Thursday, May 2, 2019

What Thanos Can Teach the Church

[the teeny-tiniest of spoilers below]

Late last month, millions and millions of people from around the globe (including myself and my family) assembled together in local gathering places, all on the same day, all with a sense of reverence, anticipation, and joy. We gathered together to celebrate victory over death and the vanquishing of evil powers in this world. And, while people have attended similar assemblies many times before, year after year . . . for the first time, our gatherings grossed more than a billion dollars!

I am, of course, talking about opening night of Avengers: Endgame, which premiered on April 27 and which destroyed all previous box office records by earning $1.2 billion. The movie was pretty good, as far as such things go. As a life long comic book geek, I continue to be torn between relief that being into Marvel superheroes and villains and the Infinity Stones is now mainstream, rather than a “Dork City” stamp on my cultural passport, and annoyance at all these Johnny-come-latelies horning in on my thing. I mean, if you would have told me in 1991 that the comic book miniseries my friends and I were obsessing over would be made into a movie almost thirty years later, I would have assumed the audience would be a small niche-of-a-niche type thing.

But that’s not what happened. Not even close.

In fact, even if you haven’t seen any movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you must know something about them. After all, there have been more than twenty star-studded films over the course of a decade, all telling their own stories while also furthering this one overarching plot, building up to a massive battle of good versus evil, life versus death.

As a Christian, that should sound sort of familiar. Our sacred text is a collection of sixty-six books, each telling its own story while furthering the overarching metanarrative of God coming to save us and defeat the Dragon. Which brings us to the question: why, in a year when (according to one news story I read) church attendance was falling even while Easter approached, did a record number of people cram themselves into crowded theaters for a three-hour-long movie with really no good point at which to duck out and pee?

I know, I know. Church is a completely different phenomenon from a movie with lasers and aliens and a $350 million budget (at least it should be!), but I still think we can learn something from how, less than a week after Easter, a story about a “god” of thunder (who has—spoiler alert!—kind of let himself go) and his friends fighting a big purple bad guy can so engage theatergoers on day one, even in an age of streaming movies, digital platforms, etc. Endgame didn’t have a better story than we do; so what accounts for all the success?

I have several suggestions:

·         Anticipation – This movie was the culmination of twenty films that came before it; it was the grand finale and everyone knew it would be huge! I saw people dressed up as superheroes at the theater. I saw people crying during the movie. People were even spontaneously applauding, despite the fact that it was a theater, not theatre and therefore the actors couldn’t  actually hear the applause. Why all this display? Because the audience had so built up inside themselves expectation and desire for this event that when it finally happened, it was like opening the floodgates of emotion. Granted, this one seems quite disconnected from church on two levels: first, church isn’t (or, again, shouldn’t be) designed to manipulate your emotions until you pump your fist and shout or break down and cry. And, secondly, a movie only needs to draw a crowd out once (or maybe twice); it doesn’t need to sustain the sense of anticipation in an open-ended way. Still, perhaps something we can learn from Iron Man and Thanos is that approaching church with a sense of anticipation (after all, we are gathering together with the saints to encounter the God of the universe!) can set a tone and can be contagious. If those gathered have a sense of holy anticipation or a sense of mundane routine, it can greatly color both our experience and our desire to come back and experience that encounter again.

·         Excitement  - Okay, so this kind of overlaps with the last one. But all the anticipation in the world won’t overcome a big letdown if the delivery is underwhelming. In fact, high expectations can be a recipe for major dissatisfaction. Luckily for Endgame, it delivered laughs, tears, and tons of action and suspense. So, what then? Should churches try and do that, only on a much smaller (and much sadder) scale? No. A million times no! Rather, we should set our anticipation—our hunger and thirst—on the things that the church is supposed to deliver. Prayer, worship, reading and exposition of God’s Word. Where we set our hearts, excitement follows. In 1991, when I found a copy of Infinity Gauntlet #1 (the comic book series on which this latest movie was very loosely based), I was ecstatic!  I had longed for it and looked for it and finally found and acquired it! If we long for encounters with God and find him regularly in his Word and obey him in gathering together to encourage and edify each other, to worship him, and to encounter him in the bread and the cup and the waters of baptism . . . we will be excited. And not with the kind of contrived excitement that lasts only a moment (or three hours), but with something lasting. We will be satisfied.

·         Community Feeding into the massive throngs on opening weekend were the many conversations, fan theories, videos, etc. being shared about Endgame—both in person and over the Internet. (Heck, I was on a podcast discussing the movie the morning after I saw it.) You don’t get to a billion dollars at the box office by enticing individuals to come see your movie; you do it by creating communities of people, all coming together, talking about it the day before at church and debriefing it over coffee and dessert afterwards. Likewise, it’s no accident that all the most successful TV shows during my lifetime have been water cooler fodder—people wanting to discuss a common interest, in which they are all invested. The same is true of church. When we approach our spiritual lives as private, individualistic aspects of our lives, of course they are going to run cold. When we fan each other’s flames of faith and devotion, though, when we discuss our lives as followers of Jesus and lift each other up, we are more likely to, in the words of St. John, “overcome to the end.”

·         Resolution – Most people who saw Endgame had seen most of the previous movies. I knew a number of people who were hurrying to binge all of them in time for the finale. And those (like me) who had been watching them for ten years were happy to have some closure/resolution. You see, every Marvel movie had ended—after the credits—with a cliffhanger/teaser for what was coming next. It left you always a little off-balance, a little ill-at-ease. But now all that tension would be resolved. And while attending church certainly doesn’t remove the cliffhangers and stress from our lives, we do have the end of the story. We know how it plays out. And we can remind each other of that. We can encourage each other in the name of the Lord. We can gather together at the end of the weekend, as a new week dawns, and be reminded that God will never leave us, that he is working all things for the good of those who love him, and that he will not suffer all the loose ends hanging there forever. He is a God of resolution. In fact, the over-arching story of the Bible can be broken down into four parts: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. That last part is as real to us now as anything can be: our God will wipe away every tear and right every wrong. It’s important for us to remind each other of those promises.

·         Peer Pressure – So let's face it, some people didn't care at all about the plot of the movie or any of the characters; they just didn't want to miss out. They felt like they should see it so they wouldn't be left out of conversations, confused by memes, etc. This used to be a factor with church as well, especially at Easter and other big holidays. I think this is fading away too. Which is just as well. Peer pressure can up your numbers but it's not the best way to bring people to the cross. Yes, the Word of God never returns void and I know of a number of people who have come to faith when they didn't really even want to come to church. But the world has changed and we can no longer count on some cultural sense of I should go to bring people to the Lord's house on the Lord's Day. Church attendance on the whole is down quite a bit and this is part of it.

But here's the weird thing: over the past couple decades, per capita attendance at movie theaters has waned quite a bit as well, which makes these huge blockbuster successes all the more noteworthy. And yet, I’ve noticed something else happening in theaters over that same time period. There are a lot more perks, comforts, and even luxuries to be had. At the cinema right near my house, you can now buy a glass of wine to sip while you watch. You sit in big, cushy easy-chair-type seats, which recline with the touch of a button. The picture is crisper than ever and the sound has never made you feel more like you’re right there. We’ve got 3D films, IMAX screens six stories tall, and special seats that shake and move with the action. And yet, none of this has kept people from going out to the theater less and less. Tubs of popcorn with free refills and seven different flavors of topping, robotic soft drink dispensers with 18 types of Dr. Pepper (seriously, who wants peach Dr. Pepper???)—none of it really succeeded in creating the sort of pull that a good story, a lot of excitement and anticipation, and a desire to belong to a community could.

In the same way, many churches today are trying to create all the comforts and luxuries they can to entice a lost world to come and experience an encounter with God. And while there’s nothing wrong with most of it, we can easily become distracted from the story itself. Instead, let’s focus on gathering together each week with a sense of anticipation, hungering and thirsting for God’s Word, for the bread and the cup, desiring nothing more than to lift up his name with our fellow believers and share our walks and lives together.

It’s true that the word for “church” in the Greek comes from the words “out” and “to call,” but by the time the New Testament was written, it had one meeting: “assembly.”  To “be the church,” then, is to come together and worship, come together and serve, come together and love one another and receive forgiveness in Jesus’ name. In a time when casual and cultural church attendance has all but disappeared, it’s perhaps more important than ever for those who truly follow Jesus to come together with excitement and expectancy in the assembly of the saints.

Or to put it another way . . . Christians, assemble!