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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Extreme Unction: The Well-Lubricated Church

It's funny what people do, and don't, notice in church services. For example, I once did an entire service on the history and various meanings of our flaming chalice symbol, one which was very well received. The very next week, the service was taken by very devout and committed congregant who utterly neglected to light it, a defining ritual which begins UU services. Sigh...

A different example on the same theme is the story of the dreaded "SKRAAAAK" of our church microphone.
Like this, but noisier
For years now, every time someone took the pulpit other than the speaker for whom the mic was set, they adjusted the mic to suit their height, and a "SKRRAAAAK" would rasp out of the sanctuary's speakers, and everyone at the service would jump, or wince, or both at once. The pulpit mic is a 'gooseneck' type that is made of a flat piece of spiralled metal twisted ingeniously onto itself to form a tube, allowing for infinite adjustment. And, boy, did we like to adjust it, despite the fact that we knew, knew mind you, that the ensuing "SKRAAAAK" would be emitted as sure as night followed day. Never mind that the mic, wherever it is placed, is sensitive enough to pick up the Pastor's stomach growling as the service approaches lunchtime.

When I knew someone rather shorter than I was about to use it for, say, a reading, I'd do what I could to conceal the harsh sound, shoving it abruptly downward as the last chord of the preceding hymn sounded, so you'd get a quick muffled "skrak" rather than a drawn-out "SKRAAAAK". I hoped I was subtly modelling mic etiquette, but subtle doesn't always read. All of which means I had more or less learned to live with this openly and obviously dysfunctional element, this fly in the ointment of a professional, reverent church service, just like everyone else had learned to live with the obvious and actual aesthetic pain the wretched thing caused them every week. No one mentioned it, let alone fixed it. For years.

I guess I'll just offer this up as penance
That is, until a recent stroke of genius from one of our newest members. The genius was not in the mechanics of the fix, which should have been obvious even to a non-engineering-type like myself. From early childhood, in fact, I had the knowledge about how to fix this problem, in that I had an average person's working knowledge of lubricants--silicon-based, petroleum-based, graphite-based, glycerine-based. I had used lubricants with such household names as RP-7, WD-40, and 3-in-1, in spray, liquid, and unguent forms, to lubricate cars, tractors, bikes, hinges, locks, chainsaws, lawn-mowers, saddles, and even stage rapiers. I had 50 years of experience with what would fix this mic. Never mind: someone will do something someday.

Ahh, that's better...
The genius was in how it was fixed. The squeaky mic finally got the much-needed, silencing grease not because a motion was put before committee, or because a working party of interested technophiles was rounded up and set to address the most cost-efficient upgrade to a new mic, but because this new member, in his innocence, had no idea of processes, procedures, or whose turf he might be treading on, but just went ahead and fixed the problem. With a few drops of lubricant. Genius.

After I finished thumping his back and wringing his hand, and after waggling the mic around in silence (to confirm that the "SKRAAAAK" was really, truly gone), my heart sank a bit. For in this incident I felt I could see all I needed to know about how church does and doesn't work:

  • First, churches can be inertia made flesh; it is better to wince and bear it than to get on and fix things.
  • Second, even though familiarity with dysfunction can feel like comforting tradition, we in fact de-value ourselves if we don't see it as important to get things right.
  • Third, new members can see things more clearly than those who are comfortably used to the way things are, so it is vital to bring them into the dialogue.
  • Fourth, aesthetics matter in worship; getting the tone/mood right is as important as getting the content right. If we are not invested in the feel of worship, we risk making the content less relevant.
While this message has played at being facetious, the import of what the incident tells us is deadly earnest. Given the general trends in church decline I shared with you in the post "The Little Chapel That Cried" and how our own church's attrition rate over the last generation matches those trends, this church will be on its last legs in one generation, maybe two. Not for lack of money, but for lack of people to engage with it. Where is the lubricant to fix that?
The real lubricant to ensure functional church workings is purposeful, positive engagement, even at the risk of bruising a few toes. Bruises heal, and our fellowship should heal them all the more quickly. And of course proper processes are important to protect the vulnerable from chaos.
But sometimes even chaos is preferable to inertia, just as life (with all its awkward complexity) is preferable to death.

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