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COMMENTARY: Church kitsch is OK, but make yours gospel-shaped Jason Byassee, Nov 24, 2010
By Jason Byassee Special Contributor
How does the church welcome new people?
Most churches, like most people, are shy about meeting complete strangers. Even if someone were outgoing enough to want to greet a new person, at a church above a certain size (say 400), you can’t be sure the person you’re greeting actually meets the requisite newness.
I once told a man at the church my wife serves how glad I was that he was there, punctuating this with a hearty slap on the back. I came to find out he’d been there for decades and chairs committees.
I don’t greet unfamiliar people anymore.
I recently visited two quite different churches on a trip to west Michigan—one mainline, one evangelical—and winced with sympathy while watching both places squirm through this problem.
At First United Methodist in a mid-sized college town I approached the “welcome booth.” In doing so I’d already cleared a hurdle. Who wants to cross the threshold of social awkwardness of asking for a “welcome”?
The pair of greeters did their best. Both asked where I was from and proceeded to tell tales of friends and neighbors who had visited and loved North Carolina.
Then they gave me a stack of brochures, including one on the history and ministry of the church. “Come and share our joy,” it pleaded, with a photo of the pastor at children’s time, another of a Habitat for Humanity groundbreaking (with all of four parishioners present), another of the church’s Stephen Ministers (with no explanation) and another of a gauzy Jesus in shepherd guise.
Finally they gave me a mug and a packet of fair trade coffee. The mug is painted with cheery scenes, some particular to west Michigan (tulips!), others foreign to it (mountains?).
Along with an imprint of the church’s address and website, the mug gave me a little inspirational charge: “Have a great day!” That slogan could summarize the mainline church’s message to the world for the last century or so.
The entire exchange was friendly enough, but gave me no information about the nature of the church. Anyone who has attended more than a few churches will know this is far from the worst it could have been. There was a welcome booth, after all, with volunteers dutifully and cheerfully present, and willing to chat up a stranger. But needless to say, Jesus didn’t have to scramble up out of the grave to make it work.
Later in the morning I trekked to Mars Hill Bible Church, the 20,000-plus-member megalith founded by Rob Bell and housed in a former shopping mall. Once again the greeting area was called a “welcome booth,” only its setting must have once been a lunch counter of some sort.
Once again there were brochures, banter about where I was from and a genuinely warm welcome. A woman invited me to enjoy the real sacrament of today’s Christianity—the thing we cannot worship without—coffee (also fair trade).
Then the exchange veered a bit. The grandmotherly greeter pulled out a bumper sticker and handed it to me. It is aesthetically understated and fetching and theologically profound at the same time. It reads simply, “Love wins.” I’d seen it before on cars all over the country, but hadn’t known it had originated at Mars Hill.
“You’ve already seen we’re located in a former mall,” the woman said. “And with this many people leaving at the same time after church it can get a little, what shall we say, tense out there. So pastor Rob preached a sermon called ‘Love wins’ to remind us all of what we believe and how to act toward one another in the parking lot.”
I was struck at how similar these two exchanges were. They were both awkward, both made possible by the church summoning up volunteers and literature to meet the far-too-few visitors willing to subject themselves to the welcome treatment. Both involved kitsch, but how different that kitsch.
The Methodist kitsch reinforced a mainline message we’ve all taken to heart. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas summarizes, “God is nice, so we should be nice too.”
Research by Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean has shown that our churches’ children also have imbibed this message. In such a gospel, the Cross cannot but seem an embarrassment, the Resurrection and Jesus’ life and teaching pleasant enough, as long as the unpleasant bits are avoided.
The Mars Hill kitsch was still kitsch. The bumper sticker’s “Love wins” is even briefer than the coffee mug’s “Have a great day!” But it is much closer to the heart of the gospel. It makes a claim about the way things are, with an eschatological undertone (love is not obviously winning now, in any parking lot or in the universe).
And it does not leave ethics behind. Love is the way of God’s creation: Act accordingly.
The bumper sticker does more than open up the depths of the gospel—it’s also rooted in Mars Hill’s own story, as the welcomer explained. Not many churches have the parking troubles of a former mall. And not many have the communications skills of Rob Bell. For him to turn a congregational headache into a teaching opportunity is not simply genius, it’s a communicative gift for which to give God thanks.
All churches must struggle with how to do the chore of the welcome booth. It’s hard to imagine such a space without kitsch of some sort, whether coffee or stickers or flowers or fresh bread or T-shirts (plus the requisite pile of papers). However it’s done, it does well to communicate something of who God is, something of who we should be and something of what the church is.
If you can’t get all that on a bumper sticker or a coffee mug with a slogan of your own, get in touch with Mars Hill Church and ask for a fistful of their stickers. I’m betting they’ll be happy to help you spread the word.
Dr. Byassee is an ordained United Methodist elder in the Western North Carolina Conference and executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.