The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Waking up to God’s presence

The church’s God-frame problem

Ask a few friends what they think of when you say “God” and “church.” Likely, whether they go to church regularly or never darken the door, they’ll envision well-dressed people in worship. Yet I believe when we hear “God” and “church” we ought to think of a midwife or doctor delivering a baby, a teacher working with children, an office worker at a computer, or a farmer tending fields or animals.  

We know God is the maker and sustainer of all life, not just the maker of an hour on Sunday or the sustainer of a building where we meet for worship. We know we are called to follow Christ with our whole lives, not only when we are doing “religious” things like praying, singing hymns or participating in communion.

Too often, however, what happens is similar to the “Family Circus” cartoon in which young Billy runs out of the worship space and shouts, “G’bye, God! Thank you. ... I had a very nice time!” Many of us, like Billy, mistake the church for a God-box, where we leave God when we leave the building.  

For many people the church is the “spiritual gas station” of our lives. Surveys by theBarna Group show that most Americans think of worship as “spiritual renewal” at the end of busy, exhausting days. Our lives can feel compartmentalized: work vs. family, shopping vs. exercise, spirituality vs. movies or concerts. Even in our daily devotions we can slip into compartmentalizing God into the daily routine — just as we may compartmentalize God into Sunday, another part of our week.  

Compartmentalizing can keep us from recognizing and experiencing truly transcendent times in our lives. An experiment several years ago by The Washington Post can help us understand the problem of finding God in the midst of daily life.  

When world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell came to Washington, D.C., for a $100 per ticket, black-tie concert, the Post asked him to show up at a subway stop at 7:50 the following morning, dressed in a sweatshirt and baseball cap. For 40 minutes during rush hour he played his favorite classical pieces (including Bach’s stunning “Chaconne”) on his $3.5-million Stradivarius violin. 

Post editors and others had predicted that at least 150 people would stop to listen and extra police could be needed for traffic control. Instead, only seven of more than 1,100 passers-by stopped for at least a minute. Only 27 dropped change in his violin case, totaling $32 (not a bad hourly wage, Bell later commented, since he didn’t have to pay a manager). 

Hidden cameras and reporters posted at exits to survey people on “ridership experience” revealed that, on the whole, Bell and his spectacular playing were ignored. Some people were rushing to get to work on time. Many mistook Bell for a “run-of-the-mill” street musician playing for change. Others, listening to music through earbuds, were blind to his presence. A few avoided eye contact for fear they would be expected to give money. 

One of those who stopped had seen him play the previous night. She loved the subway performance and seemed confused that so many people walked past. “Wow,” she said, “you are Joshua Bell. I saw you last night at the Library of Congress.”

Another was an amateur violinist who didn’t know Bell but appreciated true excellence. A third stopped, exited and then returned to listen for two minutes. He had felt something “in the heart.” It turns out that as he was exiting, he’d heard Bach’s “Chaconne” turn from a minor to a major chord, a theological resolution meant to convey God’s grace responding to our sin. 

The Post drew a few conclusions. First, context matters. Without the frame of a concert hall, Bell’s tuxedo and expensive tickets, people didn’t recognize a world-class violinist. Second, personal taste rules in an iPod culture where some were already listening to their own tunes and others didn’t find Bell’s music to be their style. Third, many people who lacked exposure to classical music couldn’t tell that this was special. Finally, others were simply in their routine, crunched for time.

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February issue


Embracing diversity