Tug, tug, tug. Sputter, sputter, sputter. Like a lawn mower with a faulty starter, this week one morning I drove back and forth from home to the local pharmacy with my daughter, Ms M, three times in an attempt to get a passport photo taken for myself.
On the first attempt, my shirt was too white for the photo. We head back home for me to change. Second attempt, Ms M realized she left her shoes at home while I was changing my shirt. Head back home to secure shoes. Third attempt was finally successful in procuring my worst passport photo ever. What a win.
Passport renewals are one of those tasks that take a surprising amount of time between completing paperwork to send by mail and processing time that takes up to 11 weeks. It is the slowest way to get a selfie.
“In the rushing sound” is an occasional post about several things I’m listening to, reading, or watching online that I would like to recommend to you. I imagine that if surfing the web was audibly perceptible it would make a rushing sound.
A podcast. There is so much finger pointing going on in the world right now and so few people taking responsibility for ongoing and structural issues that it really stands out when you come across someone taking responsibility for something that wasn’t their fault.
Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast is an example of journalism that doesn’t distance itself from its subject. It owns the problem it investigates. It is invested in a way that produces a remarkably nuanced account of what happened and the contours of what’s possible in terms of justice, restoration, and restitution. It is an approach not just relevant to understanding contemporary Christianity in America through the story of megachurch that went bust, but also gets at the problem of what kind of organizations do we want to build and how.
Mars Hill was a fast growing megachurch in Seattle that came to an end in 2014 with the failed attempt of its board to hold a founding pastor accountable for abuses of power. The podcast explores the story of this particular church, because so much of its community and what it produced was recorded and documented online. In the age of the internet, it was arguably the first church to go viral. The internet doesn’t let you go quietly.
Wherever there’s art, celebrity, and the imperative to grow, there is so often concealment and an abuse of power. I was reflecting with a neighbor, author of several cookbooks, about how feted restaurants with revelations of leadership abuse are similar to churches that have met the same fate. They’re fiercely independent places, guided by a narcissistic leader, they perform an incredible service, and have a mega-following. How much are they a reflection of who their patrons are and what they are willing to openly or secretly tolerate?
This is where I want to highlight the particular interview with Tim Keller, long time pastor of a church based in Manhattan. He co-founded The Gospel Coalition, a cross-denomination council of churches that included Mars Hill. There’s the question of how much control this council could assert over member churches such as Mars Hill. Keller seems to say that this is what is expected of denominations, not affinity networks or affiliations which he describes as rich places for creativity and ideas.
On a spectrum, the podcast host is willing to internalize responsibility significantly more than Keller. Keller emphasizes the importance of denominations for accountability, but as we’ve seen with so many churches including most recently the Southern Baptist Convention, they cannot ultimately be trusted with sole responsibility. Network affiliations and invested journalism must play a role.
Theres a lot of thoughtful ideas in the interview, especially on managing an organization’s growth from a startup to an institution. On the inevitable loss of the dynamism of the startup, I want to step a moment away to the world of theatre.
Christianity Today – The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill with Mike Cosper and Tim Keller
A newspaper column. Ann Wroe is a master obituary writer. Her recent story about Peter Brook, a theatre director, raised to me the question of how we attribute desirable outcomes with control.
“He set tasks, and then sat in silence,” Wroe says of Brook. His rehearsals were long. “The moment he was waiting for came when the actor was suddenly free, feeling the flow, imagination fully expanded, opening to life beyond life.”
Born in the 1920s, Brook became an accomplished theater director in the United Kingdom with a focus on Shakespeare. Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, and Alan Rickman are some of the actors that he worked with. Rowe describes how over the decades of theater in the UK, Brook progressively stripped down the stage. The “theatre he most liked was rough and ready: done on carts, in barns, or simply in the empty space that one man crossed while another one watched.”
Brook moved to France in the 1970s which became the base for an international theater group that toured regularly in the Middle East and Africa. His work here included Orghast, a play about Prometheus using a made up language. It was performed in Persepolis, Iran at an annual festival that existed prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1978. His was an itinerant theater group that crossed a line in history to which no one can return.
In the discussion about church growth, Keller reflects on the energy and dynamism of the church plant and how as it grows it becomes institutionalized and processes formalized – losing perhaps the sense of immediacy that Brook and probably many organizational leaders want to maintain from their startup phase. “[Brook] disliked tours, even long runs, because performance settled and soon began to die.”
Theater is clearly a different kind of organization. The show it puts on is complete and has a limited run. It also generally serves a single purpose. Whereas a church service is a variety format that can be attended more regularly. It also generally has more member services. Yet given the common lineage of theater and church and shared capacity for the transcendent and holy, it is more a difference of degree than in kind.
Institutions in theater provide the platform and building for each show. While they can rely on formulas, Brook’s story shows how they can be a continuously dynamic site of production. It runs counter to the narrative of building something exciting on dynamic leadership. Brook’s story emphasizes the shared control of the ensemble. Hello, mystic leadership?
The arrangement of the actors, impressing on them the idea that they should start from nothing – the very sense that people are not pawns in your control, but agents of something beyond what any particular one of us can envision. There’s a submission here, I think, to control that’s not haphazard, or reckless. It is a control that cannot be possessed, but rather it possesses. And when it does and you accept it as a gift and not a power, it produces the very best image.
A music video. Arcade Fire is pulling the heart strings right here with a song written as a letter from a parent to a child. “Lookout kid, trust your mind / But you can’t trust it everytime / You know it plays tricks on you / And it don’t give a damn if you are happy or you’re sad / But if you’ve lost it, don’t feel bad /’Cause it’s alright to be sad”. The video captures it well with those floppy marketing inflatables that try to stand and can’t always take what the wind gives.