E.P.I.C. + Activity = Epictivity.
There is a lot of activity in churches today, but not a lot of activity that contributes to the mission that Jesus left for us to fulfill. “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life…[i]” seems to have fallen by the wayside in favor of “stay inside and have tea with people you already know own a bible.” Epictivity, by contrast, is activity that adheres to a standard and a purpose. Epictivity demands people experience Jesus, participate in the program itself, are supplied images and visual expression to enhance what they are involved with, and connect to one another as part of the process.
Today, everything that is working is EPIC [experiential, participatory, image-driven, communal] – museums, coffee shops, films and theatre, reality TV shows, football matches, and massive multi-player online video games are acute examples. But what about the Church? What are we going to do to engage the world around us? Too often we have done whatever we felt like, and then became irritable that more people didn’t like it. But it is no use telling people to enjoy what we serve them on a Sunday. The food may be pleasant, but the presentation is a mess.
Howard Gardener, in his groundbreaking book Frames of Mind, informs us that in addition to there being several different kinds of learning styles [visual, tactile, auditory, etc…] there are also at least seven different intelligences [verbal/spatial, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, bodily/kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal[ii]. Churches, as a rule, are presented only in visual or auditory manners, catering to only those of a verbal/linguistic, musical/rhythmic, or interpersonal intelligence. Our challenge in the postmodern world is to supply opportunities for connection to Jesus through a host of mediums. Think of all of the people who are not even wired to “get” what we are trying to give! To illustrate the idea of enhanced connection, allow me to break down E.P.I.C. and look at each of the four components in turn.
Coming from a charismatic background, the word “experience” is anathema. It conjures mental images of violent flag waving and pandemic fainting fits. But there is so much more to experiencing God than the excesses of well-meaning [albeit highly emotional] elderly Pentecostal women from third world countries. Josh Billings, author and storyteller, says “There is nothing so easy to learn as experience and nothing so hard to apply[iii]” demonstrating that experience is crucial to our understanding. Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Hills Community Church, perhaps said it best when he said:
“The kind of experience we need more of is honest, unforced, and unhyped experience: honest feeling, uncensored, unedited, based on reflection, and honestly shared with others in stories.[iv]”
The Church must afford people the opportunity to meet Jesus, corporately and personally, to have Him offer them a drink of living water.[v] People are not changed through adherence to a set of ideals or propositions, but changed through encounter with God Himself, and it is our task to ensure those opportunities abound. We are to be “experience architects”[vi] mediating “deeply moving experiences of the divine”[vii] through “feelings, moods, music, and energy.[viii]” For myself, I became a Christian through a conversion experience. A moment of divine saturation, which I have never doubted yet cannot possibly quantify. I have all kinds of doubts about my dogma and theology, but none whatsoever about the moment I wept in my parents’ front room and felt a release of the sin-tension that had compressed my life. Only contact with Jesus brings that kind of transformation.[ix]
That kind of transformation also elicits, and requires, participation. Our audience, even our world, is getting smarter[x] and the belief that everyone has something to offer filters into all aspects of life. My experiences in collegiate ministry have taught me that the most vital tool I can employ to remove antagonism is to invite participation. The more discussion I allow, the more panels I employ to probe social issues and invite debate, the less aggression I receive from my would-be attackers. People have something to contribute, and it provides healthy dialogue and counsel between both parishioners and seekers.
Even in corporate management theory, participation is recognized as an ethic. This was demonstrated by Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s citation of the prominence of customer focus, employee involvement, and partnerships with other companies[xi] as the biggest developments of the last 15 years. This trend, ironically conceived of within the church, is now also reflected in church growth analysis. Esaum and Bandy, leading consultants, tell us that “the transition from congregations dependant upon clergy for pastoral care and leadership, to congregations that rely on gifted, called, and equipped laity for pastoral care and leadership, is the greater paradigm shift that lies behind the growth of cell groups.[xii]”
This ethic of participation also manifests itself through interaction with imagery. Images compel personal response. Everyone has their own response to a photograph, film, media piece, or canvas and while these experiences can be shared, they are not synonymous. Images involve people, as viewers, with 100% efficiency. Everyone who sees, sees and reacts. In an image saturated world, however, we need to employ images with discretion and forethought. People see all kinds of things in our media-driven society, but have not been encouraged to find out what they mean. We are “image-intense, but also image-ignorant[xiii]” says Quentin Schultz, and it is the church that must provide liturgical wisdom in the use of images.[xiv]
One of the most meaningful exchanges I ever witnessed as a pastor brought together images and participation in a technological marriage. Students entered a room full of mirrors and lipstick, and over 40 translations of the Lord’s Prayer and were asked to rewrite the prayer [on a mirror, with the lipstick] in their own translation. They then were lead into another room, dimly lit, and sat facing a video camera which recorded them praying their rewritten prayer. Simultaneously, their prayer was projected in front of them onto a monitor and to their peers in another room. At one point, the line up to film their prayer – voluntarily, I might add – was a fifteen minute wait. Everyone felt uncomfortable, but everyone was changed. Those images stuck in the minds of the students, and my own, as we watched ourselves and our friends confess, repent, and give thanks for the greatness of our God.
That was an experience of community, of connection, of memory that stays with me always, mainly because it was something I did not experience alone. Those relationships, intimate and informal at the same time, developed within us all a sense of spiritual formation and communal growth. These are the orphan desires fostered within a culture of “communal anorexia.[xv]” In order to establish positive community, a pattern has already been outlined for us in the New Testament. Paul tells us to “work for the benefit of all, starting with those in the community of faith[xvi]” and to develop a “healthy and robust community” that does the “hard work of getting along…and treating each other with dignity and honor.[xvii]” So one of our first tasks must reflect one of the first premonitions by Christ, that “all men will know you are [His] disciples if you love one another.[xviii]”
Epictivity is not all there is to effectiveness and meaning in the new epoch of world history, but it serves as a great measuring stick for where to begin.
[i] Matthew 28.19
[ii] see also, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.
[iii] Josh Billings, His Works Complete
[iv] McLaren, The Church on the Other Side p.177
[v] Cf. John 4.10
[vi] Len Sweet, Soultsunami p.215
[vii] Ibid. p.208
[viii] Ibid. p. 215
[ix] 2 Corinthians 3.18b “And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
[x] Cf. Edwin Schlossberg, Interactive Excellence pp.29 and 49.
[xi] Originally listed in Soultsunami, p.216
[xii] Esaum and Bandy, Growing Spiritual Redwoods p.122.
[xiii] Schultz, p.20
[xiv] Ibid, p.14
[xv] Len Sweet, Soultsunami p.221
[xvi] Galatians 6.10
[xvii] James 3.18
[xviii] John 13.35