Asking the proper question

I was going to call this “framing the question,” or perhaps “reframing the question,” both of which get at my meaning a bit better—namely, there are simple technical adjustments available that can make an intriguing question into a useful diagnostic. The analogy is to the double-checking and fine-tuning a carpenter does when framing a structure. But I see in perusing the internet that the expression has been jargonized, so I’ll write instead about making sure you’re asking the proper question.

Maggie has always been both a dancer and a church-goer, and her recent interest in contra dancing led her to this article, which asks an intriguing question: why can’t churches be more like contra dances? The writer is a pastor of a Lutheran church who had recently begun participating in a local contra dance, She compares the two, finds the dance strong in ways that the church is weak, and wonders if we might learn from the dance community in order to strengthen the church community.

At one level, her observations are accurate enough. She notes several ways in which folks at the dance behave which strengthen the community, and suggests (mostly by implication) that the church fails to behave in similar ways. But she makes a simple mistake in posing the question, which prevents her from reaching any sort of answer. The mistake: contra dances are not akin to churches, but to church services. And if she had stated the question as “Why can’t church services be more like contra dances?”, I think the answers would come easily—and be challenging as well.

Let’s look at a few passages, with the rephrased question in mind.

Some of the parallels between a contra-dance and a worship service are obvious. […] And then there is the matter of the community gathered, which is the whole point of both Sunday morning worship and Monday evening contra-dances.

Given the way the question was originally stated (church = contra dance), it is easier to let this pass—the church gathers, the dancers gather. But with the rephrased question (church service = contra dance), it becomes clearer that there a superficial difference—the church gathers to worship, while the dancers gather to dance—which may or may not prove to be important.

The writer goes on:

When I went to my first contra-dance, it took every bit of courage I could muster to get myself there. Stepping into a room of people I don’t know, to do an activity I don’t know how to do, is way outside my comfort zone. As I was struggling through that experience, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who seem to show up each week at Holy Trinity to worship with us for the first time. I wondered if our church community is as welcoming to outsiders as the contra community, which seems to bend over backwards to make newbees feel welcome.

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Again, assuming church = contra dance, it’s easy to slide over this point—the dancers are welcoming, the church is not always welcoming. But assuming church service = contra dance, the “problem” evaporates. As far as the service itself goes, the “struggles” a newcomer will experience even with high liturgy are minimal, trivial, quickly overcome, and (most important) of minor consequence to the other worshipers. Group dancing is just the opposite—it requires significant physical and mental skill, takes time to learn properly, and one’s “struggles” can significant affect the experience of the other dancers. Which means that, as far as the church service goes, there probably isn’t much to learn from the dancers about how to make people feel welcome.

At a contra-dance, there are people of all sizes,ages,ethnicities,etc. Just the way churches should be, of course. But I don’t see this kind of diversity in most churches. More than that, though, it’s the level of acceptance that amazes me. You don’t choose who you will associate with and who you will avoid at a contra-dance. Everybody dances with everybody. When you’re dancing and someone lands in front of you and it’s time to put your arm around him and dance, you don’t stop to think about how stinky his body odor might be at the moment, you dance with him. That’s just the way it works.

At nearly every church service I’ve attended, association and avoidance is a non-issue, unless you are picky about who you will shake hands with during the peace or its equivalent. One of the live controversies in the Episcopal church when we first joined was the addition of “passing the peace” to the liturgy. Some of the long-term parishioners were quite offended, and would deliberately stay seated or stand looking at their feet with their hands at their side. I have nothing for or against the practice—it doesn’t bother me, and every church I’ve attended has done it in some form, but it is always the most awkward part of the service by far, feeling more like the seventh-inning stretch than a meaningful interaction. More important, I saw the point of the objectors—worship services are structured as spectator events, with participation an individual and private thing, something that can’t be changed simply by inserting a moment of meet-and-greet.

Contra dances are just the opposite, a mixer dance. Unlike partner dances or solo dances, the structure is specifically designed to switch around associations systematically, so that all will come into contact with all. This might make sense as a criterion used to assess church life in general, but not a church service on its own.

There are some who are creative with their interpretation of those steps and others who keep it basic. But the important thing is that you land in the right place at the right time. Because the dance is all about the community and everyone in the community is counting on everyone else in the community to be where they need to be when they need to be there.

Again, this might make sense as a criterion used to assess church life in general, but not a church service. Worshipers are not depending on one another “to be where they need to be when they need to be there.” A few need to be in specific places—the pastor, the musicians (if any)—and the rest are optional. More might make the overall experience nicer, but not required to make it a service. The dance, however, is made up of dancers. Those who dance are part, those who don’t are at best observers, not part of the dance.

The goal of contra-dancing seems to be experiencing joy in community. And, sometimes along the way, there are these transcendent moments when the music is humming and all the feet are stomping at the same time and the bodies are flowing. Together we have created a thing of beauty.

The writer doesn’t say so, but the implication is roughly, “Hey, church is about community too, maybe we can learn something from these dancers about increasing our own joy!” But this is another church = contra dance confusion. The goal of the church service is definitely not about experiencing joy in community—that may happen as a side effect, but if it is the goal then we are going about it all wrong, because a worship service is not a community event, it is a gathering of individuals in the community to do individual things (pray, sing, hear, learn) in a group context. None of the things congregants do in a church service depend on the other congregants being there, any more than a moviegoer depends on other moviegoers.

All this is not to say that the points raised by the writer are not worth considering. Quite the opposite. I think she’s encountered a joie de vivre in her contra dance community that she thinks her church community should envy, and she’s correctly identified some of the important differences in community behavior. However, I think when she fails to clearly distinguish between church and church service when drawing her analogies, she distracts herself from the questions that might actually yield some helpful answers—where in our church life (if anywhere) is welcome and acceptance an important quality? where is personal interaction important? where do we count on one another to fulfill our given role in a group activity? where do we experience communal (as opposed to gathered) joy?

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