Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Worship screensaver mode
Simon Jenkins tackles worship screensaver mode
I was speaking in church recently, and was just hitting peak preach – a bit like the thundering of Niagara Falls after a few weeks of heavy rain – when I made the error of actually looking at individual faces in the pews before me. I don’t know what they teach in preaching school these days, but I’m sure that in my day they instructed you to vaguely scan the sea of faces as you preached, and nothing more. If you made definite eye contact with someone, they warned, that person might feel the sermon was aimed at them alone, which could reduce them to a little heap of ashes.
Anyway, as I semi-accidentally made contact with a few faces in my congregation, I was hoping, of course, to see them being rapturously swept along by the mighty flow of my sermon. But one glance at their dead eyes quickly put me right – they had sensibly powered down their brains until something vaguely interesting started happening. One man even wore a happy smile on his vacant face, a sure sign that he was screening a movie of his recent holiday in Majorca on the inside of his eyeballs.
The unsettling discovery that quite a few people were in screensaver mode threw my own brain into a frenzy of multitasking. As I continued banging on about Deuteronomy, the large portion of my brain which had been doing nothing while I preached, sprang to life and recalled a news story about the casinos of Las Vegas. It’s probably an urban myth, but those casinos are rumoured to pump 100% oxygen into their interiors to keep their customers alert and focused on the important task of feeding money into the slot machines. Could churches follow their example, I wondered? Perhaps the collection – or even sermons – could go a lot better with some extra oxygen. But then I thought: maybe some churches are already doing it. Hillsong and other hipster churches have probably been pumping laughing gas for years.
Thinking about the sermon later, and how the experience of delivering it had been like throwing a tennis ball into porridge, I realised something. Church can be pretty wonderful, but if there are things about it that people don’t like very much, they will develop workarounds to make it better for themselves. Dreaming about the perfect Sunday lunch during the sermon is just one way this happens.
Other workarounds are triggered during the Peace, which must be one of the most Marmite moments in all of church life – loved and loathed in equal measure. It’s frankly a joy to observe what people do during the Peace, ranging from the reluctant souls who limit their hesitant handshakes to the people who are strictly within a one-metre radius, to the exuberant people who enthusiastically wave and mouth ‘Peace be with you’ to their friends on the other side of the church. It’s never happened yet, but I do long to hear the minister announce the Peace by saying: ‘And if you prefer not to take part, just sit in a back pew with your head bowed and your middle finger raised in the air.’
A workaround I’ve often used myself has been the well-timed loo break, which is always useful for those unpleasant service moments. One church I belonged to had a sacred dance group, and I have a happy memory of walking past them on my way to the gents as they stood in the church lounge, preparing to launch themselves up the aisle in a blur of leotards, coloured streamers and whirling hand movements. I didn’t actually need to go, but walking to the loo door and back to my pew exactly covered the dance item. I know that might sound a bit bad, but on a previous occasion I actually saw one of the sacred dances, after which I popped into my dentist on the way home and had some root canal treatment to cheer myself up.
While some churches could take inspiration from the casinos of Las Vegas and get some oxygen (or at least a blast of fresh air) into their services, maybe others could learn from restaurants which get their waiting staff to interrupt you while you’re trying to eat your food. How about, during the second hymn, someone coming to your pew and asking: ‘Is everything all right? Are you enjoying the hymn?’ Or, as you return to your seat after Communion: ‘How was the wine for you?’
Next time I preach, I’m planning to distribute those blindfolds they give you on planes to help you sleep. I’m sure that working with people’s workarounds is absolutely the best way to go.
This article was published in the June 2018 edition of Reform