Worship Media Arts

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The Annual Easter Challenge


Easter. It’s a well-known fact that it’s one of the annual great opportunities to reach people who normally don’t attend worship on a regular basis. Statistics show while attendance goes way up on Easter, the spike is often short-lived and numbers revert soon after the big day is over. Such an opportunity should not be squandered with the “same old, same old.”

We’ve been designing worship for fifteen years and every year we face the Easter challenge. For us, it’s been always been difficult to find new and fresh ways to creatively and visually present the story. Once you get past all of the standard imagery of empty tombs, crosses, and lilies, where do you go? Is it possible to create powerful worship for Easter that inspires, retains and even transforms the influx of visitors that will walk through our doors on that special Sunday morning?

Telling the story through metaphor

ButterflyConsider metaphor. Metaphor allows us to tell stories in a ways that connect with the everyday experiences of individuals, believer and nonbeliever alike. We’ve come to define metaphor as a tangible way to express an abstract story, thought, or idea. Metaphor allows us to make the foreign familiar. It puts the gospel into everyday language both oral and visual.

Metaphor is sometimes perceived as an advertising industry buzzword that has little or no place in worship. Those who fail to explore the power of communication that comes through metaphor fail to understand that it was the exclusive method of Jesus’ public ministry.

Mark 4 relates a story from the early part of Jesus’ public ministry, in which he tells the parable of the sower. It’s a long parable, the longest in the Gospels (vv. 3-9). Afterward, when the crowds had left and the disciples were alone with Jesus, they revealed to him that they had no clue what he had been saying. He took the time to explain the entire parable to them, actually spending more time on the explanation than he had on the parable itself (vv. 10-20).

What is really interesting is what happens next. Instead of concluding that such a creative presentation of the Good News didn’t work, and returning to the religious style he had learned in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52), he continued to speak in parables, telling the parables of lamp on the stand (vv. 21-25), the growing seed (vv. 26-29), and the mustard seed (vv. 30-32). He was on a roll!

The best moment comes in verses 33 and 34: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.”

Parables were Jesus’ exclusive public style! He didn’t simply use parables as an alternative for the dumb ones in the crowd. Metaphorical teaching was his only public method. Jesus understood that to communicate ideas with effectiveness he had to present his teaching in a means that made sense to his audience. Our audiences today aren’t any different. People listen best when spoken to in a familiar language. This is the essence of metaphor.

Applying a metaphor to an Easter story

For many, the idea of an omniscient deity sending his only son to earth to die for the sins of humankind, only to be resurrected from the dead, can be rather difficult to grasp. Through metaphor, we can frame the story with familiar objects, settings, and experiences that make the story easier to understand.

A few years ago we began brainstorming metaphors for an upcoming Easter season. We were focusing on John 20:1-18. In the story Mary returns to the tomb on Sunday morning, distraught that Jesus’ body has been removed. After encountering two angels, she turns toward who she believes is the gardener and pleads with him to tell her where the body of her Lord has been taken. He responds by calling out her name, revealing to Mary that he is in fact Jesus. Overjoyed, she cries out “Rabboni” (“teacher”) then, we inferred, reaches out to embrace him.

Some might say Jesus’ response was a bit harsh. He responds to her affection with, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the father.”

Why were his first words to push Mary away? Was he still the Rabboni, even after his death? After much discussion, we began to get excited with the idea that Jesus was telling Mary to let go of what she formerly knew of Jesus. No longer just the earthly man she had known, now he is the risen Christ.

Implicit in Jesus’ statement to Mary is the human tendency to try to hold on to our experiences of God. Call it “camp high,” if you will. We have a fear of losing our awareness of a connection with God, or what some even perceive as losing God or having our connection invalidated. It is ironic that for many, the very fact of grasping onto these memories devalues them. Faith is about living in the daily presence of God. It is through a mutual journey toward the cross that our connection with God is daily renewed. We must be willing to let go of former experiences, no matter how powerful, and continually redefine what it means to be a follower at every stage of our life.

Further, faith for Christians is a communal experience. Our faith experiences are meant to be shared, not bottled up. Jesus says to Mary that life for her will come not just from remembering that experience, but also in sharing it with others.

To capture the bittersweet feeling of having to let go, and after much brainstorming, we decided to use the metaphor of a child catching and releasing a butterfly. If we selfishly hang on to old notions of spiritual highs, religion, church and faith, whether in personal devotion or in our church communities, we can starve them of life, to the point they are no good to anyone. But just like releasing a butterfly from a jar, if let go of them, we open ourselves up to new experiences ?Äì fresh, vital, risen Lord experiences.

6 Comments so far »

  1. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on February 8, 2008 @ 11:58 am

    What do you think? Leave a message if you have something to say about this article. No registration is required to post a comment, but we will moderate for spam and obscene language, so your comment will be delayed in posting until we clear it.

  2. ray gormann said,

    Wrote on February 27, 2008 @ 7:05 pm

    Hi Guys,
    thanks for the thoughtful article on metaphor and Easter. I appreciate it and certainly try to use metaphor where appropriate in preparing worship. Something about it all disturbed me though and I am struggling to put my finger on it. I think it, for me, is about this implied assumption in the article that the absolute basic Christian metaphors of cross and empty tomb are tired and can now be retired as we go in search of new ones that are adequate to carry the immense weight of all Easter says. Sure we can use them but I would really struggle to come away from an Easter day service that had at its central place a little girl with a butterfly in a jar. still I wasn’t there and maybe it did convey the awesome (in true sense) wonder of Easter. Paart of it is the images drawn from nature that so often get used at Easter (cocoons, shoots from burnt trees, sunrise after darkness) we have come to expect. They are built into our mentality. We assume upon them and think we have a right to expect them. I reckon the stunning thing about Easter is it happens when we have no right to expect it. All is dead; life is not about resurrection. And precisely at that moment it happens. This makes Easter the sole event there can be no metaphor for. What happens so often is we end up making the cross/empty tomb a metaphor for what happens in nature. It makes Easter just another example of what we see all around us (butterflies, shoots etc). I think the best we can do with those nature images/metaphors is to reverse this whole thinking so rather than the cross/Easter point to them they are used to point to what they can never hope to point to – that which is beyond metaphor ie the resurection of Jesus.
    Hmm still working this out obviously; but love exploring it.
    All the best
    Ray Gormann

  3. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on February 28, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    Hi Ray,

    Thanks for posting. We’d say that there’s nothing wrong with saying there’s metaphor in the Easter story. That doesn’t negate the truth of Easter. You might find “God in the Dock” by CS Lewis helpful here. He has a small essay toward the end of that book called “Myth Becomes Fact” which looks at parallel resurrection stories in other ancient texts, such as the Greek Osiris. Here is an excerpt:

    “Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens?at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.

    “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it. The modernist?the extreme modernist, infidel in all but name?need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life?

    “Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded?that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ?parallels? and ?Pagan Christs?: they ought to be there?it would be a stumbling block, if they weren?t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic?and is not the sky itself a myth?shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the chilled, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

  4. Jesse C. Blythe said,

    Wrote on March 29, 2008 @ 5:49 am

    What an awsome way of puttting it, I as a Lay Speaker had never understood it that way THANKS, my wife is about to get a church, United Methodist as a Local pastor and I am looking to help her.

  5. Bethany said,

    Wrote on March 25, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    Hey Guys! Thanks for sharing your ideas and process. It is always beneficial to share what God is teaching us and it lends to that whole “iron sharpening iron” thing. So, here is my idea to share. Our theme this year for Easter is “Recylced Life”. It will focus on the resurrection. We realize that just when the world saw Jesus as dead, used up and discarded, God recycled His life into something greater than anyone could imagine. We will then kick off a six week series that explores other Biblical recycled lives and recycled lives in our congregation. Thanks again for all you do!!!

  6. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on March 25, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    Good, Bethany! Thanks for the idea. That recycle logo is instantly recognizable and will be great for re-purposing into something fresh for worship.

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