LITURGY IN A SECULAR AGE 31 May 2018 When I planned the first Atlanta Beer and Hymns 4 ½ years ago, I remember getting push back about an event that involved singing church hymns in a bar. Critics and haters, as TSwift would call them (that’s here to embarrass my teenager), had plenty to say about this gathering…”What do you guys do...just sit around and sing and get drunk?” And there have been many questions like this one asked over the years. The two that keep surfacing now are, “Why do you have to meet in a bar?” and “Why do you use secular music?” If you grew up in Churchlandia, you are familiar with the word secular and the way it is said by grumpy church curmudgeons with a vicious sneer. Secular is a word that is used to describe anything that isn’t Church approved, wouldn’t be sold at Lifeway, or basically any kind of entertainment that would lead your soul into sin. Growing up Pentecostal, we had a joke… You know why premarital sex is a sin, don’t you...? Because it might lead to dancing.
Ridiculous, right? Archaic even...However, if you grew up in a religious culture where the devil was always lurking around the corner and sending his demons, to lure you into an eternity in hell by seducing you with sex, rock-n-roll, or anything that was any fun of any kind, this scenario rings true for you.
In a lot of ways it’s not surprising that I am part of a church community that meets in a bar and uses secular music instead of Christian music in our worship gatherings. Maybe, I do this because after leaving the church of my childhood I still wanted a connection to God, but what I didn’t want a connection to a church that was filled with legalism and an irrational fear of the devil. I figured if I was already damned to an eternity in hell, I may as well give up the pretense that I had a chance of meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates and just embrace my inner sinner and all that entailed.
This coming Sunday, ABC is doing a Hard Rock Liquid Liturgy. We’ll be singing music by Live, Audioslave, The Foo Fighters, Temple of Dog, White Stripes, and my personal favorite as a child of the 80s, AC/DC. We always use secular music in our worship gatherings. We’ve done some great Liquid Liturgies, as we call them. We’ve done the music of U2, Mumford and Sons, Johnny Cash, Lady Gaga, The Indigo Girls, and Madonna to name a few. This is our thing, and we do it really well. (By we, I mean the amazing band that I get to work with.) But this week is different. This week we are singing rock-n-roll, hard rock-n-roll. Like I said, AC/DC is in the mix. Our sending hymn this week is Highway to Hell. Now we’re a pretty creative group, and we like to push the envelope where we can, but even for us, Highway to Hell as our sending hymn is a leap. Several of the songs in this week’s liturgy are a leap.
So, here’s where I give y’all an insight into how we plan an Atlanta Bar Church service. We always start with the lectionary texts for the day...ALWAYS, and this week’s Gospel lesson is from Mark 2:23-3:-6. There are two stories here, and both revolve around altercations that Jesus has with the Pharisees. In the first story, Jesus and the disciples pick grain on the sabbath because they are hungry and the Pharisees call him out for doing so. In the second story, the Pharisees are low key stalking Jesus in the Synagogue on the Sabbath waiting to see if he’s going to heal a man that has a deformed hand. Spoiler alert: He does!
The text says that Jesus is grieved because the Pharisees are hard hearted, Jesus heals the man and they begin to conspire against him. As our team talked through this text we all saw Jesus as kind of a badass. He stood up against the religious leaders of the day who would condemn him and even plot to kill him because he cared more about the bodies, souls, and stomachs of his companions than he did laws that were embraced to the point of damaging legalism.
So how does that get us to Highway to Hell as part of the liturgy? For me, after reading this text, I hear Highway to Hell as if it were being sung by Jesus. Here’s a person who was condemned by the religious elite, and was constantly dogged by people who were waiting for him to screw up so they could pounce. I Imagine that Jesus reached a point in his ministry where he became beyond exasperated, and he realized that he’s wasn’t going to change any of the minds of the Pharisees. I believe that he just decided to embrace the Heavenly business that he’s come to do and let the religious leaders like the Pharisees believe he was doing something that would send him straight to Hell. Additionally, if you think about how Christian tradition holds that while Jesus was dead in the tomb, he descended to Hell and stole the keys to death, Hell, and the grave, it makes complete sense that the words of this song could come from the mouth of Jesus. We realize that not everyone is going to agree with our theological take on this song, or any of the music that we choose and that’s ok, but our constant hope is that there will be something in the liturgy that connects with those who come to worship. Even more, we hope that those of us who are seeking a different kind of way to engage the Divine and the larger Church, will be willing to have conversations around the things that challenge us in a community of people who don’t have it all figured out, but even still, we keep going.
I hope to see y’all on Sunday night at Smith’s Olde Bar at 7pm in Midtown. If you can’t make it, know that you can always catch our service (or at least snippets) on Facebook Live.