Regardless of what you think of them as a band, you can’t deny the Grateful Dead‘s indelible mark on popular culture, especially in light of the band’s 50th anniversary/farewell “Fare Thee Well” concerts.
Never has a band succeeded so well at making themselves more than a band. They filled stadiums for years, encouraging fans to tape, trade and even give away their shows. They revolutionized business dealings for musicians and have their own Ben and Jerry’s flavor. I even got married in a
Cherry Jerry Garcia tie I bought at Mervyn’s. Don’t judge. And that stupid little dancing bear seems ubiquitous.
As the band says it is done, many are considering what it all meant, if anything. Some, like Huffpo‘s Mike Edison argue: “Never Has a Band Had Such Contempt for Their Fans“, while others (like me) have argued that the Grateful Dead are “America’s Band”. But, for many, the band’s legacy is a muddy conversation.
Once, in my sheltered, sometimes unintentionally legalistic Evangelical youth, I went on a summer field trip with the church group to the Phoenix TBN studios. A cameraman in a Grateful Dead shirt gave us the tour and I remember being appalled that a “Christian” organization would allow an employee to wear a shirt by such a pagan band, especially one with skeletons on it. Of course, in hindsight, I should have been appalled that my church group was visiting TBN, but you live and learn, right?
As years and experience have colored perspective, the Dead have become one of my favorite bands. I’ve thought a lot about what the American Church might learn from these “Entrepreneurial Hippies”. This might seem a bit odd; I mean, after all, shouldn’t the Church stay away from sinners like the Dead and their black market traveling circus? But really, is asking what the Church can learn from the Grateful Dead any more odd than asking what Corporate Leadership lessons we can learn from Jesus? It’s just a different perspective. And, I think, a valuable one to consider.
So, what might the Church (particularly the “American” Church, of which I am a part). I think the legacy of the Grateful Dead carries with it at least three important things for the American Church to consider.
- They Weren’t Interested In Simply Repeating the Accepted Norms
The band seems to have understood fairly on that the key to their success did not lie in the traditional, record sales, radio play model. The band consolidated many of their business dealings early on and relied on their live performances as the foundation of their growth. Further bucking the accepted way of doing things, the band not only encouraged fans to tape and trade the live performances but to give them away. Understanding that they did not have traditional commercial appeal, the band instead created their own business model.
I bring this up because, at least for the Evangelical wing of the Church family in America, we’ve come to accept “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as “this is the way it should be done”.
Perhaps it’s not necessary, but let me preface this next section by saying that I love God’s people. I value gathering with them. I have given most of my professional life to serving the Church. Any concerns I might have are spoken as a family member to family.
Over the past months, I have had the privilege to visit lots of different Evangelical churches on Sunday mornings. Though it has been a terrific experience to be able to worship with so many different groups of believers, one thread has tugged at my thoughts during my travels: most Evangelical worship gatherings are pretty much the same thing.
We’ve simply accepted the 60-90 minute, Sunday morning, two songs, announcements, sermon, two songs, go get your kids model as the way things should be done. At least that’s what it seems like. Though the music may be different (loud band in bright lights or organ lady in a flowery dress), the decor may vary, the style of speech and depth of the sermon may vary, but we’re all pretty much doing different versions of the same thing.
I worry that we forget that we are part of an Ancient family, and for most of our history, our public worship did not look like it does now. We are quick to view history through a short lens when asking how (or even why) we should do things.
Nearly everyone I talk to says that the current model of the American Church has done a less-than-stellar job at doing our one main task: to make, mature and multiply disciples. And yet, we are all doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results than the church down the road doing the exact same thing.
In order for the Church to flourish in consumeristic America, we are going to have to let go of the idolatry of our model and learn to take chances without branding risk takers as heretics or simply write them off as “emergent”. I’m not questioning Orthodox theology, here, but I am concerned with just how similar and bland and interchangeable we all seem to think Sunday (and church life) should be.
- They Built Their Reputation On Community
The Grateful Dead understood that the vitality of their business model hinged on creating community rather than simply consumers. Though I guess you could argue that, as a business, the Dead were interested in creating a community of consumers, I think the point is that they understood that they needed repeat customers who would be loyal to a fault and evangelize to a fault.
They created a place of belonging for many people who had not ever experienced a truly welcoming community. Yes, there were of course bad apples in the Deadhead community, but by and large, the stories are of welcoming, accepting and dedicated people, bound together by a common community that happened to center around a band.
I worry that the current American Church model, by default lends itself more towards creating consumers than it does community. We arrange ourselves as a passive audience on Sundays and many churches quite openly tie their view of success or failure to how many people are in the audience each week.
Very little of the current church model in America lends itself to an active faith lived out in community. And hence, very little of our current model emphasizes the necessity of Believers taking responsibility for their own faith. The church must take seriously Paul’s admonition that leaders have been given to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13) rather than perpetuating the myth of the “sacred profession” held by pastors. Deadheads understood that if they’re community was going to be sustainable, they had to make it so. The band could not do all the work of creating a self-sustaining, traveling community, nor is it what they were called to do. They were simply facilitators.
We have tried to appropriate so much of the way we do things from the business world that, of course we believe that success is based purely on numbers. But the Dead showed us that a loyal community is the real goal. Consumers will come and go. But community is something different and it is sorely lacking in many of our outposts.
- They Were Not Afraid To Fail
One of the greatest criticisms of the Grateful Dead is that they, by all accounts, were a hit or miss live affair. Whey they were on, everyone understood why they were there. But when they swung and missed, everyone was thankful for the accompanying community because it wasn’t necessarily the success of that night’s show holding them together.
And yet, how often I hear pastors prepping themselves to believe that every week is the most important message their church will hear. If they happen to have an off Sunday, their egos are deflated and the success of the entire mission is questioned. Somehow, we who find our breath in God’s grace have lost the ability to fail. We have turned the Sunday morning into a performance with such pressure that many churches have countdown clocks right on the wall, the lighting is on point and God forbid the slide person miss a cue. When something does “go wrong” on a Sunday, we fret, frown and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we should strive for excellence in our public worship. But it is not a performance. It’s not a big deal if I forget my place in a sermon, if the guitar player misses a chord change or the slide person misses a cue. Those things matter when it’s a performance and when you’re creating consumers. They matter and we should try to avoid mistakes, but they’re not a big deal when you’re after real community. If you’re unwilling to fail, you won’t take chances and when you won’t take chances, everyone ends up doing the same thing.
What if you already had all of the love, acceptance and grace you could ever hope for and more? Would you be willing to take chances that might lead to failure? Would you be able to model grace in mistakes rather than striving to portray a perfect performer? What if we really believed that our worth is not based on our performance?
It’s beautiful to know that there are so many valuable lessons for us to learn in such unlikely places. For the health of the church, let’s humbly consider what’s valid, what’s not (even if I’ve written it) and continue to strive for a more genuine faith.