Staying Up with the Times
by the Rev. Steven L. McKinley (March / April 2004 — Volume 20, Number 2)
You know how it is. A friend moves, and you say you’re going to keep in touch, and for a time you do, but then the letters and phone calls and e-mail become less frequent, there’s always a sermon to write, oil to change, The Simpsons to watch, and after a while you’re just sending Christmas cards with a generic note tucked inside.
That’s how it’s been with me and my old buddy Pastor T. Albert “Tacky” Carlson. When Tacky was up the street at Melanchthon Memorial Lutheran Church, we saw each other all the time; but a few years ago he took a call to St. Susan’s By The Swamp down in the Sun Belt. We traded letters and phone calls and e-mail for a while, but after a while we lost touch with each other except at Christmas.
My lovely wife and I concluded a while back that staying around here to enjoy an entire Minnesota winter would be more sheer pleasure than we were entitled to, so we forced ourselves to go off for a week in sunnier climes. Sitting in our motel room one night, I turned from the contemplation of the pallid appearance of my legs and realized that we were just a few miles from St. Susan’s. So the next morning I buzzed up old Tacky and asked if I could stop by for a cup of coffee. Tacky said it would be good to see me. I left Patricia lounging by the pool and headed on over.
You need to know this about Tacky Carlson. He is a pretty good pastor. He’s never been one to set the world on fire, but then he has never destroyed a congregation by his incompetence, either. A hard worker. A pretty good pastor. As the years have crept up on Tacky, he’s been trying to stay up with the times. It isn’t easy for him. Now and then he attaches himself to the hot trend of the times, without fully letting go of the old. Tacky is earnest. He really wants to be an up-to-date, relevant pastor. He tries, but....
Tacky’s New Look
Anyway, I showed up at St. Susan’s, the secretary yelled down the hall to Tacky, and all of a sudden there he was. The first shock. At Melanchthon, Tacky favored the basic black clergy look day after day. Now here he was, baggy shorts in a gaudy print hanging below his knees, flip-flops, and a “Gwen Stefani Rocks” T-shirt. I am no fashionista, but you don’t have to be to know that this is not a good ensemble for a portly pastor on the far side of 60.
Despite the new look, he seemed like the same old Tacky, even though when he poured me my coffee he took a glass of pomegranate juice for himself. We flopped down in his office and got caught up on wives and children and what’s happening back in the old neighborhood. Then I asked Tacky how things were going at St. Susan’s.
“Terrific, Stanley, terrific,” said Tacky. (He’s seen my name turn out as “Stanley” on so many pre-printed name badges that he always calls me that.) “We’re on the cusp of a great breakthrough here. I’ve found the magic for the new generation. I’ll share it with you. Two words. PowerPoint.® That’s what it’s all about, Stanley. PowerPoint.”
Immediately, Tacky hustled me off to the St. Susan’s sanctuary. I noticed that they had removed the pews and replaced them with theater-type seating. But not just any theater-type seating. These were the kind of seats you find in stadium-type movie theaters, with high backs and a place to put your head and cup holders in the arms. Tacky saw what I was looking at, and said, “They love them, Stanley. Gives them a place for their water bottles and coffee cups. But here’s the real magic.”
Tacky pushed a button and instantly a screen came down in front of the painting behind the altar, the Ascension painting, the one with the disciples looking like a bunch of guys who had just seen the hidden camera and the feet of Jesus at the very top of the painting. “This is the key, Stanley. No more bulletins. No more hymnals. It’s all PowerPoint. The 21st century.”
Tacky was so excited that he fired up his laptop and ran me through the entire service from the previous Sunday. First we scrolled through the usual announcements about bake sales and Bible classes, then, voila, there it was on the screen: “The Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness” from the Lutheran Book of Worship.
“OK, we got them started with that, and then we flashed up the first hymn. You’ll remember that last Sunday was some saint’s day, so we sang “By All Your Saints in Warfare” from the LBW. Didn’t want anybody to feel left out, so we sang all 12 stanzas. Flashed them all right up there on the screen. Folks didn’t have their noses stuck in their hymnals, I’ll tell you that. All eyes were on the screen. It was wonderful.”
As I pondered the wonderfulness of it all, Tacky ran through the slides for the rest of the service. “Holy Communion, Setting I,” from the LBW. The entire liturgy on PowerPoint slides. The three Scripture lessons were up there. Also the Psalm. The print was small, but they were there. So was Tacky’s sermon. All of it.
“I thought about just some highlights, just some key words, but I decided they deserved to see the whole thing. It’s kind of a kick, standing up there and preaching and watching people’s lips move as they read along with you. Got in trouble a few weeks ago, though, when one woman pointed out that I had used ‘affect’ when I should have used ‘effect.’ She wouldn’t have realized that if I had just preached the sermon rather than projecting it. But it really helped when I used a quote from Kierkegaard and they could read the whole thing for themselves while I was reading it out loud. Shucks, it was only two or three pages long.”
Sermon over, Tacky showed me with pride his series of slides containing the Athanasian Creed. “They’re really getting into it,” he said. “You should hear them pound their way through ‘coeternal and coequal.’” Sure enough, it was all there. The entire Athanasian Creed. The entire communion liturgy. All on PowerPoint slides. And at the end of the service, the rest of “By All Your Saints in Warfare” — the other eight stanzas.
How’s It Going?
“So, Tacky,” I queried as he powered down his laptop and pushed the button causing the screen to reascend, “how’s it going with the congregation? You have obviously caught the magic of Power Point, but has the congregation? And are new people streaming in to your state-of-the-art worship?”
“Not yet,” Tacky admitted, “but they will. They will. Sooner or later the word will get out, and this community will know that St. Susan’s by the Swamp is a truly modern, up-to-date, with-it kind of church, a church that worships in PowerPoint. Then watch them come.”
Like I said in the beginning, Tacky is a pretty good pastor. He works at it. But sometimes I think he works too hard at it. He tries to be something he is not, never has been, and never will be. He tries, but it doesn’t quite work. Something tells me that Tacky would be better off being Tacky, rather than trying to be something he isn’t.
Just like lots of us.
I hope the crowds do start showing up at St. Susan’s By The Swamp for Tacky’s PowerPoint worship. But I won’t be there to see it. Minnesota beckons. I’ve got a windshield to scrape. I’ll just have to renew my resolution to stay in touch with Tacky, so he can keep me up on the latest things.
Steven L. McKinley is senior pastor at House of Prayer Lutheran Church, Richfield, MN.