When I was in college I started to move beyond a mere distaste for Worship Services, I actually started to feel like they were designing services in order to push my generation out of them. I began to think that the church didn’t really care whether my generation (think: early 90s grunge era) should even come to church.
Let me tell you a story that might help you know how it felt to me back then:
When I was 14 or 15 I briefly dated a girl I’ll call “Sophia” who was a year or two older than me. Our first friday night together we were bored so we went to her house. Her parents were there and so was her younger sister with about 5 or 6 of her middle-school friends. It was about 1988, so we did what all teens did that year: we sat around and told jokes and talked about music videos (think: late Max Headroom era).
I had only briefly met Sophia’s Dad. He was tall and broad shouldered, and had black hair. He worked at the factory in town which a bunch of my friend’s Dad’s worked at. I saw him out of the corner of my eye in the living room from time to time. It was a long and narrow room to which he was carrying large items and setting them out in a semi-circle. I didn’t pay him much mind, until I noticed that he was carrying speakers.
RETRO REWIND: In the 80s speakers were cool… they were the iPods of the 80s. At one point I had spliced in 9 different speakers into my system at home, in order to melt faces (think: Nazi’s opening the Ark, but accompanied by guitar solo).
MEANWHILE… I didn’t pay much attention after the speakers, and went back to talking to the girls. I was the only guy there–and was receiving a good deal of attention from the opposite sex, a treasured moment for any pubescent boy. But my moment holding court with my new girl and the hangers on was interrupted by loud music. The lights suddenly went off, and my date and her sister screamed in joy when they heard the the tune. They were like teen girls at JFK waiting for the Beatles to land. Lights began to rotate in the room near the other end, which I now realized had been set up into a kind of stage area–with lights blaring at the country-kitchen style wallpaper. Out through the hallway and into the disco-ball array pounced Elvis Presley!
Elvis had a white jumpsuit on with huge bellbottoms and white platform boots. Emeralds and jewels glittered bedazzled his hems, and rhinestones formed a giant eagle on his back, which he turned toward us so he might shake what his Mississippi mother gave him, which was located below the eagle. His head was cocked to one side, as only Elvis might do so. He turned around abruptly and started into the first lines of the song:
And shook up he was. The front of his garb included a plunging V-neck exposing a chest full of hair and a silver eagle medallion on a necklace. Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah, indeed! It was, of course, Sophia’s Dad. I should have been more suspicious of his sideburns.
The middle-school girls and my date continued to scream with joy and sing along on “Love Me Tender,” whilst I stayed on the other side of the room, wondering which plant pot might be best to vomit into. When they called for his white silk scarf he leaned over and allowed them to slip it out, a treasure for the 80s, if not for the ages.
MEANWHILE… I found out shortly thereafter that Sophia’s Dad was a nationally known Elvis impersonator. He had won all sorts of awards and I must say, though it wasn’t my thing, he did have the act down perfect–and his voice was as close as I had heard. He fooled me for 5 minutes.
For too many visitors, our worship services feel like seeing an Elvis impersonator. I know it did for me back in College. They don’t question whether the impersonators are devoted–the leaders, like Sophia’s Dad, work very hard at their worship services. The visitors note that it does seem to “work” for the crowd, who respond like crazed teenagers over what seems corny to the visitor. It just happens to feel like those leading might be impersonating someone who is long dead, and who used to be famous–someone irrelevant to them, and out of style. It seems like everyone might be more excited than what is happening should make them–as though it is faked for show, the crowd response being an impersonation of previous revivals, or concerts, rather than an actual one. And it does seem to the visitor like the leaders are “playing to the family”, instead of reaching out to the newcomer who might not understand what all this is about.
I deeply questioned the Elvis Impersonator Worship I was experiencing. It seemed designed for the family alone, and was just a pale and corny imitation of something that might have worked in the 50s, but was not engaging me or my generation at all. The church seemed dead, and in fact it might have needed a few squealing teens to liven it up–the church didn’t even have that going for it. What was happening up front was Elvis Impersonation Worship, but in the crowds it was more like a funeral crowd each Sunday morning.
Something had to change.
More on that later.
I never had a conversation with Sophia’s Dad. He’s the best Elvis impersonator I ever saw–such as it was in the living room that night. His style wasn’t for me–at the time I had just discovered The Joshua Tree (think: Where the Streets Have No Name) and though Elvis Costello was making a comeback, Elvis Presley was not, and never did. However, it might have been nice to know the guy, and learn some about how great Elvis Presley really was. Her Dad was just a factory worker with a deep passion for the King.
Later on in life I would develop a passion for a different King, and this Elivs impersonator reminds me that as much as I love my King, I can’t assume that other people are going to “get it” just because I’m passionate. I have to work hard to get them to see what I see, and no number of rhinestones can beat a good honest conversation.