Fact. I love Survivor. As a kid I went to my neighbor’s house on Wednesday nights (during summer of course, when there was no church programming) to watch new episodes. Now I stream them and can watch whole seasons in…well…a fairly short amount of time.
I certainly don’t love Survivor as much as some people. These people are called “superfans” and they listen to podcasts analyzing episodes, they discus strategies, memorize statistics, they know every big moment and winner and bad decision made in this game that’s dominated Wednesday night TV for nineteen years.
It’s particularly fun to watch a superfan make it onto the show. They’re so geeked about everything. They’ve made it into this world that they’ve seen from the outside for so long, and now they’re part of it. Following in the footsteps of their heroes – Boston Rob, Sandra, Rupert. Looking for hidden immunity idols. Participating in challenges. Even attending Tribal Council, where they might be sent home. When they hear Jeff Probst say, “I’ll go tally the votes,” some of them are grinning from ear to ear. Because they’ve heard Jeff say those words over and over and over again, and now those words are about them.
Survivor is an incredibly ritualized show. It’s the same thing, season after season. Tribes compete against each other to win challenges and secure their place going forward. Eventually the tribes merge. There’s the litany of scheming and strategizing and blindsiding.
And the words Jeff says have remained exactly the same over forty seasons. They’re as ingrained in me as the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
- “In this game, fire represents your life. When your fire is gone, so are you.”
- “For immunity and reward – survivors ready…go!”
- “[Insert name], the tribe has spoken.”
When you’re on Survivor, you’re part of something. And that sense of belonging comes largely from the rituals and liturgy of the show.
When we “perform” or participate in rituals in worship, one of the things we’re doing is inviting each other to be part of something. Rituals are a way of enacting a story to which we then belong through the enactment of that story. Rituals make our faith tangible and sticky. They bring us deeper into that something that is greater than ourselves and our everyday lives, which then orients our everyday lives.
I’ve been wondering, then, as I watch Survivor and see the thrill and excitement of an eighteen-year-old who’s grown up with the show and is now part of the show, if we instill that same thrill and excitement in the lives of our congregants through ritual. Do our kids clamor to run up to the communion table? Are our young people just itching to make profession of faith? Do we wait for the offering basket to go by each week with a sense of awe at this great thing we get to participate in?
Certainly we don’t need to be out-of-our-seats excited every Sunday. That would be unsustainable. And there’s also something beautiful in the ordinariness of liturgy.
But in a day when we’re all scared our kids are going to leave the church, or we’re reckoning with smaller volunteer pools, or commitment to church just doesn’t seem like what it once was, I wonder if at least part of the answer is not to get rid of our strange rituals, but to view such rituals – and then shape those rituals – as invitations to be part of something meaningful.
On the one hand, this means we need to have rituals. We need to have repeated practices that orient us and draw us into the story. We need enough repetition that people know the words that give shape to the story.
But hospitality through ritual also means that we need to allow our rituals to be disrupted every once and a while.
Last week in my sermon I talked about my favorite ritual of hearing Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” at Good Friday services, this musical theology of wilderness and waiting.
After discussing that sermon at small group this week, we listened to the Adagio. I closed my eyes and was all set to feel the heavy, weeping lament of the strings – and while I did hear that lament, I also heard my friend’s two-year-old next to me…giggling. He was playing with a toy and laughing his little heart out. My friend’s two-year-old had been invited to be part of the ritual, and in doing so he disrupted my ritual, but in the best way. The wailing of Good Friday was now tinged with the joyful giggle of Sunday resurrection.
Disrupted rituals make room for new voices and help us experience those rituals with fresh poignancy.
Can we forego the regular organ offertory a few times to make space for the praise team to teach us a song, giving them a place at the table, and expanding our definition of “offering”?
Can we swap out the boisterous praise set up front with silent space for those who are grieving, making us aware that we all sing for one another at times?
Can singing “Santo, santo, santo” in our communion liturgy be an invitation to non-native English speakers, and a broadening of our vision of the choir of saints gathered before the throne of God?
The rituals of Survivor have essentially remained the same over nearly twenty years, but in each season they get tweaked ever so slightly to meet the reality of new generations of players. The game is comfortingly familiar, while also new and dynamic, and therefore inviting to old and new fans alike.
Can we maintain our rituals – those things that we love and treasure – while thinking of how they might invite new generations into this story of wonder and grace we call the Gospel? I think we can. And if we have the grace to do this, the words “the tribe has spoken” won’t mean exclusion, but will instead signal invitation, an alignment with the author of the Story who speaks welcome to all.