The church needs more recorder.
As Drew and I slipped into the back row of our new church, a ten year old named Cameron tooted away on his neon green recorder in the front of the sanctuary. I skimmed the bulletin and found his name printed alongside the piece he was playing, which apparently is called Furusato, arranged by “Jennings,” and it is slotted as the “Music For Reflection.”
I look around at my fellow parishioners who seem delighted with this display of musical talent. They lean forward in their seats, exchanging smiles with one another, and soon I find myself smiling too. Cameron finishes the piece with a dramatic, held note that quavers with his waning breath; he releases, and the congregation gives him a hearty round of applause.
A woman in her late sixties takes the stage next, wearing a color best described as “blurple,” to lead us in an opening hymn. She sings unaccompanied by instruments, barely reaching the high D’s in “For the Beauty of the Earth.” If you had transported my grandmother from her church pew at Grayslake United Protestant Church to the stage, the music would not have sounded noticeably different.
The congregation falls into the four part harmony of the hymnal with ease, the voice of our song leader only discernible when she skims the bottom of a pitch. We sing all five verses of the hymn, including one about the joy of the ear and eye that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard. We are leading each other in singing.
The ear and eye verse ends with a comment about sin molesting us, which must be why we usually skip it. Sin being associated with creepy pedophiles isn’t the most popular metaphor for the human experience, but it’s kind of visceral and thought-provoking now that I think of it.
A child runs on stage, interrupting his father’s recitation of the day’s scripture reading. The dad picks him up and puts him on his hip for the remainder of the holy words, thanks be to god.
The day’s scripture is an obscure section of Jeremiah, the type of passage you try to skim past to get to more greeting card appropriate passages about God knowing the plans he has for you. In this section, God commanded Jeremiah to buy the ancient world equivalent of underwear, and then God uses Jeremiah’s skivvies as a prophetic symbol.
And at this point in my life, I just want more of this. I need more recorder. It’s so uncool, so irrelevant, so holy.
There’s no fancy name for it or way to hide it; I am at church in a room full of people that believe that God knocked up a virgin to give birth to his son, that this son grew up to be executed on a cross, and that his death atoned for the sins of the entire world, which happened in the first place because of a fruit-eating incident somewhere near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It’s uncanny and weird, and I wish the church would just let its freak flag fly.
There’s a lot of conversation brewing about the millennial longing for traditional church. According to Clint Jenkins, vice president of research at Barna and lead designer of a study on millennials and church, millennials have a complex relationship with sacred spaces:
“It’s tempting to oversimplify the relationship between Millennials and sacred space. For instance, it might be easy to believe such a place needs to look ultra modern or chic to appeal to teens and young adults. But the reality, like so much about this generation, is more complicated—refreshingly so. Most Millennials don’t look for a church facility that caters to the whims of pop culture. They want a community that calls them to deeper meaning.”
When I stand in a service that feels orchestrated to make me feel a certain way, and I don’t feel that way, or feel anything at all, I walk away disillusioned, fearing that I’ve woken up from a lifelong worship coma to find myself in the ranks of a cult.
Beyond just tradition, the neon green recorder reminds me that we need to let church be awkward and holy and weird.
If we take away everything else, the stylish looking pastor, the indie praise band with accordion and cello, we are left to let Christianity stand on its own—to let Jesus stand on his own—without our help or selling points.
Christianity is super weird, and I long for the church to lean into this reality rather than distract me from it. I wish more churches knew that awkwardness, roughness, and downright uncoolness are ok, even preferable to seamless productions of lights, sound, and other accouterments that get us “in the mood” for worship.
I worry that among our production teams and fear of distracting people from worship, we’ve forgotten how to gather and listen to Cameron play the recorder. We’ve stopped reading passages about holy underwear. We’ve lost our tolerance for failure or discomfort in a worship service.
I don’t want to be swept away by a worship experience. Rather, I want to be present, alive, and awake among a gathering of real people trying to believe that our redeemer lives.
Let’s turn on the lights and look at each other and at the cross.
And if Cameron wants to play his recorder again at the end of the service, let’s encourage him to do so. Let him play our benediction of Amazing Grace and Ode to Joy unto the Lord, and unto us, a community gathered not to feel a certain way, but to live out the radical call of Christ.