the church of the lowest common denominator

one month later, i have not stopped thinking…just lacked time to document my thoughts.

at the beginning of April the CEO of Pixar, Robert Iger, was having to respond to questions about the commercial viability of Pixar’s latest film, Up.  industry insiders were concerned that it wouldn’t have mass appeal for a variety of reasons highlighted in a New York Times article.  Om Malik grabbed this gem of a quote for a blog piece based on the article:

We seek to make great films first. If a great film gives birth to a franchise, we are the first company to leverage such success. A check-the-boxes approach to creativity is more likely to result in blandness and failure.

as i’ve been studying church models recently (including reading Simple Church), evaluating the future of youth ministry (including the Seismos posts on this blog & reading Youth Minitry 3.0), and through a myriad of conversations & thought processes related to my vocational role in ministry, i think the Church has much to learn from Iger’s thought process.

683227_72513210we’ve been too obsessed with mimicking culture, rather than creating it.  we’ve been far too concerned with other church’s models of success, more interested in what God is doing in someone else’s “successful” church than what He’s calling us to custom-create in our own space.  our church services and programmatic methods seem to be thoroughly marked by a “check-the-boxes approach to creativity,” rather than the messy, organic, wide open Gospel approach we claim to read so fervently in our gatherings.

by the way, it turns out that Up is off to a pretty lofty start, pulling $68+ million in its opening weekend, the third best for a Pixar film, and receiving practically unanimous rave reviews along the way.

when we unleash the God-given creativity found in each of us, then fuse it together in this glorious body we’ve been given called the Church, we realize an incredible part of our purpose as Christians.  but when we kowtow to the lowest common denominator, by mimicking practices instead of learning from principles, we deny the the vibrant, full-bodied creation that Christ called the Church to be.

so then…not that we may copy but instead celebrate the variety that is present, i ask:

what expressions of the body of Christ have you seen that refuse the mold of religion & instead stream Christ creatively into culture?


15 Responses to the church of the lowest common denominator

  1. Great insight!

    The only ones I’ve seen have been the house churches, although that’s not the criteria for refusing religion and it certainly still happens in the homes as well.

    Cloning patterns that work elsewhere works well with inanimate objects like traffic patterns and assembly lines. But, when dealing with life systems, cloning patterns are deadly. (This is what movements are.) Christianity is not actually a movement, but a Person, and each Church is a unique, living expression of that Person that will not and should not be replicated anywhere else in the world.

    Churches will install programs in their prescriptive (mechanical) attempt to have a “successful” corporate Christian life, although the idea of success may be skewed by our cultural template.

    (See “Is Your Church a Clone?” post on my blog)

    I look forward to your thoughts on “Simple Church.”

  2. Tim says:

    Loved this article!

  3. mattwiggins says:

    Just out of curiosity, how would you categorize worship liturgy, as check-the-boxes or creativity?

  4. mattwiggins says:

    Okay, so no one has really had a chance to respond to this, but I’m going to respond to it myself (and none of this really responds to your actual question) 🙂

    While I didn’t grow up in a liturgy-heavy church, I serve in one now. And believe me, it’s not something I thought I would enjoy. However, I’ve learned quite a bit about liturgy and the reasons why and can finally say, now that I understand it, I really appreciate it.

    Nothing you’ve said makes me think you’re calling out liturgy, but I’m going to use it as my example because I think it’s a good microcosm for what we see in the church. Most of the non-denoms and truly contemporary churches have done away with traditional church liturgy, which is fine. If I had to guess at their reasons, I would imagine that I’d hear kind of the same things you mentioned that describe check-the-boxes church. Fill in your call to worship, your prayer of confession, your assurance of pardon, add a sermon and a few hymns, and you’re good to go. Sure, I could see that as being uninspired.

    But consider this: would you dare call Shakespeare’s sonnets banal or uncreative? The dude wrote 154 of them. Mostly about love. All of them 14 lines of iambic pentameter with the ABAB CDCD EFEF GG ryhme scheme. That is amazing. Don’t believe me? Try writing one sonnet about anything, even skip the whole iambic pentameter part. It’s pretty freaking heard to come up with something coherent, let alone something that is still considered quality nearly 400 years later.

    Now here’s something else to consider: Shakespeare didn’t come up with the sonnet and he isn’t even the only one to do sonnets. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other aspiring poets worked at it as well. Does that diminish what Shakespeare did at all? Not in my opinion. So, is there anything wrong with the often-imitated form of the sonnet? Absolutely not. It’s what the writers put into the sonnet that separated the lasting from the ephemeral.

    So, here’s my point in all this. Liturgy, as an example, is the sonnet. What each individual pastor or worship leader comes up with is the individual poem. Some are going to be good, some are going to be not-so-good. The problem isn’t the framework, it’s what goes into the frame. Quality worship leaders will come up with beauty and truth to put into their calls to worship. They’ll explore, push the envelope, and maybe use worshippers’ expectations to turn things on their head.

    Don’t believe me still? Consider this: probably two of the most creative movies of the last thirty years are Star Wars and The Matrix. Both of them are pretty watershed to their respective generations and have inspired all sorts of folks in lots of different ways. But Star Wars was really just a clever blending of Joseph Campbell’s theories on myth and hero combined with Akira Kurosawa’s movie The Hidden Fortress. And the Matrix is just a special effects laden Dark City meets Terminator meets Alice in Wonderland. The thing that separates these two movies from their individual components is the synthesis from the creators. Neither set of writers/production designers/directors/actors/etc. completely reinvented the wheel but rather just took the spokes that worked off of other wheels and added them to their wheels.

    I think sometimes we can get carried away with trying to be different and new and innovative when we really don’t need to be. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time, we just need to correctly interpret what wheel we need and adapt it to its context. This might be completely anathema, but I’m implementing a lot of Doug Fields’ Purpose Driven Youth Ministry stuff for my church. Yep, boring, I know. But the fun part is making it specific to my kids and making stuff they’re going to connect with. That means throwing some of it out and doing some of my own stuff, but still working with a framework that points kids in God’s direction.

    So, very long and over-metaphored. Short story: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater (as if this comment needed another metaphor).

  5. tim says:

    great post. great insight. great reminder.

    i would say that first and foremost we are called to be ourselves. i think with that comes the call to be original, which is part of our God-given-creative-DNA.

    it’s sort of like a trap, isn’t it? the trap to do what someone else is doing… as if replication will produce the same results. we get to quickly deceived by the notion that “if it worked for Joel and his ministry than it must work for me and my ministry.”

    now i hold to idea that ministry (in particular, youth ministry) is as much ‘beg, borrow & steal’ as anything. and i certainly think that the sharing of ideas should be more common place. but that should, idealy lead to individuals in ministry to adapt and inspire new, fresh ideas.

    in the areas of christian music (ccm) i’ve always felt that the CCM industry was always 5-10 years behind music culture. why do we wait and then follow the trends? we should be setting the trends and so should CCM… but it never grasped that concept and as a result may be very near death. (which, frankly is not a bad thing… but that is for another discussion).

    but yeah. you’ve dared us to do things differently. we’ve followed an uncreative view of church and worship for way to long. now the problem lies in the fact that churches don’t know how to deal with the change – or don’t have the energy to change… and so they sit back and do the same… neglecting the fact the the lost and lonely desperately are waiting for us to bring the Good News to them in new, fresh ways.

    i am rambling on incoherently…

  6. joe says:

    now see matt, i would have thought that maybe joel would agree with you. i took the post to say that our new cookie cutter models that we think bring success are really dulling the body of christ. after reading this i pictured a body of believers that stood out as its own culture and people. that could mean worship styles or liturgy or anything, but more than that it means that we dont live cookie cutter lives either.

    i took the post to mean that things like liturgy are welcomed and that is part of the creativity and beauty of God. i was challenged to just not settle for status quo because “it works”.

  7. joeldaniel says:

    @Mike…thanks for your thoughts. i think there’s some really great ministry being done through home churches. i’m not sure i agree that it’s the only place i see the Church actually definitely being the Church, but it definitely exists there in some really creative, worthwhile ways.

  8. joeldaniel says:

    @Matt – great question. i really mean that…fantastic question. not totally sure how to answer it, but i’ll give a shot. i’m responding before i read others responses to your responses, so i may respond yet again after reading others thoughts.

    i love liturgy. which is quite strange for such a staunch Quaker 🙂 but there’s no point in denying it. one of my favorite worship experiences is going to Catholic mass. there is so much rich tradition there that i think we would be remiss to ignore.

    that being said, i think liturgy can and should be interpreted within the context & community that it’s presented in. a really good example, from what i know, of this is Akron Christian Reformed Church. i don’t know how to describe it on here…just to say it’s contextualized & personalized in some really effective ways.

    but this post was not (as you noted) directed at my liturgical friends…it was more of a call out to all of my evangelical friends who create their own (or too often mimic others) services.

    by the way, i think this is great and nails it:
    “I think sometimes we can get carried away with trying to be different and new and innovative when we really don’t need to be. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time, we just need to correctly interpret what wheel we need and adapt it to its context.”

    that’s exactly what i’m trying to say. when a zillion churches duplicate Northpoint, Saddleback, WillowCreek, etc, we end up having VW bugs driving around on Hummer wheels. it’s odd, ineffective, and makes us look foolish to the rest of the world. so let’s not reinvent the wheel. but let’s figure out what is the one that fits us well.

  9. joeldaniel says:

    @tim…well, you know me well enough to know i’m all about begging, borrowing, and “borrowing without asking” (you legalistic Methodists call it stealing 😉

    seriously, though, i think it’s high time we all got over our hang ups on change. that doesn’t mean we get rid of everything. in fact, one of the greatest challenges is finding that balance. but we have a great example in the OT: we have to balance going boldly into the new land the Lord is leading us into, while recalling all of the things that the Lord has done for us in the past. the Israelites struggled both when they totally forgot about how God had provided and also when they decided they wanted things to be the way they used to be and weren’t willing to keep going.

    and don’t even get me started on CCM music. i’m thankful for the many options like mewithoutYou, anathallo, derek webb, and others who are now blazing a new way outside of CCM yet carrying on the values of what that movement really should look like: prophetic, creative, authentic, etc.

  10. joeldaniel says:

    @Joe…yeah…you say what i think better than i do 😉

  11. joeldaniel says:

    btw, i think this article, though long, is worthwhile reading that directly relates (in an indirect sort of way):

    matt & tim i think would find it particularly interesting, but really everyone should consider it as part of this convo.

  12. @joeldaniel –

    I’m not saying it’s the only place that it happens, just the only place that I have PERSONALLY seen it, which is what your question asked. The house church movement, in my humble but accurate opinion =), largely has done nothing but move the institution into homes, especially when it comes to the eternal purpose of God as recorded in Ephesians and Colossians.

    I believe it can and is going to happen in Canton outside the walls of the institution, most likely in homes and third places (where people hang out), since that is the environment where the DNA of the church is enabled to function most effectively.

  13. joeldaniel says:

    @mike…totally my fault for mis-reading that. thanks for the clarification. i’m eager to see how some of the newer outside the box movements go in Canton…i think there is much to be learned from them.

  14. joe says:

    lol. i wasnt trying to put words in your mouth joel. i guess i should have said that this is how i understood the post.

    i dont have it in front of me, but in mike yaconeli’s book “dangerous wonder” he has an awesome rant on the sin of dullness. pretty powerful stuff.he claimed it was the greatest sin in the church.

    to answer your original question at the end of the post, i have seen bits of creativity starting to flow out of the mennonite church. i see some folks moving towards intentional communities and finding ways of loving neighbors and enemies that are pretty unique.

    i see some finding ways to reach out to illegal immigrants in their communities and help them find housing and apply for legal status.

    most of the mennonite churches worship service i think are a bit stifling and uncreative.but the way they live out their lives intentionally and creatively have inspired me.

  15. mattwiggins says:

    ” . . . we end up having VW bugs driving around on Hummer wheels.” Brilliant!

    You know what I realized, Pixar kinda lives out the idea that it’s what you put in the framework that matters more than the frame. Look at “The Incredibles.” It’s a superhero story with characters that are amalgams of various superhero tropes. In other words, they’re pretty much a rip-off of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. But, again, it’s the synthesis of what they do with them that makes it fresh, original, and a heck of a lot better than “Wolverine: Origins” 🙂

    But honestly, if you want Pixar goodness, you can’t beat “Monsters, Inc.” for shear creativity on a monstrous scale. There’s nothing else out there like that!

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