It’s Whoopi Goldberg’s fault. At least I think it’s partly her fault. In the 1992 movie Sister Act a single scene gave a false hope to the Church. In the movie, Whoopi plays an undercover lounge singer hiding under witness protection in a San Francisco convent. She has a hard time fitting in until she joins the choir, where her musical talents and gruff leadership shine. The scene in question is her big Sunday debut. The choir sings a traditional setting of “Hail Holy Queen” to a mostly empty church. At the conclusion of the anthem, Whoopi points and the nuns begin to clap rhythmically. The nuns bust out another version of “Hail Holy Queen” rendered mo-town. The music floats out and into the streets, and people begin to pour into the church.
The message is simple and problematic. Have anxiety about church attendance? The answer for Sister Act is to tweak your liturgy, update it. Bring in the mo-town and the people will come streaming into your church. Over the past 20 years, the Church has been trying. In England and the US Anglicans have experimented with “alt-worship.” Sometimes this involves dark buildings and power points. Sometimes the music comes from the club scene, or sounds like lesbian singer-songwriter acoustic guitar. Sometimes, like in Sister Act, traditional music is jazzed up. Sometimes these efforts filled church buildings. Often they didn’t.
When the pews did fill up, the relevant question became, “with who?” More often than not the congregation had come from other churches. “Alternative worship” was exactly that: it formed an alternative for those who already were on the inside. People worshiped in these services instead of, or in addition to, the services they were already attending. Alt-worship reorganized the already-Christian. It might have helped some who were tired of traditional forms hold on, or helped reintegrate some who had become de-churched, but it wasn’t bringing in very many new people.
The hope the scene in Sister Act visualized for so many was different. In the scene people don’t drive down the road from another Catholic church to come to hear Whoopi’s new choir. They come in off the streets. The hope is for Christianity to reach the growing numbers of unchurched people. The difficulty is that it takes more than tweaking the music or turning down the lights.
What it takes is relationship. The leaders in the more successful church plants I’ve come to know tell a particular story over and over again. These new experimental communities grew principally through one on one relationship building. Richard Rohr says, “the definition of a Christian is someone who’s met one.” The extent to which churches have effectively brought in people from the streets has had to do with how they have developed relationships. It is not about attracting people into the Church building. It is about taking the resources of the Christian tradition out of the building to our friends and neighbors in “the world.”
This movement has consequences for liturgy. The wisdom of Sister Act is that the old white nuns don’t come up with this plan themselves. The music changes because they have radically welcomed someone very different into their midst. They invite her to offer her talent and experience. The result is a beautiful synthesis of tradition and context. To the extent that emergent liturgy reflects the contribution of a newly diverse community formed in the richness of ancient spiritual tradition, it is a authentic. Anything else is a gimicky marketing ploy.