Sister Act was on television the other night.
For those who don’t remember this quintessentially ’90s movie, Sister Act is the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer (played by Whoopi Goldberg) who witnesses a brutal crime and has to hide out as a nun at Saint Katherine’s Roman Catholic Church in a rundown neighborhood of San Francisco. Under the alias of Sister Mary Clarence, Deloris has trouble fitting in and ruffles a few feathers along the way, particularly those of the stridently traditional Reverend Mother (played ably and delightfully by Dame Maggie Smith). It eventually becomes clear the only way Deloris can contribute productively to the life of the community is by directing the choir. Under Sr. Mary Clarence’s direction, the choir’s repertoire shifts from traditional choral literature to adaptations of songs Deloris would sing in her nightclub act (“Nothing you can say can tear me away from my God” and the like). And since this is a ’90s movie, that one change revitalizes the parish. The church goes from being half-empty on Sunday mornings to bursting at the seams. The parish raises money to fix the roof during the course of a single montage. And of course, the pope requests a special concert at Saint Katherine’s during his visit to the United States. The implied message: if you want your church to be relevant, have the choir sing songs by ’70s girl groups.
A friend of mine has commented that Sister Act ruined a whole generation’s understanding of church revitalization. After watching scenes like this, we became convinced that making a single change in our worship was the liturgical equivalent of opening the floodgates. I mean, did you see that video? Those totally non-threatening street toughs were literally drawn in from the streets by the upbeat music and clapping! The reality, of course, is that this is not how church revitalization works. Sure, some people may be attracted by new forms of music and liturgy, but people engage when they are connected to the worshiping community in a deeper and more meaningful way. It seems that Sister Act totally overstates its case.
Or does it? When I was watching the other night, I saw a scene that I did not remember. Just after the choir performs “Oh Maria,” the Reverend Mother dresses Sister Mary Clarence down in her office. Just then, the Monsignor walks in to congratulate both of them on the musical offering, when Deloris turns and says, “the Reverend Mother also wants us to go out into the community.” What follows is a montage of nuns painting walls, tearing down fences, jumping double-dutch, repairing cars, and most importantly, meeting the people of the neighborhood. This is a pivotal scene for those of us interested in the future of the Church. Ultimately, Saint Katherine’s was renewed not by an entertaining choir, but rather by engaging with its community. More importantly, the people of Saint Katherine’s did not do this in order to draw more people into church, but because they recognized their call to serve those in their neighborhood.
During the season of Lent, I encourage you to follow the example of Saint Katherine’s in Sister Act. Turn your focus outward and engage with your community, not to see what you can get out of people, but because you have been called to serve.