April 18, 2021
I’ve been listening to a podcast called 60 Songs that Explain the ’90s. This show talks about iconic songs that define that decade. The host keeps saying, “This album sold 5/10/20 million copies! Just unthinkable in these times.”
For example, Alanis Morrissette’s album Jagged Little Pill sold 33 million copies. The host talks about how it seemed like everyone had this album. It had a cultural moment.
Each generation has an album or 2 like this.. A cultural touchstone that everyone from that era seemed to own. Some generational artists that come to my mind are the Glen Miller Orchestra, or a Beatles or Madonna record depending on your generation and when you were paying attention to music. These albums went platinum or multi-platinum.
Compared to the top selling albums of 2020, Taylor Swift’s folklore sold just over a million copies. The age of the album has passed. However, folklore has 1.1 billion on-demand audio streams. This is followed by BTS’ album selling 674,000 copies. We used to have music in common… but I’m not sure we have music as cultural touchstones anymore. At least, not like we did. I’m wondering what we hold in common now in our society. Everything feels fractured. Or maybe fractured is too harsh of a word, so maybe the word is niche. Everything has gone niche. How do you even pronounce that word..? Burger King once had the tagline “Have it your way” and now we have that.
I’ve been reflecting on this in light of this week’s scripture. The early church held everything in common. They had no private ownership of anything. They were a collective. They were tight. They were also very small. This little new movement engaging in a sort of spiritual collectivism. The phrase “spiritual collectivism” might have set a few of you off. You might have squirmed.
Not everything in the bible is prescriptive. I think if, upon joining the UCC, they told me to sell everything for a common need, I would rightly think I’d be joining a cult. That doesn’t mean we can’t find some meaning to this practice. Things have changed after 2,000 years. We’re part of a tradition with historical roots, and we have adapted and changed with the times. We cannot jump over that and return to an Acts-type church.
The early church was in a different context. They were looking out for one another in a dangerous context. The Romans don’t like them and would soon come after the early church and persecute the church for 300 years. The temple authorities are increasingly antagonistic, soon to throw out the “Followers of the Way” in the 90s, right around the fall of the Temple.
We are not in that context. The church has been the center of life and had a prominent place in our culture for a long time. We’re seeing that change. We’re seeing folks fall away from church. In my mind, this isn’t a bad thing. Folks are being more honest. Institutional trust has eroded in the church. As I reported last week, those without religion are now the majority. I like what reporter Mark Silk wrote in his article, “The Hollowing Out of American Religion.” “Take someone who told a pollster in 1990, ‘Well, I haven’t gone to church in 30 years but my parents took me to an Episcopal church so put me down as Episcopalian.’ Today such a person is more likely to say, ‘Well, my parents took me to an Episcopal church, but I haven’t gone to one in 30 years, so put me down as a none.’”
We could lament this and focus on what we’re missing. Or we could do what the early church did. They were marginalized from Roman society and soon to be kicked out of their religious and Jewish communities… what they did is a concept known as reversing the field. Mike Mather is pastor of Broadway UMC in Indianapolis, and he saw his church struggling with dwindling resources to meet the needs. What he did with his church was reverse the field, where his church began to learn how to ask people what they had, not what they lacked. We could lament that we used to do this program or that. We used to sing this way or that. We used to do… that backward thinking won’t grow anything. We have to reverse the field. Look at what we have. The early church saw what they had and held it all in common. And they grew. They grew in a hostile environment. Hostile as the Temple authorities weren’t having this Jesus talk and the Romans didn’t understand it. Both took the early church as a threat. We have a lot to learn from the early church who took stock of what they had. Held it in common. They didn’t focus on the lack, the scarcity. They focused on what God gave them and witnessed to it creatively and subversively. They didn’t have buildings. They didn’t have hymnals. They didn’t even have a full Bible like we think of it. And they spread the word. We have all of those things and it might just keep us from finding what exactly we hold in common. We fight over the building, the hymnals and songs and styles, and we fight over what version of the Bible to use and how to interpret it. We seem to avoid the collective.
What do we hold in common? I think a common vision and mission help us focus and gather. Here at Medina, the three words I love are “welcome, love, and serve.” I didn’t come up with these. You all did in 2013. These three things drew me here. I think they are wonderful values to hold in common.
We can lose the narrative. We can miss our purpose. Forget why we hold these things in common. Yet there are those who remember. Who get it. Who incarnate the mission and value. We should hold these folks up.
I recently spoke to a nurse who shared this story with me. She works at a community hospital that’s mission is all about being a beacon of healing in and staffed by the community. A woman came in who lived a mere block or two from the hospital. She’s an impossible case. In an abusive relationship. Does not have full cognitive functioning. Has a layered and dire health situation.
Everyone in the hospital was just trying to move this woman out. She’s too hard. She doesn’t fit any of the policies. There’s no approach for her that the system can handle. This is not an easy case, so their response is to move her to someone else. Send her back home. Send her elsewhere. But this nurse fought for this woman and provided care. She sought healing and spent a lot of time with the patient. The nurse received some push back, but she held firm. Even when the chief medical officer said to give up on this woman, the nurse said, “Get out of my way and let me do my job.”
The nurse had a sense of the purpose of the hospital. She exhibited ethics beyond profit margin. She sought the higher calling, even when it was hard. This patient wasn’t neat and clean. This patient was frankly hard to love… But the nurse’s sense of common good included what was good for the hard to love. She reminded the hospital staff of their purpose. Her actions caused that chief medical officer to pick up a book on ethics. The patient needed more intensive recovery, so she’s being treated at another site. All set up by this one nurse.
So church… are we doing the same? Or are we clutching to our generational understanding of church? What do we hold in common? I have no interest in doing the easy thing or going with the flow. Because the flow is ebbing away from institutional religion. If we do what we always do, we’re gonna get what everyone else is getting: low energy. Decline. Death.
Or we can reverse the field. Focus on what we have and not what we lack. It is my firm conviction that we have everything we need right now. God is with us. And the answers of where we go from here have something to do with welcoming, loving, and serving.
 Gil Rendel, Quietly Courageous: leading the church in a changing world Page 86