Each August in Junction City, OR, the town transforms into a Scandinavian Village of sorts. There are Scandinavian singers, dancers, vikings, and food delicacies from the “Old World.” This is my third summer of involvement with the festival and here are some observations – ones that I believe contain valuable lessons for the Church.
A Bit of Background: In 1955 Dr. Gale F. Fletchall and his wife moved to Lane County, where he opened his own medical practice in Junction City in 1956 and became the town’s doctor. After the opening of the I-5 corridor, Fletchall watched his beloved town slowly die out as businesses closed up due to lack of traffic. That is when he had the idea that would define him for the rest of his life. After some thought as to what would bring people off the interstate and into his small town, a festival that unified the community, that brought friends and family together, as well as people into the town, seemed to be the perfect idea. A four-day festival built on the culture of the four Scandinavian nations: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, was accepted by the Chamber of Commerce and underwritten with a modest financial guarantee to cover initial expenses. The decision plunged the community into a frenzy of activity. Community classes in Scandinavian dancing and singing were organized and church and civic organizations were persuaded to operate food and craft booths. In August of 1961, the first Scandinavian Festival began. Of course, some things have changed over the past 53 years. Here are my observations as an “outsider” looking in:
- Community Unity: While this was one of the goals for the initial festival, and while the “community” continues to come together, there appears to be little unity. It’s lots of small groups all doing their own thing (albeit with a “theme”). The goal now seems to be performing for those who come so that vendors can make money.
- Community Participation: Over the past 53 years, it has been expected that generations would continue to take over the tasks involved with putting on such an involved event. Sadly, few of the “grey hairs” have been relieved of duties by the younger folk. Because of what seems to be a shift from a community coming together to have fun and share a cultural heritage to groups of people determined to make money, many locals leave town during the festival. Others stay home.
- Community Focus: The intent of the first festival was to bring people into a cultural experience. A community came together to celebrate a heritage and pass along some of the history from the heritage that had shaped many families in the area. Although this is continued in some ways, the focus of sharing a heritage seems to have shifted from sharing to making sure everyone gets a piece of the pie.
I do want to make it clear that many of the non-profit organizations who have “booths” set up at the event are hard-working groups that are passionate about their causes. I helped work in two different booths this year; each one raising money for worthy causes. Festival goers seemed to have fun. But let’s look at the big picture.
The story of this small town festival is the story for the modern-day church. Heck, it’s the story of “Church” almost from its beginnings! When followers of The Way started out, the goal was pretty clear and not all that complicated – share the story of God’s love for humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. This good news of God’s love and grace for all changed people’s lives as they began to participate in living in a different way. Cultural changes, persecution, classism, racism, discrimination – all of these and more contributed to the life of Jesus followers in those first years. These descriptors (and I’m sure you can think of others) tend to do one thing very well – disrupt community. Early believers really wanted community, they attempted to live community, but it was difficult. It still is for most of us.
For 53 years, those who have bravely sought to lead the Scandinavian Festival have wanted community. Many issues however, have threatened to disrupt the original intent of a community coming together to share the story of a heritage. As an outsider looking in, perhaps it is easier for me to see these disruptions, but I don’t think so. Many of the observations I’ve made have been from the gathering of information from those who work so hard to put on the festival. They know what is going on. And yet, they don’t seem to be able to effect the change needed to return to their origins of story-telling rooted in community unity, participation, and focus.
As a life-long United Methodist, I have watched the same thing happen in my denomination. I am a part of a church that cannot loose itself from the time warp it is in on one hand, and on the other hand wants to be synchronous with the current cultural environment. I guess this is the struggle within many institutions today. But wait a minute! The Church is not an institution – or it was not meant to be. The church was (is) about community, about sharing a story, and passing the good news of that story down generation to generation. And yet disruptions of many kinds have taken us away from this original intent. Sure, we struggle on day after day, and we are aware of what is going on, but are we able to effect the changes needed to return to the origins of story-telling rooted in community unity, participation, and focus?
I believe we can, but it will mean a total shift in everything we do as a church – except tell the good news story – that never changes. Dream with me for a moment….What if each local church began to pay less attention to the worship service and began to pay more attention to service as worship? What if we truly worked with our communities rather than just for them? What if churches stopped telling people what to believe and started being story-tellers and story-listeners? And I’m just getting started! Many of you have already started shaking your head. I didn’t say it would be easy, but the good news of God’s love for humanity was never meant to be an individual proposition. This love story is meant to be shared with others. Shared in a community of different ages, different cultures, different beliefs, different households, different economic situations….shared as we live the love story that has changed our lives. Will there be disruptions? Absolutely. Will everyone believe like we do? No. Will we fail at things? Of course. But we are failing now – failing not only to tell our Christian heritage story, but failing to live it in community. It is time to fail quickly and learn how we can get back to sharing a heritage of greatest worth. It is time to retell the never-ending love story that is for all of humanity. It is time to tell the story in art, in dance, and in play as we spend time together, “breaking bread together with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people (Acts 2).” Diana Butler Bass wrote, “We live in a time of momentous historical change that is both exhilarating and frightening. Christianity itself is becoming something different from what it was.” Perhaps the “different” the church is being called to is as simple as returning to what they already know.