The Bells, Smells, and Narrative of the Gospel

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Many Emergents seem to be drawn to the "bells and smells" of traditional mainline churches. They have come to appreciate ritual and symbol. So they pray the Divine Hours, and go to Taize services. Coming from an Evangelical background of white washed walls and folding metal chairs they revel in the beauty of stained glass cathedrals and the echoing beauty of hymns like a Midwesterner raised on pork chops and mashed potatoes might eating their first Haute Cuisine meal in Paris.

My friend Suzanne once told me of how growing up in the Episcopal church she never really paid much attention to the service. Years later after having become a born again Christian, she had returned to an Episcopalian mass and suddenly the hymns were filled with meaning for her, and she could hardly believe that she had missed it all before. It had all just rolled off her back - stand up, sit down, sing a song, repeat some words - it had all just been a meaningless ritual to her. Pretty, but with no real connection to her life Monday through Saturday. Now she saw it exploding with meaning.

That's because art - all art - needs to be connected to a narrative in order to move, in order to be anything beyond aesthetics, beyond mere decoration. Suzanne connected to the bells and smells of the Episcopalian mass because she had a connection to the story that it pointed to - she had a first hand encounter with the living and risen Jesus and her story was now shaped by His story. The "art" in church was meaningful because of her narrative connection to it in the same way a certain song might capture all your feelings about something, or how a symbol like a Christmas tree might bring back all sorts of memories and feelings. In each case you are connecting that song and that symbol with your own narrative and therefore experiencing it as full of meaning.

But here's the rub: many Emergents who connect the aesthetics of traditional services to their own narratives of a relationship with God also suffer from an "allergy to evangelism". They have had so many bad experiences with hit-and-run evangelism that they have simply jettisoned the entire idea of sharing the Gospel. Instead they focus on the kingdom of God - on being involved in social justice, caring for the poor, fighting slavery and poverty and AIDS. These are all certainly vital things that we need to care deeply about and be involved in, but they do not change the fact that people also need God personally, that they need to be loved and touched and transformed by Jesus. My concern is that Emergents who have "deconstructed" evangelism and jettisoned it will go to "smells and bells" mainline churches that do not ever preach that one can have a first-hand life transforming intimate relationship with God, and that the next generation will grow up in that vacuum like my friend Suzanne and like so many others like her have - people who do not have a narrative and personal connection to the symbols and aesthetics and for whom it is therefore meaningless and empty rituals- mere Sunday decoration.

So what I am calling for with all the bells and smells surrounding you this Christmas, with all the symbols and songs, is for us Emergents to remember our narrative connection to the Gospel, to recall the story of our own encounter with Jesus, and to look for ways to invite others into that story, ways to encounter people with the living Jesus that are beautiful and creative and real. In short, the Emergent church needs to rediscover evangelism. Not an evangelism disconnected from the kingdom of God, but one that is about loving people and caring for all of who they are, one that ties personal faith together with social action.

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