Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Pearl

Matt laughs at my love of made-for-TV movies. I often know well-known actors not from their famous feature films, but from TNT original miniseries and whatnot instead. Anyway, while I was getting dressed for church last Sunday--deciding whether to dress up or not--a line came to mind from "Young Catherine," a 1991 TV movie about Catherine the Great, starring Julia Ormond before her breakout role in "Legends of the Fall." In this scene, an Orthodox priest is trying to convice the young princess that it's okay to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church from her original Lutheran faith.

"Do you know how a pearl is made?" Father Todorsky asks her. "A grain of sand finds its way into an oyster. The oyster finds this uncomfortable, and so over time it coats the sand . . . We often find the words of our Lord uncomfortable. And so, in our various ways, we try to hide him. But break open the pearl, and there's still that grain of sand, the eternal truth. . ."

Those aren't the exact lines from the film (though probably embarassingly close) but that scene nonetheless came to mind  as I stared into my closet, debating whether to wear a dress or pants, heels or flats. See, one worship service I would be attending is very casual, while the other is a little dressier, so I was torn. (I admit it, I sometimes go to another church before the church my husband pastors. Here's part of why. So sue me.) I thought of the classic argument about dressier attire being more reverent, but also wondered to what extent dressing up for church is a shell, a way of feeling reverent so we don't notice as much if our hearts are not as focused on God as they could be.

Interestingly, the other church I attended was celebrating its fifth anniversary, and so the message was kind of a "here's what we're about" sort of thing. In it, the pastor mentioned the idea of avoiding "distractions" in worship, such as low-quality music (if all you can think is "wow, that musician is awful," you're not going to be able to focus on singing praises to God). He included style of dress, not saying that you should dress one way or another, but that if you are not being yourself, your discomfort will be a distraction to you.

I was amused thinking about how different churches, with their wildly different styles, have different perceptions of what "distraction" in worship is. The pastor speaking, and other churches that value highly polished worship experiences, see amateurish music, missed cues, faulty sound equipment, etc. as distractions. Meanwhile, other churches see polish as inauthentic, and find guitars, amplification, and screens distracting. Between those two extremes, I have my preference, and I'm sure you do too.

Whenever I'm driving in a new place, I notice all the different churches lining the road. (There are just as many churches along my usual routes, but they often go without notice, you know?) There's an Assemblies of God church across the street from a Baptist church, which is just down the road from a United Methodist church, which is a block away from a Church of Christ. Why do we need so many churches? Especially the tiny ones, which could combine with another tiny church and still not fill a sanctuary. It seems so unnecessary, so wasteful of land and buildings and utilities.

Obviously, I know they all want to go it alone because they have their own preferences, their own styles, their own histories, their own theological peccadillos. (Perhaps I know it better than most, since my focus area in school was American church history/culture, and I actually find all this stuff fascinating, even as I find it frustrating.) Religion flourished in America because we have such freedom to express ourselves and establish new groups. (If you're really interested in this topic, Alexis deTocqueville's Democracy in America and Sidney Mead's The Lively Experiment would be good reading.)

But does all this diversity, even just within Protestant Christianity, have a purpose? Does it help us grow closer to God? Or is it just a pearly shell created to comfort and protect us from the often uncomfortable truth of Jesus' gospel?

Truthfully, I don't know. I personally have strong preferences between the various shades and textures of pearl (to extend the metaphor), because for me, some are more condusive than others for seeing and worshiping the sand at the center. And I guess that's the real question for any church--does its worship style and other characteristics help people grow as disciples of Christ--or is the pearl just a distraction?


P.S. Don't forget--my 500th post giveaway is still going on until next Wednesday!


Jennifer (Wade) McCluskey said...

Hi Jess. I know you don't know me, but I occasionally read your blog when Nancy reposts it to facebook. I went to BHS with Matt and Nancy, but since I have moved to rural upstate NY I have seen a very big issue with too much church diversity here. It is one thing to have so many churches in Nashville where they all have big congregations, but up here we have almost as many churches with only about 30 or so people in each congregation. It really makes me concerned for the future of the church here as so many of the members are aging and not replaced with younger people. So thanks for sharing, since this is definitely an issue I have been thinking a lot about recently.

Katie Bug said...

In our neighborhood alone, I can count 11 churches within a one mile radius...and I'm almost positive that only one of them has more than 100 congregants.
You raised a lot of great questions in your post. I've been at our church for 20 years, and during that time we have made huge changes in every area of church life, including musical style, "dress code", ministry approaches, and educational structure. As a congregation we have definetely wrestled with coming to a corporate understanding of worship (and I'm not just refering to music).
I think it has taught the vast majority of us to remember that worship is about God...and that forgetting this truth leaves us worshiping worship or worshiping ourselves.


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