Flash-mobs as the new seeker sensitive service

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I came across this article by Vicky Beeching in the Independent, from a blog piece by Peter Ould, who takes Vicky to task (I like and know Vicky. We were in the same Church many years ago).

Nothing original in a flash-mob wedding. My friends Matt & Di Hyam did something similar with their church for a wedding that made the national news back in July 2011 (Picture of Matt taking the wedding at Netley Abbey near Southampton, Hampshire is the image above).

Now my issue isn’t with the flash-mob wedding events, but with the interpretation Vicky makes of them.

Her argument seems to run something like this:

We like in a post-Christian country where people are not interested in Church but are interested in spirituality (queue example of Stonehenge summer soltice flash-mob, and wedding flash-mob). The problem for the church in terms of relevancy is diagnosed as one of style, such that ‘flash-mobs’ reveal how church worship needs to change for these people. Where as Church is about sitting in rows, whilst one person dictates what happens, what people want is to break free and participate. The direct claim being made is that if we did this more, church would have more people involved in it.

Now I have many problems with this kind of analysis and it’s not unique to Vicky. Others have been making it for some time about church and worship. So in no particular order some of the reasons I think Vicky is right to see something happening and ask what it is, but is possibly wrong about what is really happening.(Digging around I found a recent blog post by Vicky that shows some of her wider understanding of worship in relation to these issues).

1. What is ‘this’: Other than the flash mob, Vicky gives us no examples of participatory worship. I’m left thinking is this what we now do, flash-mobs for weddings and services?

2. Moment vs Movements: The One campaign that saw people all around the world buying tickets to music events to end poverty, with social media moving people to events, for moments of experience. But as a BBC correspondent asked at a One campaign event, will this moment of experience become a movement?

I suspect the Stonehenge flash mob have had their fill of Stonehenge, and won’t be back there again. What was the flash-mob experience other than a novelty, which if repeated more than once becomes mundane. I suspect more flash-mobs at weddings won’t register on the media radar (wedding flash-mobs are so yesterday).

And and do those people at the Stonehenge flash-mob commit to care for the place, know about it, tell others about, return, given money to support it? I suspect they have moved on to the thrill of the next flash mob.

3. What was really worshipped: Did people really think, wow I never knew church could be like this? I doubt it. It was more likely that the nature of the event took over the wedding. The only thing people remember was how cool it was to crash the wedding and to get on Youtube. It might as well have been any other event, nothing special about the wedding, other than it was a place you don’t expect things like that to happen. See other flash-mobs on the Youtube, that take place in a shopping mall, library, etc. It’s not about participating in the wedding at all, but about the people interrupting the space they go to with their flash-mob. In that sense the flash-mob is the new liturgy, something people like to do in a certain way in certain places to express something other than what is happening in the place they have gone to. (Russell in the comments below highlights an article by Jamie Smith about flash mobs, and liturgy that is worth a read)

4. Participation: And the idea that church should be radically participatory because it isn’t compared to how most people live, isn’t the case at all. People stare a TVs all the time listening to others control what they hear and see. They sit at concerts in rows, watch sports they cannot play. Then look at weddings themselves. Non Christians trained from birth to imagine their weddings days, then copy each other like lemmings, with the same traditional format, the dress, the cars, the reception, the cake, the holiday in the maldives. I suspect the average mother in law, on seeing a flash-mob at their daughters wedding wouldn’t be thinking, how wonderful and participatory the worship was.

5. The Mundane: Most people’s life are about regularity. Doing the same things in the same way they like to do them. Shopping, cafes, holidays, leisure. They are not about radical participation by others. Put a flash-mob in the middle of a marathon, and see how welcomed they are by those trying to run their best time for the event. The real reason people don’t want much to do with church, is that they would rather be doing other things. No amount of flash-mobs will get them to engage with church more. What it does it get them to engage in flash-mobs more!

6. The new seeker sensitive: So if we have moved from a form of church that gives people what they want, to entice them in, is what Vicky suggests, just the continuation of the seeker movement. This is what people like want now, so let’s adapt our style for them, again.

And as I write all these I am not arguing for church to be irrelevant, boring and exclusionary! Far from it. But hunch is that articles like Vicky’s perpetuate a myth. A myth that ‘if only church was like this’ then people would take part, and worse than that, it becomes part of a self justification for those who don’t want to engage in church, and never will anyway.

And I’m not against flash-mobs, I just think they need to be seen for what they really are.

Lastly, I think this question about worship style puts the cart before the horse so to speak. By that I think, if we ask how our worship can be more relevant to the ways people outside it like to worship their ways of life then we’ve missed the point.

Worship is about God first and foremost. How do people in our culture today put God first with their lives and worship? Everything else takes shape around that, not the other way.