Meditations: Learning to Improv
Last week I was on the phone with another pastor friend. My friend is in an interesting position. He's about to be handed the job of lead pastor at his congregation, but he's not sure he believes in church, at least not the way he's seen it done before. The Barna Institute has compile a depressing collection of stats that suggests there's not much difference between how Christians behave compared to their unchurched counterparts-- from divorce rates, to ethics, to theology. Churched peopled and unchurched people don't seem to live and think that much differently than each other.
These are frustrating stats for the pastors who attempt to design programs, curriculum, and spiritual pathways for their congregation. Congregants "do their time" in these courses and small groups and seemingly come out unchanged.
My friend posed the question-- so why offer all of this programming if they are proven to be ineffective to help people live the Christian live? And do people really need all this religious machinery to "get it?"
Later that night I sat down at the piano and played some Thelonious Monk. I bought a book transcribed scores that allow me to read the notes. Someone had taken the time to listen to his recordings and recreated them note-by-note. I can read those notes and recreate, more or less, his music.
What I can't do is improvise his songs. Jazz improvisation requires a set of skills that I don't possess. There are invisible rules in jazz that helps a musician pick which notes to play next. I'd need a knowledge of "modes", which are similar to the classical music scales I learned as a child, but are radically different. This lack of understanding of the jazz theory keeps me reading the music printed in front of me. I don't have the freedom to create.
I wonder if the average Christian feels dependent on church programs because they've never learned the "modes" and "theory" of the faith. Instead of feeling the liberty to create their own path for the Christian live, members are dependent on the "sheet music" that we provide.
N.T. Wright wrote a short, insightful book "The Last Word" in which he argues that scripture is authoritative because it describes The Story and demands that we find out place in it. According to Wright, we scripture has missing scenes between the book of Acts and Revelation. It's our job to improvise a bridge in between those two Acts.
We do this by becoming intimate with the narrative of scripture. We start to intuitively pick up "the modes" by becoming familiar with the plot, the characters, and the God who drives the story. Over time, we begin to feel the beat inside of us. We're able to guess what notes God might play next, and we're more able to harmonize. (And if we hit a wrong note, we can say "Hey, it's jazz...)
Perhaps we'd all find more freedom for ourselves and the people we lead, by immersing ourselves again in the sweeping story of Salvation until we hear God's voice inviting us take our turn playing a solo.