Thank You, Simon Cowell

This article first appeared in the Spencer Daily Reporter, July 20, 2018.  

A popular TV show in the wasteland of summer options is America’s Got Talent, a.k.a. “AGT.”  Last week the Angel City Chorale appeared on the show.  160 members strong, the choir is led by Sue Fink.  When Simon Cowell asked her what the choir is about, she replied, “I want to bring together people of diverse backgrounds and build community when we make something beautiful together.  That’s the goal, and it’s working.”

The audience was captivated by the performance, which began with finger snapping, thigh slapping, and jumping to simulate a rain storm.  The choir launched into a joyful rendition of Toto’s “Africa.”  The camera zeroed in on individual men and women, their faces shining and bodies swaying as they sang.

Of course the camera also caught the reactions of audience members as they smiled with delight and stood to applaud.  Simon Cowell, the resident grump (actually a seasoned talent scout) on the judge’s panel, reacted with surprise and smiles, leading the judges in their standing ovation.

YouTube recordings predictably appeared on social media the following day, with reactions like “I want to be in a choir like that!” and “We need more of this!”  It reminded me of typical responses to flash mobs, where “Hallelujah” by Handel is staged surreptitiously in a shopping mall, or instrumentalists slowly gather in a public square to perform Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”  My favorite flash mobs are playfully staged by a group called Improv Everywhere.  (Check it out!)

Spectators typically react to flash mobs with the same surprise and delight elicited on AGT.  They stop to listen, laugh, and applaud.  Afterward everyone seems more relaxed and happy.  The shared, unexpected experience creates a momentary sense of community.

As a pastor I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the church.  It seems to me that the Angel City Chorale manifests what we as God’s people are called to do: welcome people from all walks of life to join in a joyful enterprise.  You can bet the choir members have bonded through shared stories of both pain and joy, just as the church tries to do.  Both choir and church find themselves working, laughing, and crying together in regular gatherings.  Offering our corporate efforts to the world, spreading the joy.

I wonder if that is the impression people have of their local churches.  In our best moments we do these things.  Yet throngs of people of all ages are rejecting the church’s invitation.  Might this have something to do with our battles over doctrine, ethics, and politics?  The answer is complex, but these ugly, public debates can’t help.  Add to that personal stories of exclusion from local churches, and just plain mediocrity and apathy.  Even people who have never gone to church know that this is not what the church is supposed to look like.

How far have we strayed from the generous welcome Jesus embodied and taught?  How sad that we have let ideological arguments distract us from following him.  Or worse, apathy.

The Bible we claim to revere does not ask us to defend it or create doctrinal litmus tests from its pages.  It simply provides us with stories of struggle and heartache, deliverance and victory, brokenness and redemption, death and resurrection.  It does not provide us with a list of cut and dried answers, much as we might want them.  And it certainly doesn’t leave us yawning.  Instead, it invites us to wrestle with reality in the safety of God’s loving gaze.  Jesus asks us to follow him in a way of life among the beloved community, for whom compassion and hospitality, forgiveness and love are the hallmarks.

When we let go of our rigid requirements and simply follow Jesus’ way of love and freedom, the church creates beautiful, joyful music that captivates the world around us.  Whether we’re in the choir or in the audience, we experience the greatest artistry God has created for our pleasure and healing.  What a gift!

Now, here’s the bottom line for you, reader.  If you belong to a church and this critique hits home, you can sigh and say, “Well, we try,” and move on.  Nothing changes.  If you don’t go to church, you can nod your head and say, “See, that’s why I have better things to do!”  Nothing changes.

Or both of you could take your longing for beloved community seriously and demand better of us in the church.  You can ask questions, and raise the expectations for hospitality, and find ways to make that beautiful music of worship and works of compassion with other people in your local church.  You need this, and our country, our world needs this.  Disillusionment and fatalism don’t have to overwhelm us.  Mediocrity should not dull our spirits.  We are called to participate in God’s love, in millions of ways.  We should not be surprised that it takes some effort…like choir practice!

Thank you, Sue Fink—and Simon Cowell—for reminding us what we were made for.

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