Driving on the freeway in Tulsa a few years back, I saw a billboard advertising a wildly popular church in the area. The ad featured a photo taken from behind the pastor who was looking out on the congregation. The pastor had both fists in the air as if celebrating a touchdown. The caption read: “Celebrating 20 years!”
Having come from churches exactly like the one advertised, I can totally understand the excitement. Most of us never expected our churches to make it that long, and even if they did, they would likely be unrecognizable in tenor and doctrine over a spread of that many years.
By the time I saw that billboard, I’d become an Orthodox Christian, and I couldn’t help but immediately imagine my priest and our church in the advertisement. The picture in my head seemed utterly ridiculous, and I wasn’t entirely sure why. In a flash, many contrasts between the Orthodox faith and the churches I grew up in came into focus. One of them was how exciting the church seemed in the photo and how one simply couldn’t pull off the same scene using an Orthodox Church. Another was how a 20 year-old church seems old to a nondenominational churchgoer and how unbelievably young it would seem to an Orthodox Christian. The image of an Orthodox priest standing before the Church, arms overhead, and a caption reading “Celebrating 2000 years!” still makes me giggle.
I can’t think of anyone who would refer to an Orthodox service as “exciting.” The same goes for a Catholic Mass and any number of liturgical, high churches. But for the churches I grew up in, exciting was a standard expectation. Of course, those churches had to be Spirit-filled and Bible-believing and such, but none of that got off the ground unless the atmosphere was exciting; boring would have been the end of any such church no matter what else it had. Yet it is the exciting churches that filter in and out of existence in rapid succession, while the boring churches seem to occupy their place for generations. I think most cities, especially older ones, are witnesses to this phenomenon.
So, what is going on? This seems counterintuitive.
I recently discovered a quote by James Alison that seems to get right at the heart of the matter:
“When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long-term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbor, but which increases our attention, our presence, and our appreciation for what is around us.”
I couldn’t agree more, and I believe Alison hits on the very reason for the success of liturgically oriented, high churches. Very little in our society is boring by design, yet we are perhaps the most dissatisfied people group ever. Everything is bathed in light, color, extravagance, shock, chaos, and all this with the intent of grabbing attention. Yet no matter how loud, no matter how gaudy, no matter how innovative, profundity seems lost.
All this distraction and abstraction, what is it distracting and abstracting from?
Is this why boring churches survive while exciting churches fail? The logic might run like this: We are overwhelmed with a constant stream of distraction and abstraction from reality, and this debased shallowness becomes an irritation to the soul. We have primal needs that reside far deeper than our glittery culture could possibly reach, and one can go on pretending these needs do not exist or pretending to find fulfillment for only so long. At some point the dissatisfaction is more than one can bear, and if there is not some way to step out of the nonsense and experience real existence from time to time, one is likely to go crazy. Drugs, alcohol, pornography, video games, and flashy things help ward off insanity for a season, which is why such things are so popular. But when they fail—and they always fail—people are confronted with their real existence again, an existence which habitual distraction has left them wholly unprepared to face.
The member of a boring church has a distinct advantage in this respect. Speaking from an Orthodox Church experience, church provides exactly what Alison described: there is no distraction from the present. Instead the present is kept forcefully before one’s awareness through the concentration of prayers and prostrations, the repetition of chants and liturgy, etc.; there is no abstracting from the environment, instead the worshipper is surrounded by the elements in their purity without the world’s chaotic, attention grabbing filters; the worshipper has no ready-made tools for escape—no light show, no fog machines, no guitar solos—except the distractions he might carry with him in his thoughts.
The boring church is like a full stop in the middle of a frenzied musical composition: no matter the technical brilliance of a piece, without the stops it descends into worthless clatter. Exciting churches go in and out of style like any other element in a consumer-centric culture. Many exciting churches can last for decades, but they usually only do so because they’ve kept up with the times. Often, they have entire departments dedicated to ensuring the church stays fashionable. But even with their best efforts the dissatisfaction of soul is undeniable and the church becomes irrelevant.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Orthodox Church is perhaps the most unfashionable entity on the planet (seeing as how its presentation hasn’t changed since the Byzantine era). And I also don’t think it’s a stretch to say, based on its history of endurance and its inherent ability to satisfy the deepest needs of the soul, that it is the one entity that will remain standing long after everything else has fizzled. It might pull this off precisely because of its apparent boringness. In this it offers by intention what every other entity seems valiantly intent on avoiding. It then, even if only by default, becomes a resting place for the restless soul.