Church as dance troupe or team

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To understand the church — or synagogue or a congregation of any faith — think about a dance company, an athletic team, or the cast and crew who present a play.

Have you been part of a dance company or athletic team? Or have you watched any of these for some time? They spend lots of time practicing, learning, preparing.They learn to interact precisely as a team. The critical person who makes this happen is the choreographer, director, or coach. These have a vision of what the group will develop with them, and that vision may change as members improve. As they practice, the group catches the vision and each one glimpses their part of the whole.

The most effective directors and coaches listen and respect. They are not tyrants, but respect people to draw them into the vision, and bring out of their people their commitment and energy and hard work.

This preparing and practice is incredibly hard. Watch a ballet company or dancers like the members of the Jets and Sharks that opens West Side Story. The director teaches them, demonstrates, as they come ever closer to his or her vision. Or an athletic team learns the fundamentals of the game then plays and interactions. Or those who prepare to run a relay repeatedly practice the handoff and receiving of the baton. Or the high jumper tries repeatedly, listens to criticism and suggestion, then jumps again. Preparation is long and strenuous. Like the old story of the man who asked for directions to get to the city’s performance theater, and was told, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Finally come the performances or the games. And for dancers and athletes that means lots of sweat and close attention and listening, then at the end a mix of satisfaction and regret.

Worship is a huddle
In a football game the team on the field in the middle of the action huddles to find out what the next play is, then does it, then huddles again to hear encouragement and perhaps forgiveness, new directions, then into the game.

Congregations also live their faith, then huddle for directions, encouragement, then back into walking the talk.

My faith tradition began with John and Charles Wesley. Those who joined them were organized into support groups, in which they talked about what they had done, and studied how to live in the next week. John Wesley wrote some general rules — some dated but many timeless.

Congregations meet together often and work individually. I think the model is Alcoholics Anonymous, where people gather to hear encouragement and suggestions from alcoholics who are in recovery. They work at it, using many resources, and they meet to encourage each other. AA members may show up for work early to do "AA work”, then are ready for the day’s stress and responsibilities. And in response to step 12 AA’s are ready to go to those who call for help.

The Wesley support groups or Alcoholics Anonymous groups are the best examples of the vital core of the church. That core is people interacting with people to learn how to be faithful, trusting children of God.

Church is a team that practices together the dance of living faithfully, and is individuals who practice and work on their own skills to do their part of the troupe's graceful — grace filled — dance.

History of faith-traditions
Congregations are often organized into denominations, just as we are citizens of a town and a country. Most denominations look back to a leader who defined their tradition and enriched it. Charles Wesley enriched mine with the many hymns that he wrote. John Wesley taught us that the words we believe are not as important as loving God and neighbor and how we live. He taught us to combine knowledge and piety. He talked about our social responsibility, and walked the talk. He visited prisoners, established orphanages, schools, clinics, and is credited by some historians with preventing England suffering a revolution like the bloody French one. Wesley was indebted to Martin Luther and others before him. He recognized as we must that the Greek New Testament uses the word ekklesia for church or congregation — the origin of our word ecclesiastical — but ekklesia is also the word for political gatherings and activities. If we will be faithful to the church, we had best be citizens as well.

Denominations are condemned by some as just bureaucracies. More accurately they are faith-traditions — a much better word — that enrich the local congregation both by its sources in events and people and enrich us by linking us to other congregations of the same tradition. If we want to be involved in the work of a denomination, we meet others who share our tradition, and together grow and learn and are more effective Christians, thanks to our tradition. We may find some congregations in our tradition meet our needs best. The people who founded different traditions teach us deep wisdom. The leaders of faith-traditions from the informal Quakers or Friends to the formal Episcopalians can teach us a great deal, as a result of their experience, and lead us to being better persons.

When churches sin
Churches protect their turf since they are organizations. As organizations they try to broaden their influence and power and control. Church leaders can become control freaks that demand everyone do their way, and threaten death or hell to objectors. They easily become secretive. They protect their own even when they are pedophiles. The organization itself becomes god. Congregations and denominations become self centered, and they love and work for it instead of the One. This is the reason Christ was crucified — by the Romans on the demand of the religious authorities. Never blame the Jews; it was religious authorities who've martyred the faithful.

When traditions become less effective, or secretive, or controlling, we must change them, as Pope John XXIII did when, as he said, he opened the windows of the church to the world. Churches locally and as faith-traditions need renewal and reform in most centuries.

Let’s go back to the image of a stage and a play to complete thinking about trusting and living Christianly. Actors today wear makeup and costumes, while in Jesus’ day they held a mask in front of their face to appear their part — the actor holding a mask was called a hypocrite. Jesus used few words as bitterly as hypocrite. Look almost anywhere in the Gospels and you read sharp words about hypocrites. Jesus keeps warning us about talk, appearances, and the heart. Are we wolves with sheep's clothing? Are we whitewashed tombs full of dead bones?

After the last performance, the actors and those who worked backstage strike the set and celebrate. When we finish our part in the dance of trusting and living Christianly, we strike our life-set and celebrate with the One who is our director, choreographer, coach.

Kierkegaard used the image of the theater to describe and criticize the church. He said we usually think of the congregation as the audience watching the choir and preacher perform; he said that is backwards. He said the people are the performers, the choir and preacher are their prompters, and God is the audience! Did you know a prompter is out of sight with a copy of the play so if an actor hesitates, the prompter whispers the line? Next time you go to worship, think of Kierkegaard’s vision, and think of choir and preacher as your prompters in worship. And remember that worship, like the huddle, is a pause to rejoice, encourage and forgive before returning to the game and the dance of living.

Grant that what we sing with our lips
we may believe in our hearts,
and what we believe in our hearts
we may practice in our lives;
so that being doers of the Word and not hearers only,
we may receive everlasting life.

—Fred D. Gealy

Copyright © 2002 John F. Yeaman