As this forum indicates, I am a big fan of popular culture. I often include both veiled and not-so-veiled references in my posts, tweets, sermons, and blogs. Thus, I was quite excited as the latest episode of ‘The Simpsons” focused on the ministry of the local church. (Warning: spoilers to follow)
The stage is set when Reverend Lovejoy (the burned-out and emotionless pastor) is replaced by the new, young, and energetic Reverend Hooper. He is a charismatic sort, and one clearly in touch with the current culture. His first sermon references the movie ‘Meet the Family’ and makes the spiritual point that “In the end we love each other, and that’s all that [the Bible] really says.” The congregation seems to come alive under his ministry. One member erupts with the comment, “God help me I’m paying attention!” Even Homer Simpson takes to the new minister.
This dichotomy between the ministry styles of Hooper and Lovejoy clearly set up two visions of church ministry. What does it mean for the church to reach the surrounding society? In one corner, there is the dry, routine, traditional, and seemingly lifeless ministry provided by Reverend Lovejoy. In the other, the new, fresh, relevant Reverend Hooper. The decision seems fairly simple.
This is often the popular critique of the traditional church. The argument states that the traditional church is out of touch with the culture for which it serves. It is seen as old and tired, and completely lacks any connection to people’s lives. Why wouldn’t a person drift off to sleep in a sermon, or fail to pay attention during the liturgy, when the Church offers nothing relevant to anyone’s current situation? Reverend Hooper, then, aptly embodies a change that many argue for in today’s mainline churches.
But as the show continues, it becomes clear that things really aren’t all that simple. Despite his enthusiasm and vigor, there is a clear lack of depth to Reverend Hooper. Defining himself as part of an ‘easy-going off-shoot of Protestantism,” Hooper seems more content on creating imaginative cultural references than dealing with the spiritual temperament of the congregation. These connections between faith and culture may do well to spark initial interest and/or attention, but that is where it remains. Never does Reverend Hooper progress to addressing any deep spiritual issue. Stating that Jesus’ message “really can be explained by an episode of Califorinication” may sound nice, but it is a point that essentially lacks any substance or meaning.
This dynamic comes to a head when a plague of frogs begin to threaten the church. It is here where you see the full limitations of Reverend Hooper’s ministry. The congregation looks to him for a spiritual word regarding this amphibian invasion, yet shuns his cultural references shouting “To Hell with your references, we’re dying here!” As the congregation demand some deeper word, Reverend Hooper can only muster the words ‘uh . . . Video Games! Twitter! How to train your Dragon! Fight Club!” Reverend Hooper is clearly at a loss and his ministry has run its course. Thank God for Reverend Lovejoy, who bursts upon the scene with the words; “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.” The plague is stilled under the mighty words of Scripture.
So what does this episode say about the culture’s wish for the Church today? While the culture does yearn for a sense of connection with the current trends and issues, simple cultural references are but shallow gimmicks if not undergirded by an invitation to find one’s place in the biblical story. In the end, a ministry based solely on pop songs and TV shows does little in addressing people’s questions, desires, and hurts. When someone feels that a plague of some type is threatening their existence, they don’t want platitudes and culturally-relevant idioms. What they want is a word that speaks to a deeper reality. They want a reminder that there is one who is greater than themselves, who is able to heal, redeem, forgive and save. This episode declares that underneath the desire for a more relevant church, there is a yearning for depth and substance. In the end, the culture wishes for a church not of mere persuasive words, but one with spiritual power, authority, and witness.
It’s clear that both Reverend Hooper and Reverend Lovejoy need each other. The church in Springfield would only be strengthened by the two working together, and learning from each other. Perhaps that’s the point. Our call isn’t to choose one side of the ecclesiological divide. Rather, the culture urges us to embrace both realities. We are called to be a body of ministry that connects with the issues, images, and stories of our current culture, but does so in order to lead people to the deeper reality of God in Christ. It is in the embracing of both these things that people uncover not just a God who accepts them as they are, but one who calls them to transformation, redemption, and new life.
How do you see the interplay between ‘contemporary relevance’ and ‘traditional practice?’ How is this played out in your own church setting?