This past Holy Week, three experiences re-shaped the way I understand the relationship between the church and American culture.
SCENE ONE: THE TRIP TO THE GROCERY STORE
It all started on Palm Sunday. After leaving my church’s early service, I drove to the grocery store for a few needed items. When the morning’s news came over the radio, I expected some announcement about the world’s Christians commemorating the start of Holy Week. Instead, the journalist noted the day’s biggest headline: a report of presidential impropriety and a scandalous “60 minutes” interview.
Walking through the produce department a short time later, I was struck by how many people were not at church but were at the grocery store. It was 9:30 AM on Palm Sunday. You have to understand that I am a pastor. For most of my life, I have spent Sunday after Sunday in series of countless worship services. Of course, I have known that there are people who do not (or cannot) attend church, but I can’t say that I have really ever experienced or understood their world. It is almost like a parallel universe. In the “church” world, the day began with an exclamation of “Hosanna!” In the world outside of the sanctuary, I overheard two employees discussing plans for the store’s daily food shipment. For them, Palm Sunday was just another day at work.
SCENE TWO: YARD SALES ON EASTER
A week later, I celebrated Easter in Southern California. While on the way to church that morning, I saw the most curious site—a yard sale. A yard sale on Easter. Intentionally or unintentionally, this household decided the best day of the year to sell their home’s unwanted items was Resurrection Sunday. I couldn’t believe it. Cars lined the block. I saw a stream of eager shoppers power walking to the house while countless others browsed through the bins of clothing, electronics, and small appliances scattered across the yard. While I anticipate that some of these individuals had been to worship at some point that weekend, I have a feeling that many had not. For them, the most amazing part of their Easter Sunday may have been the discount they received on their second-hand purchase.
SCENE THREE: EASTER MONDAY
I flew back home late Easter Sunday night. The following morning (Easter Monday), I was walking to my office at Indiana University when I saw one of my colleagues. I asked, “How was your weekend?” She replied, “I’m pretty tired.” Being in the Mid-West, I expected that her weariness resulted from a weekend full of longstanding family traditions or faith commitments. Instead, she said, “I worked my second job all day on Sunday. I’m exhausted.”
A FAILURE OF INCARNATION
I am realizing how little I understand the world outside of the church, and I fear that many church leaders are like me. In the days since Easter, I have noticed that our worship services, sermons, and even public invitations are often filled with language and allusions that this culture does not understand. Many of us—me included—are internally focused, blind to the world outside the sanctuary, and unable to speak this culture’s language well. As a result, we fail to incarnate the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively.
Jesus’ incarnational understanding of the culture outside the temple allowed him to communicate the divine message in a way that public crowds followed him. Like Jesus, the Apostle Paul used culturally relevant imagery and language throughout his ministry to reach people where they were. It’s what the early Methodists did during the Wesleyan revival when they decided to exit the church and preach in the open air to coal miners. My friends, we live in a day where yard sales are scheduled on Easter. Effective church leadership necessitates that we seek to understand this world, connect with it incarnationally, and learn to speak its language.