|Image from “People’s Daily” http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90782/7273990.html|
James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosted the Oscars this past weekend. Like many people across the country I watched, and tuned in and out. These two young actors were recruited to host after a few years of declining ratings with the hope that more young people would watch the Academy Awards with younger faces on the screen.
The two joked about it as they began the show. James Franco turned to Anne Hathaway and said, “You look so young and hip.” She replied, “You look very appealing to a younger demographic yourself.”
Over the course of the last couple of days the media outlets have been blasting the two of them for not being as good as hosts past, not as funny or engaging, not new enough or hip enough, not trans-formative enough, they were too nervous, too distant, and whole other host of negative things I have no need to share here. Given the circumstances I think they did a fair job. It is hard to change a culture, a demographic, a tradition, an expectation by changing the players but keeping everything else the same. The same is true in the church as a whole and in congregations in particular.
Here is why…
Youth Doesn’t Automatically Make You Effective.
Kirk Douglass was the highlight of the whole show in my opinion, and he is in his nineties. Experience does matter. I think of the nervous mess I was the few times I preached over a decade ago, and how much more confident I’ve become in that aspect of ministry. It’s not youth that got me there, but working on my craft. Some of my favorite preachers are those who’ve been at it a long time. Not those who have gotten complacent or overconfident, but those who have continued to work on their craft to bring their message more clearly, more understandably, and involving the listeners in what is happening. There are teachers like that. Mentors like that. Bosses like that. People in your life like that. Perhaps you are like that for others in your life. That doesn’t mean that being young doesn’t make you effective either, it just means that giftedness (God given abilities) and skill (working at it) trump age. At least it should. I’m 35. I hope when I’m in my nineties kids still give me high fives in church.
Doing the Same Thing Often Brings the Same Result.
Is it a realistic expectation to think a different outcome will come from a show (besides the hosts) that is relatively the same as its always been? The monologue roasted some of the nominees (as happens every year), the presenters made pithy comments before reading the nominees and winners (as happens every year), the speeches done by the winners were uninspired long list of people they thanked (at least I think they were. We used the DVR to record the Oscars so we could fast forward through the speeches), and the show lasted almost four hours (as it does every year). Maybe the format is the problem. I think it is worth considering that even if Billy Crystal had hosted this year, ratings still would have fallen by 7%. In out fast paced, up to the minute world, four hours, and droning speeches, just doesn’t work. What about church? We have changed the format any number of times over the centuries without changing the substance or the message. In a little book called, The Practicing Congregation, (Herndon: Alban Institute, 2004) Diana Butler Bass highlights five changes of church format in America. (The dates indicate the time of their apex, not a beginning and ending) – Comprehenisve Congregations (1607-1789) – Pre Revolutionary churches that served as the centerpiece of new colonies that giving identity, purpose, and cohesion to communities; Devotional Congregations (1789-1870) – budding new denominational churches that stressed their differences in worship and social action by inspiring personal devotion and piety; Social Congregations (1870-1950) – Post Civil War full blown denominational churches with outposts all across the country for a more mobile culture. The Fellowship hall develops as the key space of church property to build community (denominations like the ELCA and others still primarily operate out of this paradigm); Participatory Congregations (1950-present) – Post World War II churches less interested in denominational branding and more interested in becoming “full service” congregations through programming and marketing to religious consumers. The church growth and mega church movements come from here. Intentional Congregations (1990-present) – Bringing forward the Christian tradition through community and teaching faith practices in a post-Christian, post modern, post denominational culture. Many revitalized mainline protestant congregations are moving this way and the emerging church movement out of the Evangelical movement are embracing a renewed interest in bring the tradition forward. We could debate the intricacies and accuracies of her assessment, but her point is the church is not static, but adapts. Why the Oscars failed has less to do in my opinion with the hosts, and more with the producers and writers who created the same product, in the same format, and expected a different result. One of the things I get excited about is how we continue to enjoy a living tradition; one that breathes life into the present and carries faith forward into the future. Maybe the Academy could learn that too.
Engaging the Culture is Different than Distracting the Culture.
I’m not exactly sure why Americans are so drawn to celebrity, other than to think of it as some form of escapism from the realities we face on a daily basis. Even “reality” TV is such fiction and far from actual real life, it is its own form of distraction. The movies are great at creating alternate worlds full of fictional characters and their problems, triumphs and personalities. I love movies and I love TV, but I know they are not real. I wonder if people watch TV and movies and hope for a world like the one they see on the screen. I wonder what people think about when they watch such extravagance on the red carpet and by the commentators as they struggle to pay their own bills and find employment. I wonder what message is ultimately being portrayed. Are we able to deal with the challenges and problems of our day, or are we so distracted that we don’t even pay attention? The church can be just as guilty of this – falling prey to try to create distractions from our everyday experience; rather than equipping us to engage them faithfully, productively, capably and intentionally. It’s more than asking “What Would Jesus Do?” but discerning how we who bear the cross of Christ in our lives are called to bear witness in these things. Updating or renewing the church has less to do with getting the bells and whistles right and hoping we connect, and more to do with following a present God – a loving Father, a living Christ and a blowing Spirit active in your life and mine.
I like the Oscars. I love the church. I’ll probably tune in to watch the Oscars next year, but recording it definitely made it a better experience, and will next year too, regardless of who hosts it. As for the church I thank you for tuning in each week. Not only to this exploration of how to be the church in our changing world but also being the church together on Sunday mornings, and in our lives of faith each day. Our lives together go beyond young and hip and appealing to a younger demographic. They are an ongoing process of becoming who we have been promised to be – the body of Christ. God be with us all.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”