September 9, 2013

Keeping it Hyper-Real

The allure of hyper-reality threatens to crush church planters, pastors and congregations far more than the day to day drudgery of actual reality ever will.

What do I mean by that?  Well, let me explain.  We are all becoming familiar with the term “hyper-reality”, right?  By “hyper-reality” we mean that tendency of, for instance, advertising to present a version of reality when selling a product that is more intense, more colourful, more joyful (given the rather dreary nature of the cleaning product being advertised), more emotionally fulfilling etc, than ever seems possible in daily life. Hyper-reality is the exclamation mark at the end of every sentence; the words “awesome”, “amazing”, “brilliant”, “stunning” used so often that they lose their weight; the use of a superlative when a comparative might be employed; and the visceral experience we have at a surround sound cinema, in which we can practically taste the brains that the zombie is eating.

The problem with hyper-reality of course, is that when everything is hyper-reality, it soon becomes reality: something to live up to, or at least spend your hard earned dollar on that product in order to live up to.  Like ice or heroin, the more hyper-reality you mainline the less hyper-real it feels, until eventually no amount of hyper-reality ever makes you feel like you know you should feel.  It’s the classic line by Syndrome in The Incredibles – “When everyone is super, no one will be.”

So what does this have to do with the church planter/pastor/congregation?  Exactly this: the desire for hyper-reality to be the new reality has infected the church way beyond what the church actually realises. Don’t believe me?  Then church planters/pastors, go through your books and check out all of the books about church that do not have the word “ordinary” in front of the word “church”. Can you smell the odour of hyper-reality in any of those titles? Have a look at all of the discipleship programs you like that employ words like “radical” or others within that semantic field.  Check out your own Powerpoint/Keynote presentations for slides that talk up what you are projecting to do in the next five years.  Go through all of the one word talk titles/church names/evangelism strategies/conferences etc etc you have been involved with.  How many of these just sound like they need an exclamation mark at the end of them?  Plenty, right?

Pastors/church planters, we are in danger of burning out our people on the altar of hyper-reality, which is – in true reality – a reflection of something within us, deep within us, that pulls away from that most ordinary of words; “ordinary”.

To be ordinary is a curse in this day and age.  Trust me, I know all about ordinary.  I am 46, working in a small church plant on the edge of a small city on a mostly deserted continent, with a mortgage, children, a wife, a dog and two Hyundais.  Now by about 90 per cent of the world’s standards that is extraordinary, the stuff of dreams.  But in the language of hyper-reality, I am cursed by ordinary.  Haunted by it.  it oozes out of my pores, it finds its way into my thoughts, it clings to my ageing legs when I run, it follows me everywhere I drive, chit-chats just behind my shoulder, out of sight, but never out of ear-shot.  Ordinary is what I am.  And guess what?  It’s what you are too, unless you are reading this (again!) Tim Keller/Mark Driscoll/Next Big Thing on the Evangelical Merry-go-round.

In our desire to escape ordinary we assume that others should escape it too, and that it our job to assist them.  And how do we do that?  We make hyper-reality a discipleship issue.  It’s not enough that I have a church full of mums, dads, kids, people who work in trades, some tired, but faithful professionals who live bifurcated lives, older people, sick and depressed people, etc etc.  No!  I must have radical disciples! People sold out for Jesus!! An alternative community!!! Ninja-style Missionaries to our culture, rappelling down the sides of buildings with copies of The Essential Jesus. We commit to studying the Gospel of Exclamation Mark.  We re-envision people (every six months or so), we re-engineer things, rebrand, reframe, anything to ensure that we are keeping it hyper-real.

Two questions need to be asked.  Firstly what is the result of this?  Burnout and guilt.  People become change-weary as we call them to higher and higher demands, demands that, if we took a cold hard look at them, seem ludicrous.  And it is here that technology plays such a significant part, especially in the area of imagery.  The over-use of imagery in our culture has bled into the church to the point that most pastors can’t imagine (interesting correlation between “imagine” and image”) what life would have been like before it.  The church planter HAS to have the website right because he knows that the right image has to be presented if the right people are to come.  And what is the right image?  It’s the three-hundred thousand dollar image of the hyper-real church whose book we read.  We can’t afford that of course, so we see how close we can come to it, like some cheap Thailand market-stall copy of a Rembrandt.

The second question that needs to be asked is the deeper question.  What is driving us to do this?  My short answer is that “hyper-reality” is all the culture has left when it gives up on eschatology.  I am keen to elaborate on this in a later post, but briefly, I believe that hyper-reality is a parody of the age-to-come, truncated, packaged and sold on to a Western culture that has lost its foundations.  And it has bled into the church.  In a culture in which a Christian book “Everyday a Friday” sells like, well, sells like a book with that title would sell, it is the brave pastor or church that calls for an alternative vision in which everyday (Sunday through Saturday) is not only a day that the Lord has made as part of the creation, but is now, in light of the cross and resurrection, part of the new creation. The overlap of the ages is here with us.  We don’t have to go searching for meaning in what we do – it has been given meaning by the cross and resurrection.  Hyper-reality has nothing on the true reality of the age-to-come.  It is a glib alternative for those whose only hope lies in this passing age.

It is the church planter/pastor’s role to help people rejoice in the ordinary. To show how every menial task is charged with meaning because the age-to-come has broken in.  To show how caring for a sick child or sick parent is an act of deep, precious grace because it springs from a desire for wholeness and healing that will be fully realised one day.  We don’t all have children who are honours students at the local primary school.  Some of us, shock horror, have children who are ordinary students.  In fact, some of us have children who struggle at school, have learning difficulties, even some who have physical and mental anomalies that result in them being bullied. But Jesus has been raised, and this fact makes those difficult realities not only something that we can bear, but something we can rejoice in!

Hyper-reality has nothing to say at this point.  It is silent. Dumb. It cannot make all things new.  It can only discard the old and offer something newer, that even as it is presented, is on its way out.  Only God re-news the old. Hyper-reality’s biggest sin is that it ignores reality, turns its face away from it, shocked and offended by it.

There is much more to say about this, but let me leave this thought with you, especially planters and pastors.  What if you, instead of trying to make church look better, put some effort into celebrating the ordinary?  Could you do that? Would you want to do that? Or is it too threatening to your vision and goal?  Would it call into question many of the things that you focus on?

Is your God awesome?

Or is your god Awesome?

Worth thinking about.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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