by Jacob Campbell
It’s a Friday night and ninety thousand people are lifting their hands and singing in unison with a god. In front of me is a young man, smoking pot as he sings; beside him, his girlfriend ingests a certain substance to enhance her experience. To my left, there is a gentleman forgoing underpants, and to my right, a man in his 60’s seems to be reliving a profound moment from his youth. Behind me, there are teenage girls with their inhibitions eclipsed by this surreal experience. And here I am, a Bible teacher from the south watching Paul McCartney leading this eclectic crowd through “Hey Jude.”
Since that night, I have been ruminating on the significance of the event. This man, and to a larger extent, the Bonnaroo Festival itself, accomplishes something very few faith communities do: creating communal experience and a judgment-free community.
Make no mistake, musically speaking, Paul McCartney is a god. There is arguably no other singer/songwriter that has been more influential in the 20th century. In the 1960’s, people went insane over the Beatles and I’m here to tell you, in the 2010’s, nothing has changed. McCartney commanded the crowd like no other performer I’ve seen at the festival in my five years, save maybe Springsteen. Maybe. Sir Paul edges the Boss by sheer pedigree in my humble opinion.
But from the opening chords, this crowd sang almost every word with McCartney. Instead of singing to him, with him stepping away from the mic so the crowd can be heard, they sang classics, word for word, with McCartney. What if Christians viewed worship not as something done to God, but something done in communion with God? What if we began to consider God’s role in communal worship as an active participant, rather than a passive recipient? To me, that presents an entirely new angle from which to view worship.
It’s like playing a team sport: you try your hardest for your teammate so that both of you find fulfillment together. It was obvious that McCartney enjoyed singing along with the crowd. Do we think it is that different for God? Do we really think God likes being the stoic recipient of another laborious version of “How Great is our God”? Or is it more likely that God was right there dancing with David behind the Ark? David did that naked, I might add; he’d have been right at home at Bonnaroo, just give him a glow stick. I believe God wishes to be energetic about faith with us.
The more fundamental aspect is this: this Bonnaroo community is bound by a common love from the start, a mutual adoration for McCartney and his music. They are all already on the same team. His music brings everyone together, and I mean everyone; I don’t even really like the Beatles and I was caught up. Imagine if the church began to view everyone - not just members, but all people - as on the same team. Are not the words of Paul echoing here, “For all have sinned …and all are justified…”
Sadly, the church seems to be accomplishing the opposite. Division reigns between denominations, social and political issues divide generations within churches, and more and more people, outsiders and insiders alike, are put off by what they see when they look at much of Christianity. Intolerance and judgment are the idols of contemporary American evangelicalism. But in the crowd at Bonnaroo, conservative Christians were singing arm-in-arm with same-sex individuals. For a few brief hours, something greater was able to transcend cultural differences and create true community.
A friend and I were talking after the festival about how it generally takes a few weeks to get our “judgment filter” back, the part of our brains that says people who do drugs are inherently bad, or else some other prejudice we view the world by, likely revolving around homosexuality. We both concluded that it was probably in our best interest to leave the judgment filter off year-round.
You can’t blame lost people for acting lost. Jesus validated people for their inherent humanity-they were a part of God’s creation, worth redeeming and welcoming into God’s community. God, through Jesus, was not about putting up walls. He was about inviting people into a journey alongside him. God’s story, filled with his love for his creation, is the binding force for all humanity. Bonnaroo has taught me something that the church never did: God loves all people, not just the ones that are “in the church.” In those four days of music each year, barriers are torn down and people of all different walks of life come together and treat each other with kindness.
I do believe that the culture in churches is changing. It’s slow, frustrating, and messy. I know too many people who are turned off by church. Sadly they equate faith and religion, mainly because churches themselves have equated the two. Too often their view of church has been one of dogmatic rule-following rather than a loving, open faith community.
We are made to worship; whether it’s in a church or at a festival, we get caught up in adoring things and people. God is calling us to worship and commune with him. He is creating a kingdom that is a place of love and kindness and no judgment. I think the community he is fashioning is going to look a lot more like Bonnaroo than most American churches. Because when we acknowledge the things God wants as the things we want, we let go of our prejudices and we hold onto Love. And love is all you need.
Jacob is a father, husband, and teacher from Chattanooga, TN. He runs, does yard work, plays video games, and tries to be a good person with marginal success in all of it. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake43083.
You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OnPopTheology.
You might also like: