In my recent post Pursuing Good: The Backstory, I began to process what makes something good. I ran into a couple of articles that really helped propel this idea forward. I even started to address the bad press we give good as opposed to great or excellent. I’ll continue to focus on that tension.
We already looked at authenticity. In this article I want to tackle the second characteristic in my master list of what makes something good:
A service is good when it is surprising.
As usual, let’s define this word in an effort to get on the same page.
—an unexpected or astonishing event, fact, or thing
—a feeling of mild astonishment or shock caused by something unexpected
—[ as modifier ] denoting something made, done, or happening unexpectedly:
—[ as modifier ] Bell-ringing denoting a class of complex methods of change-ringing:
surprise major.verb [ with obj. ]
—(of something unexpected) cause (someone) to feel mild astonishment or shock
—capture, attack, or discover suddenly and unexpectedly; catch unawares
Apple Dictionary, v. 2.2.1
I make a habit of studying story structure and plot devices. Good screenwriting takes this audience sophistication into account. A good movie factors in the audience’s desire to guess the plot and uses that cat and mouse game to retain attention. If a movie gives us too little context and foreshadowing, we have no idea what it means or where it’s going (I’m looking at you Jupiter Ascending). If a movie is too straightforward, it feels wooden and one dimensional (too many B movies and Christian movies fall into this trap).
We want enough context, foreshadowing, and predictability to make the story real—to make it something we can attach our attention to. It has to be believable. Which means we have to connect it to what we know is true about our shared, common life experiences.
But we also want something new and unique. We want to be stimulated and inspired. Our stories should connect us to the ideals we cherish. Frankly, we want something fantastic (imaginative or fanciful, remote from reality). In that sense, it has to be unbelievable. Which means we have to connect it to what we know to be true in our hearts that is too often beyond, or outside, our common life experiences.
What we want is both safe and dangerous, known and unknown, reality and fantasy. We can sum up this paradox in a word. We want surprise.
Two roads diverged in a wood…
The way I see it, there are two main ways we can accomplish this — the easy way, or the hard way.
The easy way
“I don’t care that they stole my idea… I care that they don’t have any of their own.”
Continuing our movie analogy, one way of introducing the fantastical is through special effects. This is the path of bigger, better, faster, louder. Though expensive, it is the easy way. Some genres are driven by special effects. We do not go for the plot. We go for the boom. There’s a place for it, but my critique is that this type of surprise is a short-term fix. If we live by bigger and best, we always have to outdo last time.
This mindset is what leads to burnout in church technical teams. It is the churn of the excellence machine. Excellence is about big. Big always becomes bigger. Bigger turns into a monster we have to feed energy and effort. Bigger and better too often become only about bigger and better. And don’t misunderstand me. I am not talking about skill or technique. I am talking about philosophy and mindset.
It is not that a well executed lighting technique should be frowned on because it is excellently done. Heavens no. The problem comes in when we start with the lighting technique. The miss is beginning with exciting techniques; the miss is serving the flash and trash. My suspicion is that there is a way of defining excellence that involves copying cool, stimulating techniques. It is that copying, that borrowing of someone else’s special effect (literally copying their surprise) that I am exposing as the unsatisfying, short-lived easy way.
There is another option. And it takes a lot of effort.
The hard way
It is obvious and an understatement that God is the ultimate creative. He is the master of surprise. Consider Jesus in the Gospels. This element of surprise comes shining out of the Gospels like a laser beam.
- They were astonished at Jesus’ teaching.
- They were amazed at His healings.
- They came with questions to trap him, and left with wonder.
- Even the people that knew him best often ended up with more questions than answers.
His parables seemed to start in one direction and then did an about face showing our prejudices, sinful attitudes, and misunderstandings about God They surprise us still by using familiar images to communicate powerful truths that call us into a higher and deeper relationship.
In a verse that has been recently reverberating in my soul, Jesus promises us: “… when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won’t draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that I have done and said.” John 16:13 (MSG)
How close to God are we getting? If we are feeding our souls, listening to the Spirit of Truth, we will see God’s surprises happening all around us. New, fresh, creative — these flow from a heart that is in tune with the Father. It’s not just the delivery and expression of creativity that leads to surprise, it is also receptivity, openness, and expectation that lead to surprise.
Consider this from Eugene Peterson:
“Anything creative, anything powerful, anything biblical insofar as we are participants in it, originates with prayer.”
This is a two-sided coin. You may consider the quote above from the aspect of those of us who create elements for the service. And it is very true for us. But now I want you to consider the meaning from the viewpoint of the congregation. No activity on your part can overcome a prayerless congregation.
The more the congregation gets immersed every day in the heart of God, the more significance, meaning, and freshness they bring to any elements that we would create in a service.
There is a great analogy of this in the song Till There Was You in the musical, The Music Man (here are the first and last stanzas):
There were bells on the hill
But I never heard them ringing,
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you.
There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you!
The bells didn’t change. The birds and roses didn’t change. Instead, the character, Marian’s eyes were open to what had always been there. And without overdoing the analogy, in order to become aware, she needed new eyes (the congregations part). And the catalyst for that change was a relationship that exposed this new life of wonder (our part in setting the stage for people to encounter God).
May God open our eyes to what is already all around us and may He help us lead our congregations into becoming truly aware of the surprise of God.
This surprise cannot be copied. It can not be experienced second hand. This surprise requires time, discipline, intentionality, and a ruthlessness in abandoning distraction and preconceptions.
Instead of noise that surprises by creating another distraction, this surprise only comes by quieting ourselves and eliminating distractions until we hear what we could not hear before because we are no longer who we were before.