do that thing we call “preaching the gospel” –we’re speaking in a whole other language. We shout about being “washed in the blood” and “repenting” and “worship.” Even people who deplore “Christianese” very often use it when they preach; I suppose it’s nerves. We’re communicating the most valuable information in the universe, and we might as well be speaking Swahili. I can’t help but think that it’s a complete waste of time. No, it’s worse: it confirms the world’s judgment of the Church: we’re out of touch, we’re an irrelevant culture, like Mennonites or Hasidic Jews: meaningful only to ourselves. We assure them that there’s no reason to listen to the Church.
Our public gatherings are increasingly irrelevant to a world that is growing more distant from their Christian roots. It reminds me of fat guys in their tighty-whities in the grocery store: Ewww! I did not want to see that!
On the other hand, I can see two different kinds of public gatherings that could have real legitimacy:
The first is where we the church get together to do church business, and we acknowledge publicly that we’re not even attempting to talk to the people on the outside. Maybe we need to repent for something, or make prophetic declarations or whatever. That’s fine as long as we acknowledge that this is something private: “You’re welcome to watch if you want, but this isn’t about you; this is about us.” That, from my perspective, is occasionally appropriate. It’s like newlyweds kissing in public: if you stop and watch, it might be embarrassing, but we understand that newlyweds do that kind of stuff, and it’s OK.
On the other hand, if we’re going to try to communicate with the world, we need to speak in their language. Worship probably isn’t the right music; we need to learn how to sing about joy or friendship or love and maybe include stuff about how God thinks about us, and we need good musicians. We need to sing to the people, which is exactly opposite of a worship service where we’re trying to lead their singing to a God they may not [yet] know.
By all means, have intercessors at the street festival! But if they can’t act “normal” (defined as “not drawing attention to themselves”), then keep them in a dark room, out of the public eye. Open the door every once in a while and throw in fresh meat to keep them going, but don’t show them to a world we’re trying to communicate to; they won’t understand, and they don’t need to.
And for Heaven’s sake, please can we learn to speak English? The drunks passing the bottle on the other side of the meadow don’t understand “the blood” or “the Lord told me” or “get saved.” We’re speaking Cantonese among people who only understand French.
I am not, by the way, trying to dismiss power evangelism. I understand that people who experience the power of God are far more likely to listen to an explanation – in English – of why they’re suddenly shaking or why their back doesn’t hurt for the first time in years. But do it in a way that works for them, not for you.
Yeah, there are the odd exceptions, when God clearly directs. He told Ezekiel to wander around nude for a year and more: God’s as weird as His intercessors sometimes. But let’s not do the naked thing – literally or metaphorically – unless He clearly instructs us to. Gets a mite drafty in the winter.
This festival that provoked this rant broke almost every rule: the worship was great for the members of the Christian clique; the intercessors moaned and shook and shouted; the prayers prayed from the stage were thick with frightening shrieks and shouts and the brief “gospel message” was indecipherable, except to the “blood bought Saints of the Lamb, hallelujah, bless God!” If this had been behind closed doors, it would have been a fun time. For the blood-bought believers anyway
One old guy watching from the trees summed it up pretty well as he set his joint down long enough to put on headphones to drown out the preacher: “Are you with these wacko’s? I just don’t get why they’re here wrecking our park like this!”
And that’s all we did. We were in public in our underwear, talking to the passers by in our own made-up language. The onlookers saw and were embarrassed for us.
I wept for the loss of another opportunity to speak to the community.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I don't agree with your POV. I can honestly say I was saved not because the place I walked into had everything user-friendly for me--the natural man doesn't comprehend the things of the spirit of God anyway. The guy you quote at the end makes my case. If God isn't speaking on another frequency that bypasses his natural comprehension, no one gets saved! The preaching of the Cross is foolishness to the unsaved, but we are told to preach it anyway. Why? Because some will hear it and respond to the message. We can't know in advance who that is so the less we tailor the message, the better off we are. That way the Lord has room to move and get thru despite our limitations. You're article sounds like a page from a seeker-sensitive manual on how to do a Christian festival. Sorry, bro. I think you missed the whole point on this one. Were you too close to that pot smoker?

McPilgrim said...

That's an interesting perspective, Anon, and a good one; it just misses the point in this post.

I absolutely agree: the preaching Cross is foolishness to the natural mind. My point is this: we don't need to add to that "foolishness." That's God's job, not ours. Your POV might lead to an opinion that the more foolish we are, the more offensive, the more religious we get, the more people will encounter God. I don't think so!

Yes, we preach the gospel, and yes, we allow people to be offended at it (as if we could prevent that). But we speak it in a language they understand, not in Christian-ese, where they can't understand the message enough to become offended by it: they're offensive long before the message of the gospel ever got to their ears. Paul was "all things to all people so that by all means he might save some" (2Cor 9:22) We're staying one thing to all people that by all means we might make all to stumble; we're in danger of invoking Luke 17:2.

By the way, our seeker-sensitive brethren are doing a far better job than we are of expanding the kingdom; perhaps we can learn something from them?

Our pot smoker on the hill never heard the gospel: he had tuned out long before the gospel was "preached." He never even heard our words over his music.