Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.

My father is a retired pastor and still occasionally guest preaches at churches in the greater Dallas area, where he and my mom now live. After a recent sermon he was approached by a 15-year-old congregant who peppered him with earnest questions that bore an unclear relation to the message he had just preached. “If I do five significant actions in a minute,” the boy said, “why am I not doing ten significant actions in a minute? Or fifteen? Why do I stop when I can always do more? Does God condemn me if I don’t do more?” Clearly, my father was speaking with a fellow acutely sensitive to the unbearable weight of being in the world.

Why not do more? Can’t we always do more? What’s to stop anyone from doing more? Aren’t I in seriously hot water if I don’t do more? Aren’t I wasting my life? Am I wasting my life? What is this life? Why aren’t I doing more?

Amplification is a necessity in churches where more than two or three have gathered, and the frantic troubleshooting that happens in thousands of sound booths across the U.S. on Sunday mornings is built in to the mechanics of the contemporary worship service.I may ask these questions out loud and look down at both of my hands, palms-up in a gesture of humble offering, my humble whispers echoing over thousands gathered humbly in an arena, if my left ear has been hooked with a hands-free microphone.

Why not do more? Why be encumbered with an old fashioned foam-topped handheld when there are headsets to be donned and digits to be unclasped?

“Why not do more?” someone other than my father might say in a sermon as a sensitive 15-year-old soul looks on from his seat three pews deep, “why not go out and build a house,” he picks up a hammer, “with your hands,” he gestures with his hands, “while you’re preaching the Word?” He picks up a nail as thousands look on. His Bible lies open on the podium and its pages shake as he hammers a new plank onto the podium, demonstratively.

American Christianity seems to be wired in more places than it isn’t. Amplification is a necessity in churches where more than two or three have gathered, and the frantic troubleshooting that happens in thousands of sound booths across the U.S. on Sunday mornings is built in to the mechanics of the contemporary worship service. I have fond childhood memories of taking my father’s wireless unit back to the sound room after his messages.  When I first saw a movie in which the FBI wires up a mob informant to get the dirt on a mob boss my sole visual point of reference for the scene was my father, the man of God, a wire running under his lapel too and perhaps signifying his complicity in the divine conspiracy.

With hands free, a wired pastor can put his whole body in the service of his point. Fist pumps, operatic hand sweeps, dipping a person in the baptismal, sprinkling a person in front of what is definitely not a baptismal, outrage hands, jazz hands, cruciform hands, handshakes, fist shakes, genuflections, and all the rest. Why not do more with the instrument of the body?

A compelled speaker is a compelling speaker, and with both hands free it is more possible than ever to demonstrate just how compelled you are. Christ’s message isn’t just for the heart or brain; it lays claim to the whole being of a person, which in some camps is called the soul. With hands free, the body is free to emphasize just how much the truth has set one free. Why not do more?

Why not? The subtle pragmatism of a cross-bearing mint reasserts itself here. Evangelicals may not have invented the hands-free mic, but its appropriation was virtually prophesied. With their hands free, our pastors can do more. They can become bigger than Jesus, as the Beatles and Billy Graham both did in their own ways.Think of how far the still, small voice can travel when shuttled through coils of cable and a wall-mounted speaker cone.

Even so, American Evangelicals show their American colors when gravitating toward big personalities and brands in the church marketplace. A flesh toned headset poking out under a thick pair of black glasses can lend a TED talks nerd-chic quality to a pastor’s persona. We may pack ourselves by the thousands into re-purposed warehouses to hear them exposit the word, they with their hands free so they can do more. When they succeed, there are more of us to reach. So they do more still, our looks of understanding washing over them as they clasp their free hands before using both to indicate the availability of the eastern and western sides of the platform for anyone who feels compelled to come back to the Lord. Two sides, a thousand sinners, fifty decibels, two hundred and forty three converts, a Bible with sixty six books, two services a week, fifty two weeks in the year, three interested publishers, one large advance, two hands free.

Our pastors can multitask like nobody’s business but the Lord’s, to whose glory a pastor may be presently raising his unladen arms in prayer over his vastly gathered flock. “How many significant actions can I complete in a minute?” I imagine my father wanted to put his two hands on the young man’s shoulders and say, “you’re missing the point, my friend, but there’s grace for that too.”


5 Comments

  1. And so in our hubris, we leave our frail humanity behind. We are not Jesus Christ; we are not the Father–we are frail sinners rescued from the clutches of the Powers-that-Be and set in the Kingdom of Light–by the grace of God.

  2. Martyn, my interest was piqued throughout this interesting piece! Interesting commentary on the interesting Christian tendency towards Christian busy-ness! Perhaps, in trysting with the idea of a works based salvation (which I have no interest in!), this interesting proclivity was perpetuated in an interesting way. Interesting piece, Martyn!

  3. Maurice? Are you in there? ;)

    I read an interesting piece on the microphone recently: our voices change. For example, if we are addressing a crowd without a mic, our tones and volume will be a me-to-anyone level, but with a mic that moves in range to me-to-you, which we instinctively react to. We think it more sincere. More personal.

    A question for further exploration: does faith come by performance?

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