April 27, 2011

Out of the Picture

Last year, while visiting my family in Germany, we spent a memorable day with friends at a hands-on museum depicting life in the eighteenth century. In spite of mixed weather we had a great time and at the end of the day gathered to take the obligatory event shot: four adults, five children, all smiling into a camera on a timer. We took a couple of shots, but on the last one something happened. Now, you need to know that my friend and I go back 20-plus years, long before wives and children had entered into the picture.
I pressed the button and knew that I had 10 seconds to get back to my predetermined place. As we were counting down the seconds, my friend suddenly shoved me right out of the picture. My camera caught that moment of utter shock and incredulity.
You can imagine the mirth and merriment that ensued. My girls, my wife, my friend, everybody thought this to be the funniest thing ever happening.
2011 1512 page6Since then I have often looked at that image and remembered my feelings when I was “out of the picture.” Group shots are actually quite an art. Some people get blocked out by another person standing in front of them. Others try to hide self-consciously or slink around the edges of the shot. Sure, there are also those who enjoy standing in the center of an image. The bigger the group, the more difficult it becomes to have everybody smile and look into the camera lens at the same time.
What kind of shot would I get if I were to take a picture of your church? Where would you stand? Close to the center or already half out of the picture? (Actually, the mere fact that you are reading this editorial would suggest that you would be somewhere in the picture.)
In a previous editorial I wrote about church tourists: brothers and sisters who follow a preacher or a fellowship lunch schedule or a particular musician, but never seem to be part of the church photo (see “Been There—Done That!” Adventist Review, Oct. 15, 2009, p. 6). These church hoppers would, most likely, have been “out of the picture”—perhaps because they did not even know the time and place the picture was to be taken.
But there are other reasons people are “out of the picture.” Interpersonal tension or even strife was not just a fact in the first century A.D. Corinth church. Conflicting theological perspectives would be another reason. Or, perhaps, some just simply leave and no one notices. They walk right out the back door (and there is a significant number of baptized members that we lose every year this way)—gone!
There is another trend that impacts our thinking about those “out of the picture.” Let’s call it the virtual church. Why would I get up early to drive to church and hear an OK sermon when I can stay in my own home and listen to one of Adventism’s uber-preachers? Asscherick, Batchelor, Boonstra, Bradford, Finley, Nelson (and many others)—they are all out there, just a mouse click (or a satellite dish) away. There is an added benefit: I do not have to wear a tie and a suit to be blessed by them.
Don’t get me wrong: we are blessed with wonderful preachers and their easily accessible messages. However, church is not virtual. Church is people and fellowship and warm embraces, and yes—also somebody stepping on my toes. Church is local because that’s where our mission is. Church is a snapshot full of people—and when some are on their way out or even missing, the picture is not complete.
I leave you two key questions to mull over: Where are you in the picture? and What are we doing for those on their way out?
Gerald A. Klingbeil is associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published April 28, 2011.