An Experience Thing

Last Sunday’s New York Times “Sunday Review” section highlighted an opinion piece on the new dimensions of activity and experience offered at art museums and other cultural institutions. The essayist was not especially enthusiastic about these new opportunities, reflecting that “something will be lost” if museums follow the route of “experience” businesses.

Just a few hours before reading this piece, I was engaged in a conversation with a museum curator and in that conversation, I gushed about one of my favorite installations at the museum where she works. That installation included, guess what, a participatory element. My family and I loved it.

Aside from my squirmy moment, realizing that I’m just another of the hordes that wants “experience” and “participation,” I found myself wondering about how this trend and dynamic relates to the church. Is one of our problems in the old mainline church that we don’t offer enough “experience” and “participatory” elements? Or is the “participatory” is not “participatory” enough or not modern enough?

We have a choir, open to anyone. We sing hymns. We say prayers in unison. Occasionally, we even have a passing of the peace, where we shake hands and share the peace of Christ with each other.

Is this not participatory enough? Not enough “hands on”?

Should the old mainline church follow the path of other venerable cultural institutions and find ways of offering new and different, participatory elements to who we are and what we do?

It appears that it’s simply not enough for the 21st century person to gaze upon a Monet or Rembrandt painting, or a Rodin sculpture. We want a more direct experience, to participate in some way in the art, to feel a part of it.

Perhaps that’s something to consider in the way we do church. It may not be that we are “doing it wrong,” but that the modern sensibility is looking for new ways of engaging old ideas and things. In a world of video and computer games, this may not be all that surprising.

The New York Times essayist was concerned that “something will be lost” in this transition to a more participatory approach to art. I share that concern, for the world of art and for the church as well. But, in terms of church life, something already is lost—active participation and attendance of people under the age of 50. This is true in Maine, anyway.

In churches like the one I serve, it may be worth exploring new and different ways of offering participatory experiences—although, of course, “new” is a bad word for lots of currently active church goers. But, it’s simply not enough to hang onto old ways of doing things just for the sake of comfort and security.

More participatory dimensions of worship and religious expression may be good for all of us, as we seek to explore gain a deeper, and more fulfilling, religious and spiritual experience. As I discovered personally, more “hands on” art can be wonderful, meaningful, and memorable. Church life should certainly be that—and more.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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