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Ministry or Publicity Stunt?

imageIs there a wospel in your gospel? How is the state of your think-thumper? Are you a happy jump-jumper? These are all phrases that one can find in a “Seusscharist.” If you haven’t heard of these before, these are Eucharist services crafted around the books of Dr. Seuss. The services employ all the typical elements of a Dr. Seuss book – rhyme, made up-words, and illustrations from the most beloved of characters. One video showed the priest sporting the famous tall red and white hat a la ‘Cat in the Hat’, with the servers dressed as Thing 1 and Thing 2. The words of institution read :

On the night before he died,
Our Lord lifted some bread
And said with loving pride;

Dear friends, my body this is
Take it; share it
For this is part of his Biz’
(words taken from this blog)

I was initially a little shocked when I first learned of these services, until I realized I had seen these before. Does anyone remember the now-forgotten ‘U2charist’? You remember those, Eucharist services crafted around the music of U2. Roughly 6 years ago, my last diocese opened a session of synod in this manner. I remember standing in the Cathedral as a band belted the tunes of the familiar songs. We sang of Beautiful days, and a God who moves ‘in mysterious ways’ (it’s alright!). The prayers of the people, the confession and absolution, even the Eucharistic prayer were further infused with quotes and quips from the band.

Of course, the theological dimension of U2’s lyrics has been well documented. Many essays (and a few books) have been written regarding this fact. Perhaps my favorite song of theirs is the song ‘40” which is their rendition of the fortieth Psalm. As committed Christians themselves, their lyrics reflect this aspect of their lives. The same is true for Dr. Seuss. Theodor Geisel had both an active faith, and an active participation in his Lutheran church. One can see how this faith plays into his themes of justice, community, and self-worth. Who can’t see Horton the Elephant as a wonderful example of walking by faith not by sight as he struggles to protect the little people of Whoville.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for using pop-culture references in church. In fact, I believe that the church needs to work a bit harder in bridging the seeming disconnection between the church and the culture. I myself have quoted both U2 and Dr. Seuss in several of my sermons. I have written a blog for this community where I relied heavily on an image put forward by Seuss. (link). Surely, there is value in recognizing the spiritual themes echoed in the literature, music, and art of popular culture.

But are these services expressions of authentic ministry, or are they just publicity stunts? A publicity stunt is nothing more than flashy event designed to attract the attention of the public. They employ gimmicks, hooks, and give-aways. They work too . . . well, to some degree. Publicity stunts garner interest and spectacle, but not commitment. Is that the same for the likes of Seusscharists, U2charists, and other strategies employed by the church? One church in Lawrenceville G.A attempted to woo local teens to their youth group with the promise of Halo 3. Now that interest in this game has faded, has interest in that youth group faded along with it?

These efforts are often surrounded by the sound-bytes of “making the church attractive to ‘outsiders’, ‘making the church contemporary’ and ‘showing a friendly and welcoming.’ Sure, these phrases sound nice, but are they really the focus? Does having a one-off Sunday of some type of gimmick actually create a welcoming and attractive environment? Are we actually worried about being contemporary, or do we simply want to do something to make ourselves feel contemporary. What is more, do we really think that if we hook someone’s interest in church via Dr. Seuss or U2, they won’t notice that next week the organ replaces the rock band and the minister no longer speaks in anapestic tetrameter? I would think that this type of bait and switch has more negative effects than positive.

Again, I firmly believe the church needs to work hard on communicating that our ministry is intimately linked to the issues, struggles, and needs of the surrounding culture. But let’s focus on this, and not the new hook that will garner YouTube clicks and news segments. Let’s put our energy into authentically connecting with the people the surround our churches, and not on figuring out what flashy stunt may attract their attention. Because if we as a church can’t be real, authentic, and open with those with whom we attempt to minister to, how can we expect them to be open, authentic and real to us?

What do you think the difference between authentic ministry and mere ‘ministry gimmicks’ are?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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12 Responses to Ministry or Publicity Stunt?

  1. Kyle, greetings from the Church in Belgium! And thanks for this thought provoking reflection.

    I can’t help but think of some of the great publicity-stunters in the Bible:
    Moses putting on a show with his amazing walking-staff,
    Jonah strolling through Nineveh shouting at the top of his lungs,
    Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem was a brilliantly orchestrated event proclaiming to people from all walks of life – the Messiah is here!
    Paul, himself, was not averse to making a public spectacle in order to further the spread of the Gospel.

    However, these events were more than mere actions. The underlying meaning of the actions shook the very foundations of people’s lives and world-view. But more than that, they were like a flashing neon sign saying, “Hey people! Check out what God is up to in the world today!” Maybe, Suesscharists, U2charists and Drive-Thru Foot-washings (guilty, as charged) are feeble, struggling and groping attempts to do the same by projecting the Gospel message beyond the confines of our church walls.

    A Suesscharist shouldn’t be put on par with biblical prophesy, but it raises the question, ‘In our churches today…
    Is there permission for us to shake the foundations of people’s lives and world-view?
    Or is the goal to ‘not rock the boat’?
    Are we bold and courageous enough to leap up and down saying, “Check out what God is up to?” Or is keeping our heads down and staying out of trouble the bench-mark for Christian ministry? You weren’t saying these things, but too many of our churches mistake ‘humility’ for ‘taming’ and ‘toning-down’ the Gospel message.

    Maybe Suesscharists & U2charists aren’t good liturgical worship, but they do have a power to transfer the gospel beyond worship in a way that our usual structures don’t. Such as the kid who starts to think of Jesus every time he/she hears a Dr. Suess story. Or people being reminded of His presence whenever U2 comes on the radio. After all, I’m much more likely to rock out to their version of ‘Gloria’ in the car than Merbecke’s.

    Your post made me realize that too often in ministry we do a publicity stunt in order to draw attention to ourselves rather than God. And that is never a good thing. Thanks for that reminder.

  2. Kyle Norman

    Hey Stephen! That’s pretty rad that you ended up in Belgium. Way to go. I may have to come visit one day – just have the drive through foot washing availalbe.

    I have to admit, this topic of authentic ministry vs. publicity stunt was a difficult one for me, considering that I stand in my church and frequently do magic tricks as a part of my ministry. Thanks for reminding me of the unconventional manners in which people have engaged in ministry in the past. I guess a public ministry would aways be open to the charge of being a publicity stunt.

    Still there is something that about U2charists and Seusscharists that get me concerned. For one, where do you draw the line? What if I designed a “Kanyecharist” based on the lyrics of rapper Kanye West. After all, his latest album is called “Yeezus” and refers to speaking with Jesus and being a Man of God. And don’t you think that “Jesus walks” would be a great processional hymn?

    But is that authentic ministry? Sure it rocks the boat, but is it ministry that worships God? I think part of my struggle is that these types of services seem so self-indulgent. I sometimes feel that the aim of Seusscharists and U2charists and the like are more about the community wanting to feel cool, hip and ‘plugged in’ , rather than any desire to reach out.

    But if you are right (and I think you are) that the possible power of these services lies in “projecting the Gospel message beyond the confines of our church walls” and communicates a message that “shakes the foundations of people’s lives and world-view” and ‘rocks the boat’ with the cry of “guess what God is up to”- then it seems to me that the bigger question is:

    Why aren’t we doing this with our regular ministries?

    • I agree that “projecting the Gospel message beyond the confines of our church walls” is a good thing. After all, that’s where it belongs: that’s where Jesus proclaimed it, and where the first Apostles were called to serve. However, I think in these kinds of creative ministries, it’s probably worth asking ourselves if that’s what we’re doing. I’ve been to U2Charists that were offered with the goal of creative outreach in mind, but attended by 90% church-goers. So: if we offer liturgical variations to our own congregations, within our historical buildings, are we really “projecting the Gospel message beyond the confines of our church walls,” or are we preaching to the choir? Perhaps we need to be asking these questions to those outside of the church, rather than talking amongst ourselves. If it looks disingenuous, they’ll be sure to tell us.

  3. This sounds like if we dumb it (liturgy) down they will come . Sorry but I think not. What
    people in general and I think young prople in perticular are looking for genuiness in what we say and do.Not smart playing about with words that mean a lot more than just words.
    Such change in language could push older members out. I know because it has taken me nearly 20 years to be comfortable with the BAS services. Now well I like it.
    So I suggest that the church does not need to go out for stunt services or liturgies.We need to stay with what has worked over time . PaulBC

  4. There are seniors out there who haven’t fully accepted the BAS or the guitar music yet, much less Seusscharist. I’m not sure if it would even fly with me. 🙂

  5. i think if you have two wings: Ancient and Modern church paradigm you can fly with balance and efficiency….

  6. it all comes down to how you allocate and budget your resources…to these priorities.

  7. The concern I have is whether or not there is genuine follow up with people who attend. Church is not supposed to be entertainment but community. The issue with these thematic worship services is whether they attract people who only attend for the entertainment. It is incumbent on the priest or on the sidespersons to ensure that visitors who come to these services be integrated in the community so that their pastoral needs and disciple formation be addressed.

  8. I definitely agree with the point made in this article. However I’d say there’s even a large difference between a U2 Eucharist and a “Seusscharist.” It isn’t necessarily about the depth of doctrinal content, but rather on the depth of *language* used. Seuss is intentionally a little goofy, cheery and simple and that is why his language works so well in communicating deep themes in the context of a *children’s book,* but it’s not the type of language that’s appropriate for a Eucharist. That and the costumes make it more about the novelty of a Seusscharist than an authentic presentation of the gospel.

    A U2 Eucharist, on the other hand, has a depth and seriousness to the language that immediately focuses us on Christ and His Gospel and its response to the deep pain and joy of human life today. Moreover, it’s a Eucharist designed around U2 songs, which means that there can be more prose prayers, and most importantly the *language* of the Words of Institution don’t need to change. And since it’s already based on music, it can fit seamlessly (if done well) in the pre-set internal logic of the Eucharistic liturgy (even in the BAS rite!)

  9. My worst experience of a U2charist was a few years back. I haven’t attended one since. During the communion music the worship band sang, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”… while we were receiving Eucharist? WTF???
    They seemed oblivious…

  10. What wonderful discussion! I think part of the question is where we draw the line. As I wrote in a comment on THE COMMUNITY site, what if I start a “Kanyecharist”? “Jesus walks will be the processional! Kanye speaks a lot about God, but what is the line of appropriate usage of popular culture when it comes to the worshiping of the chruch.? I think for me, muchof these stunt services seem to be done with an eye cast to us instead of of our eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.

  11. As always, a thought provoking article Kyle and some great responses. If we are talking one off type of events, then I think you are correct that it is just window dressing trying to attract a few token outsiders and hopefully a tv camera or two. But if we are using new and varied ways to share the Gospel on a regular basis, then I think we are truly taking the Gospel outside the walls, which as Jesse points out, it where it belongs. We get off the track when we think that only a U2charist or a Dr Suess service will do so we repeat these special events a couple of times and think we have changed the world. When we are constantly open to new ways to share the Gospel and ways that might work in new venues, then I think we are on to something exciting. Magic tricks as an ongoing part of liturgy, why not? Messy Church which puts the kids in a control, why not? An all country service to frame the question in a new way, why not?
    For me the key is that this becomes an ongoing part of what we do, not just a one time publicity stunt. When people suggest new ideas and programs my first question is usually, “Is it sustainable?” If it can be part of the package of what we do and how we reach out with the Gospel message, then let us go forward. So the question for me around these theme services, relates to whether or not we can sustain the momentum and use them as a part of what we have to offer going forward

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