by Eddie Pipkin

Everybody loves a celebration.  Or as Gen Z (aka, the tech-savvy ‘Zoomers’) sometimes calls them, cellies.  I was reading an article this week about the profusion of post-home-run celebrations involving physical props in Major League Baseball stadiums this year.  For as long as I can remember, teammates have streamed from the dugout to form a high-five line to greet every home run hitter, but now teams are taking that tradition above and beyond by employing everything from funny hats to wigs to stuffed animals to hype their homers and give the fans something extra to cheer about and emulate at home.  Churches could learn something from this theatrical enthusiasm.  There’s a big difference between saying a somber prayer over a tidily lined-up group of graduating seniors and throwing a full-on praise party at which they are the guests of honor.

Local churches are observing ‘acknowledgements’ and ‘moments of recognition’ all the time, many of which are seasonal and annual, recognition of graduates being a great example.  New member recognitions are common; sometimes churches do a ‘presentation of Bibles’ to elementary school kids; things like marriage anniversaries and milestone birthdays are less common, often depending on the size of the congregation, since those things in a larger church could get out of hand.  There are, of course, standard liturgical season celebrations; there are public sacramental observances that are public and celebratory in nature, most poignantly baptisms; and there are observations that revolve around the life of the church from commissioning mission teams to observing staff and leadership changes to honoring teachers at the beginning of the school year and honoring first responders or other key community people.

Any and all of these observations can be handled in a formal manner, calling people forward to be politely applauded (tennis claps!) and prayed for – which prayer is always an essential part of any of these recognitions and central to the values which we hold sacred.  All of these moments, however, being so central to the life and story of our congregations and the family bonds we have built together, beg the question of “How do the ways we celebrate reflect our congregational personality?”:

  • Are they perfunctory in character and execution, giving everyone a sense of going through the motions?
  • Are they formal and stuffy in character and execution, communicating clearly how important and serious they are, but also communicating how we are a straight-laced and by-the-book people?
  • Are they celebratory and fun, not minimizing in any way the sacred importance of these moments of transition and triumph, but moving beyond traditional ceremony to serve as a conduit for joy, expressed enthusiastically together?

I am going to suggest to you that we need more of the third way.

Let’s take every opportunity to have a party, to celebrate one another, to establish a reputation in the greater communities in which we serve to be known as people who embrace life’s milestones with unabashed, exuberant delight.

If you want a sense for what I was referencing earlier when I wrote of the expanded, creative home run celebrations happening in dugouts across Major League Baseball, you can read about some of the fan favorites here: they include Viking helmets, samurai swords, fishing vests and poles, inflatable dumbbells, oversized caps, and pirate swords.  Interestingly, several of these innovative celebrations – gimmicks which have evolved, among other reasons, to attract younger fans – have been pooh-poohed or outright banned by the official baseball powers-that-be.  (Churches aren’t the only moribund institutions that fight playful change – on the other hand, professional baseball gameplay has been dramatically updated this year with the introduction of the pitch clock, which is moving games along at a refreshingly action-packed pace – churches take note!).

In another tip of the hat to young folk and our ongoing quest to infuse our grey-haired congregations with some generational juvenescence, I invoked the term “on fleek,” which is social media speak for “extremely good, attractive, or stylish.”  [For further reference, here’s a link to a glossary of Gen Z slang words – use them with care.]  Imagine the stunned look on the faces of the young folks in your midst of you asked them to put a group together whose express purpose was helping you think up ways to jazz up your congregational cellies.  These could be subtle variations; these could be big changes.  It could be turning the post-ceremony reception from a quiet cutting-the-cake and serving-the-punch affair to a full-blown party.  It could mean using short, well-edited video features to help us get to know those being celebrated in a more personal way.  It could even, heaven forbid, employ some fun props (a superpower inspired “cape of leadership” could be fun).  It almost certainly will not involve the lead pastor doing all the talking: getting more people involved in leading these ceremonies opens up lots of creative options.

So why embrace such silliness?  What’s the point?

Our bias in the blog, of course, has always been of the “faith should be fun” variety, but there are real community building and community connecting positives to helping people smile in sacred transitional moments:

  • We communicate our core value of “life lived fully in joy.” The world needs much more of this right now.  It is one of the primary things people are looking for as they turn to our local congregations for a sense of hope and belonging.
  • We keep things fresh and forward-thinking.
  • We empower the full diversity of gifts and talents of the people in our congregation. We provide a place for our creatives and our party planners to feel that they are just as valued as biblical scholars and prayer warriors.
  • We counteract the narrative that church is boring and irrelevant.
  • We create an environment that feels more naturally participatory and gives people more vigorous opportunities to feel they join in, as opposed to sitting as neutral observers at someone else’s big moment.
  • We make people feel wildly special and loved. (Which in God’s eyes they are ARE.  We should be as enthusiastic and supportive.)

These are all great reasons to celebrate with gusto and do so with style.

How does your local church bring joy and a special vibe to your regular congregational celebrations?  Do you make things fun?  Do the people you make time to officially recognize walk away feeling truly, uniquely celebrated and valued?  Or do you leave them with the impression that you politely went through the motions (again)?  Take a moment to share some of your favorite instances of celebration.  Or feel free to make the case for how this kind of thing can get out of hand.  All comments welcome!  (In fact, we celebrate them.)