The Flying Drummers of the Immanent Frame
What an over-the-top Christmas pageant has to say about the church in 2023.
If you’re on social media, you might have seen that video clip of a number of drummers “flying” above a megachurch sanctuary. The clip in question is of a rehearsal of a Christmas extravaganza at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, TX outside of Dallas. Called “The Gift of Christmas,” this ticketed event is not your kid in a bathrobe Christmas pageant. A press release from the congregation describes this production which would put Cecil B. De Mille to shame:
A press release from the church, which reportedly has over 50,000 members, describes the show as a “visually stunning multimedia event.” In addition to flying acts and an expansive cast, the show also reportedly features special effects, an LED video wall, and a 50-piece orchestra playing an original music score.
Because its so over-the-top and because Prestonwood is an evangelical church, the snark came in swift and strong with many saying that such extravagance could have been better spent on the poor.
I don’t disagree with that assertion, but I’m less bothered by that. What I’m interested in is how all of this is trying to get people’s attention in an age where the church has to compete with so many other things for our ever-shrinking attention spans.
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This is even the first time that flying drummers have been used. Watch the video below from a few years ago from Second Baptist Church in Houston.
In another post, I talked about #progressiveclergy on TikTok. This is a gathering of mostly progressive Protestants that represent various progressive causes like LGBTQ rights, especially anything about trans issues, and abortion rights.
On the surface, the flying drummers and progressive clergy have nothing in common. They are talking to two different audiences. And yet, they do have something in common. Neither the drummers or the TikTokers are sharing some kind of awe-inspiring experience where one can sense the God of the universe. You might feel welcome that someone agrees with you or that its okay to be gay or you might be entertained by the light show and cast of a thousand but is any of this leading you to an encounter with God?
I’m not saying that the issues that the progressive clergy is talking about don’t matter. As a gay man, I will tell you that they do. But is anything this leading to an encounter with God? Is it allowing us to truly connect with one another and hear each other’s stories?
For the last few months, I’ve been slowly reading Churches and the Crisis of Decline by Andy Root. Now, being a professor at my alma mater gets a listen in my book, but his book really has blown my mind in the crisis facing mainline Protestant and evangelical churches in our culture. Root describes the problem is that we live in what Canadian sociologist Charles Taylor calls the Immanent Frame. Immanent means what is in front us of us, what we can see. We live in an age that is disenchanted and explainable. This is a challenge for Christians because the God found in the Bible is transcendent or beyond what we can see. So, how do you talk about a transcendent God in an immanent world?
I think one way you do that is by trying to be relevant. You want to be hip, to be eye-catching. Maybe you want to have flying drummers or do some skit about being pro-choice because if you can show that God is relevant to our modern age, you can get people in our churches.
But there’s a problem with our desire to be relevant-it puts the church at the center of the story and not God. As a review of Church and the Crisis of Decline by Andrew Esqueda notes:
In my estimation, what Root is contending at the outset of this book is that the crisis of decline is really a crisis of mission. As a response to declining church attendance and the decline of religiosity in the secular age, Root suggests that the church has sought out ingenuity and relevance, and in doing so has made the church itself the subject of its own story—the church has made its own survival its primary mission. As Root explains, the fictional Saint John the Baptist is facing similar challenges to many churches today, for example, declining attendance, declining giving, staff turnover, et cetera, and in an effort to combat these trends they have sought out opportunities for growth that look starkly inward at what the church is and can offer, rather than to the true subject of the church’s story, God.
Root focuses on the story of theologian Karl Barth in his early years as a pastor before he became the great theologian of later years. Barth is considered a theologian of crisis, and while in seminary I had a hard time understanding what kind of crisis Barth was talking about. For Barth, the crisis is time-limited beings encountering a being that is outside of time. Esqueda continues:
This is where Root finds Barth so helpful. Barth, often referred to as a theologian of crisis, in the midst of his own cultural chaos created by World War II, became adamant that the subject of the Christian community must be God. Even within a secular age where transcendence seems to have been lost and the world’s consciousness is closed off to the possibility of anything other than imminence (that which is here, material, and established by the methods of modernity), Barth puts forth what Root describes as a contradiction, the axiom, ‘God is God’. Root traces this axiom to the young pastor Christophe Blumhardt, whom Barth learned a tremendous amount from. But it is in this contradiction that God can actually become the subject of the church’s story. In fact, this contradiction frees the pastor and the congregant alike from the ever-present anxiety of relativizing God to a world that no longer acknowledges transcendence. Churches like Saint John the Baptist have made their mission a rat race of church survival and have gone through a litany of ministry methods seeking to somehow capture God and communicate God to the culture around us. According to Root:
The Meaningless statement “God is God” explains nothing but nevertheless reminds us that to speak of God is to witness to one who cannot be explained. To say “God is God” is to claim that God is beyond explanation. It is to seek to name the one who takes no concern for human constructs of explanation. To assert that God is God is to assert that God is beyond, and even in opposition to, all human frames, explanations, and structures. (pg. 59)
When the church can affirm that God is God, its reliance moves from human “frames, explanations, and structures” and the faculties of the immanent frame to God. “[This] move helps those in the immanent frame find God, because only in confessing that we have no way to find God are we assured that we seek God and not just our own echo” (Pg. 75).
Without sharing the whole article I want to share one more sentence from Esqueda’s review because it is the most important part of his essay.
What does that mean, however, for those of us in the practice of ministry where we have been taught that there are “ways” of doing ministry that “work,” and we too find ourselves in the rat race of church survival?
I think it means this: in the context of the immanent frame, declining church attendance, and a cultural rejection of transcendence, our methods of ministry will not save us, and we must stop thinking they will. The move from method to method, from this context to that one, is at its core an attempt at relevance and we can be assured that these attempts at relevance require the church itself to be the main character of its story.
What unites Prestonwood’s Flying Drummer and the progressive clergy of TikTok is that both are trying really, really hard to be relevant to an age and culture where people don’t understand or even think of transcendence. But that comes at a cost because it means that we put ourselves as the center of the story instead of God. The flying drummers or social media influencers are telling a story with themselves or their ideology at the center, not God.
One of the things that Root does in his book is to flesh out his thoughts through allegory. He uses the fictional St. John the Baptist Church and how its members deal with a young man who drops in on their Bible Study and wants to find God. It was not by trying to be relevant, but through resonance, meeting with the young man, and helping him be a part of church life that he was found by God. The church in turn also was found again by God. It was through their relationship with the young man and through the normal parts of church life like preaching, prayer, and Bible Study that God found them.
There was as time when people went to church (or whatever place of worship). It was something that good people in society did. But now people don’t see church as the thing they have to do. There are a lot of other things people could be doing on a Sunday morning. So, now it feels like we who are in the church have to do something outrageous in order to get people’s attention.
This then leads to congregations trying to get the most resources in order to get people’s attention. Churches like Prestonwood and some very resource-rich liberal congregations can get the resources that can do things that can pack the people in. Or congregations that are resource-poor then scramble for dollars that are available from denominations in order to get more butts in sears. Now, this becomes an issue of quantity over quality, but what matters when we want to be relevant are the numbers.
Root’s insights offer congregations a chance to get away from the rat race and focus on God and each other. I haven’t finished the book yet, but as far as I can tell, St. John the Baptist doesn’t grow numerically. However, it does grow spiritually. There are signs of life in the church as people engage with each other and how they make a difference in the life of a young man.
People who are involved with the congregation where I serve tell me on occasion how they love the smallness of the congregation and how much it means to them. I’m always amazed because it’s not like we do so much that makes us attractive. But somehow we must be creating some kind of resonance. God must be working through me and through the congregation.
About a year ago, a pastor connected with the congregation and asked those gathered during a sermon to take part in a daily exercise he did. Based on the daily examen, he asked the congregation to write down where they saw God’s presence during the day. I have no idea if anyone at church decided on taking his advice, but it has stuck with me. I think there is something about being open to seeing where God might be active because it gets us out of ourselves and into God’s story. It gets us interested in other people’s stories.
That might not pack them in like a flying drummer. But it might help our congregations be more in tune with God and the world.
It also might save us money on liability insurance.