Jesus Christ Superstar: The Scary Side of Hip Worship

In their attempts to “do progressive worship,” pastors can often try too hard to be “with it,” relying on what was popular in their formative years, and forgetting how much many people long for continuity in worship. Andrew is an actor and writer in his early thirties. He is, in other words, part of the demographic that churches are often trying to attract with non-traditional liturgy. The following is an excerpt from his online journal, or weblog, dated March 23, 2002. [Read more about weblogs.] -Ed.

it’s holy week. i want to talk about faith.

the church i go to now is a united church of christ. it is the only christian church i have attended that EMBRACES gays and lesbians. i did not say that it TOLERATES them. it EMBRACES them. this is the chief reason i go to this church.

my first visit there was last easter. i went there because a lesbian friend of mine went there. i loved the atmosphere of love and celebration in the small, light-filled chapel. i loved the music, the embracing, the sense of community. i joined the church a couple of months later.

of course the church has drawbacks. one of them is the pastor’s way of stirring things up, which he is of course allowed and obliged to do; but some of his techniques are patently hokey.

one sunday, he invited everyone to come up to the front of the chapel and surround a young-married couple who were soon to move to china. as we surrounded them, the pastor began to sing “climb every mountain,” the mother superior’s song from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. the pastor’s warbly, overly-enunciated and ultra-vibrato voice, and his big round eyes, and his mullet, encouraging us to join in, and we, the congregation, surrounding this young-married couple, singing “climb every mountain,” not really knowing all the words, were, for me, though i tried hard to let go, painful.

this past sunday was palm sunday, the day when jesus rode into jerusalem on a donkey. i was a little late to church, by about twenty minutes. when i entered the foyer, i heard the congregation singing “Hey Zanna, Ho Zanna, Zanna Zanna Ho, Zanna Hey, Zanna Ho-zanna, Hey JC, JC, would you die for me, Zanna Ho Zanna Hey Superstar.” my brain went into a quiet seizure.

as i approached the doors to the chapel, i saw that the entire congregation had been given palm branches and had been instructed to stand in a large circle, as they sang this song from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, and wave their branches. the pastor and pianist sang alternating lines of caiaphas the high priest and whatever other various and sundry dramatic roles there are in that scene from the broadway musical. i turned and went immediately into the bathroom in order to avoid walking into the middle of this show tune gone awry. i looked at my face in the mirror and thought, “i’m never coming back here again.” why was i mortified?

church, for me, is not a place for audience participation, especially when the audience/congregation is humiliatingly unprepared to sing and act out show tunes. this “dramatic technique” does not further the worship experience. in my case, the exact opposite happens: people become self-conscious, embarrassed, and they close up. so, that’s one thing i don’t like about the church– its valiant, often misguided attempts to be innovative and artistically memorable.

secondly, i don’t like it that jesus is rarely mentioned in this church, except in the context of andrew lloyd webber. when they had finished singing about JC, i came out of the bathroom and slipped into the last pew of the chapel. slowly i relaxed and was able to start chipping away at the concrete block inside me that had been installed when i walked into the foyer and heard that song being warbled. through the service that concrete block was dissolved. the pastor had an good, heartfelt, scriptural message. the introduction of the visitors was sweet. the faces of my fellow congregants were precious. the light coming through the stained glass behind me made my hand red. i stared at it.

by the end of the service, after the offertory, the pianist, who has a beautiful baritone voice, brought tears to my eyes when he sang and played a favorite hymn of mine, “wondrous love.” afterwards, i got so many hugs and smiles, which i needed so deeply, that i was thinking, “of course i’ll be back next week. i mean, OF COURSE i will.”

granted i may have to sit through a reading from JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, or an easter dance set to prince’s “i would die 4 u,” but i’ll be back.

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