A few Sundays ago, I found myself distracted as I stood in the pulpit and read the morning's scripture. Somehow I had timed up my reading with the ringing of the steeple bells that have not been reprogrammed since our change to summer worship times. The chiming could be heard only faintly from my perch in the sanctuary; but, still, I was annoyed at the interruption and wondered if I would remember to have them reset. I am sure that I was not the only one thinking, "We can't have that noise going on during the scripture reading."
Contrast that with my experience at the Wilmington, Delaware "Riverfront" that same evening. It was the first Sunday evening service at the open-air Hare Pavilion. Edwin Estevez is the convener of the fledging "Riverfront Church" and led a time of worship that included scripture, prayer, preaching, and communion. Most notably, Edwin also arranged a guest musician to lead worship music for each of his services. That Sunday it was Darnell Miller of the local funk band "The Souldaires" and he was spectacular. At one point, as he sang the old praise song "Step by Step", I turned to a friend and said, "He has made Rich Mullins cool again." Quite a feat.
My three year old son, Max, was with me that night and you can imagine how fidgety he was. We were outside on a Sunday night and he wanted to run around. I took him out from under the pavilion and let him run in the grass. Many people were lurking around at that point, wondering what was going on. Walkers and joggers, security guards, and folks dressed up for dinner all took a peak. I smiled to see that my friend was drawing attention - but then all of the Riverfront noise struck me.
Yes, Darnell was singing and playing under the pavilion - but behind us was the Riverfront's new beer garden where a DJ offered a blaring Top-40 playlist, and beyond the pavilion was another live band playing 80's covers on restaurant patio. There was no way to reprogram all of it. There was no way to quiet it all down.
Is this not the precise circumstance that today's church finds itself in?
If we would like to make a sound in the public square - a sound that is heard by passer-bys, lookie loos, and those that need a new introduction to the gospel - do we not have to be willing to do so amidst other noise? The church does not lay claim to the dominant sound anymore. This is undeniable. And, it seems, if we insist that everyone else be quiet so that we can speak, sing, preach ... we will probably find ourselves very much alone.
So, the question is, "Can a church that has difficulty with the interruptive sound of a steeple bell have the courage to enter the public square as just another one of the noises? Can we trust that through an extension of humility and vulnerability that God will make us more than a sound but, somehow, the tone of his voice?"