Thursday, February 27, 2014

How Sister Act Skewed Real Urban Congregational Renewal

If you’ve never seen Sister Act, you probably should. It’s funny and charming and relatively innocent. If you haven’t, here’s a three sentence summary: a lounge singer enters a convent while in the witness protection program, only to bring new life into a moribund, lifeless and hopeless religious community. Her zany antics revive the church and the neighborhood. What would they have ever done without that crazy lady hiding from the mob?! 

The film pokes fun at the stodgy order or nuns, but it is never particularly hostile to them. It’s not the fault of the nuns that their congregation is dull and dying. After all, they’re nuns! What could they possibly know about vitality in church life? Everyone knows nuns aren’t good for much but praying and slapping the wrists of delicate schoolboys. But for not being hostile and for only portraying the nuns as out-of-touch and not outright evil (or possessed by demons), this Hollywood film deserves credit.

As a pastor of a small, urban congregation, however, I often think about the subtle judgment this film offers on traditional ministry in the city. While I wouldn’t expect a Hollywood comedy to offer sincere insight on the struggles of inner city religious work, I do find the film to be typically American in all the worst ways. The underlying message is that you can’t expect old traditions to have value in the modern age. Times have changed. Chant is out, hip hop is in. If you don’t adapt, you die. In the film, it only takes 90 minutes for a dead church to become the life of the party, all thanks to this crazy sister who wasn’t afraid to buck the trend and shake things up. 

You have to ask if life isn’t intimating art. While I seriously doubt anyone would ever directly admit it, I would bet this film had a subtle - if not profound - impact on a generation of young pastors and church leaders. This film singlehandedly made hanging on to the tradition embarrassing and passé. Every pastor wanted to achieve what Whoopi did; no one would defend the previous life of the convent. 

In the 20 years this film has been out, there has been a revolution in the American church. The assumption is now that there is no room for the tradition in worship - especially in a city - if the church is to have a future. As Hollywood is the de facto culture shaper in America, there is little doubt that films like Sister Act have served as the template for how to do ministry: young, hip, and relevant are the defining hallmarks of nearly every major movement in the church, from the Postmoderns emergents to the megachurches to many black churches to mainline churches, and most of all, in church plants. 

When this film came out, these “worship wars” - which are really philosophical, cultural and missional wars - were still in their infancy. Today the war is really over, and the “contemporary” side has claimed almost total victory. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox continue to retain the historic liturgy. But in the evangelical and Protestant church, the liturgy is becoming obsolete about as fast as the nation itself turns from Christianity at large. (Yes, I know Sister Act took place in a Catholic community, but this was merely superficial in the film.)

What has helped me see this is several meetings with young mission planters who hail from traditional Protestant churches with deep liturgical backgrounds. But both regard liturgical worship as a hopeless ally in building a church of young men and women. They may retain the order of the liturgy - commonly defined now as Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending - but the music is guitars, djembes and the genre of praise. It has even been said to me, as though I might not take any offense at all, that our church couldn’t possibly reach the next generation of Christians and/or seekers, because no one could relate to traditional hymns out of a hymnal, chanted music, or formal liturgy. 

Of course, they may be right. But I’m not sure that’s a judgment against the liturgy as much as our expectations of future Christians. Following in the Sister Act mold, the mantra seems to be that an urban parish cannot possibly be attractive to those in their neighborhood without shaking things up and being iconoclastic. Because in America, we love iconoclasts, change and rebellion.

It’s just a shame that mission planters so rarely consider that in giving these urbanites what they want has created a competitive environment with the historic church. They have also exploited American consumerism in what should be a catholic and apostolic endeavor.

It isn’t the church’s job or calling to appeal to anyone. Persuasive? Yes. Welcoming? Sure. Liked? Maybe. But the church doesn’t have to appeal to anyone. The calling of the church is to be honest and to draw men and women into a formative process, wherein they are discipled. Their emotions and musical preferences have nothing to do with that process, at least not necessarily. And superficial changes to music also symbolize nothing, at least not necessarily. The church is supposed to form people into the image of Christ, people who freely choose to be conformed by the Spirit, not the world. 

Am I saying that contemporary worship is evil or that Sister Act is some kind of bane of existence for the church? Of course not. I am saying, though, that in subtly ridiculing the traditions of the church in the way it did, it made it almost impossible in its wake to be an urban parish holding fast to traditions. It has obviously become far easier to try to look cool than to defend the tradition, asking new Christians to learn from it and be formed by it instead of lampooning it for the new shiny thing. So while Sister Act may be a fine family comedy, it did nothing for those of us who aren’t yet ready to give up on men and women coming to church on its terms, not their own.