Wrong. It's the backdrop for the much-talked about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' Grammy performance of "Same Love," followed by Queen Latifah overseeing the marriage of thirty-some gay and straight couples. True, the set kind of got lost in the shuffle; the cameras zooming in for closeups on singers and performers and newlyweds. But it was there, very noticeably there; the television audience catching it in bits and pieces and immediately realizing what would be rehashed on talk shows in the days that followed: a statement was being made.
My first reaction to the church backdrop was admittedly not a positive one, and it had nothing to do with the statement. It was the knee-jerk response of someone who's been raised in the church and now makes it their calling: that the backdrop was just a backdrop and nothing more. It was there to fit the bill (the tune certainly has a gospel vibe) and to somehow add an air of legitimacy to the weddings. Which, as an aside, is interesting; since I do just about as many weddings outside the church as I do in it.
So my initial negative reaction: it's just a prop and nothing more. And that got me a little defensive, to be honest, because despite all its warts I personally love the church and consider it to be more than a prop. It also made me sad, because my heart aches that a whole swath of folks have not shared the same experience with church that I have.
But a few days later, my thinking evolved. I thought about the fact that these Grammy people were under no obligation to use this particular backdrop. They could've just as easily erected a beautiful mountain scene or winery landscape or personal backyard grillout or country club golf course or any other outside-the-church locale I've had the pleasure of officiating weddings (my personal favorite : two people in their mid-40's on a boat in the middle of Lake Norman. Also my first wedding).
I also realized that this whole event - the music, the wedding, the statement - was a celebration. The intended joyful atmosphere was clear from the start. Macklemore, jumping up and down, noticeably enthused to the core. Singer Mary Lambert, beaming. Queen Latifah's smile, large enough to be picked up by satellites orbiting earth. And, of course, the couples themselves; filled with the joy of anyone who has just been united in the bonds of marriage. You can argue politics or theology or cultural divide; you can even argue the downside of "wedding-as-show" (which is at the heart of the "let's-avoid-the-Broadway-production" conversation I have with brides and grooms to be) but you can't argue the one thread coursing through it all, tying it together: unbridled and pure joy and celebration.
And it all took place "in church."
I've said before that I truly believe today's generation wants very much for the church to get it right, in some ways demonstrating more hope in us than we have in ourselves. They would love, absolutely love, to see today's church succeed in living out its mission to help build God's kingdom on earth. And I maintain that they would come in droves if we did that.
And that's what I began to take away from this Grammy performance the more I thought about it: they were sending us a message. A very clear and hopeful message about what they long for church to be, what they need it to be, what they want it to be. And here's what I think they might have been trying to say to us:
We want church to be a celebration. And they're not talking about style. This isn't a "contemporary-worship-or-nothing" ultimatum. It's a deeper issue. Can traditional worship be boring, and can contemporary worship be exciting? Yep and yep. At the same time, I've been to plenty of traditional services that, through their liturgy and flow, exuded joy; and I've experienced contemporary styles of worship that felt too showy, too forced, too routine. What this generation is looking for is a genuine joy of the gathering, worship style aside. Which leads to the next message:
We want a church that's authentic. Nothing frustrates this generation more than coming to church and feeling as if they're an audience member rather than part of a body; an exercise in ritual instead of participants in the movement. They want church to feel real. And not just to them, but to the person sitting next to them - because they understand (sometimes better than we do) that faith isn't a solo excursion but a group journey. If church being "real" causes you to think about the Velveteen Rabbit story, go with it. That's exactly the thing they're looking for.
We want a church that lives out its convictions instead of just talking about them. The Grammy performance displayed this model as clear as day: they talked about the power of love in a song, and then they actually did something with that conviction. Action must follow beliefs, they're telling us, or the beliefs mean little more than some common ideologies that bind like-minded people together in a group. They like the country club when it's time to play golf with their buddies or go swimming with a few families on a hot summer day. But when it comes to making a difference in the world, the country club won't cut it. The church needs to.
We want a church that loves and accepts everyone - even us, and especially those not like us. Granted, not every church is ready for this. And there's the rub. Still, this generation will make a pretty good case that doing so is following in the footsteps of Jesus himself. Disagree? You can certainly argue it. What you can't do is ignore it.
Years ago, when my state was voting on an amendment to define marriage in fairly restrictive terms, a small church I would pass every day on the way to the boys' school had two signs in their front yard. The first was a campaign sign expressing unmitigated support for the restrictive amendment; the church making clear where it stood. The other was the church marquee, literally just a few feet away, advertising their upcoming Bible School with the tag line: "All Are Welcome." This generation picks up on these contradictions much faster than we in the church do, and it drives them absolutely nuts.
I'm not saying the church needs to start modeling its music, worship style and ceremonies after an seven-minute Grammy performance. Macklemore can drop a pretty sweet line or two and Queen Latifah's smile makes me smile, but I'm not going to invite either to fill the pulpit next time I'm on vacation. And you know what? I don't think this generation wants me to, either.
What they want from the church is faith, hope and love; and the joyful life each of those things leads us to live. Come to think of it, that sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?