Post Author: Courtney Young
Beginning in 2012 and through 2013, while waiting for my first call, I worked for the missional outreach face of my seminary’s website. I edited a collection of essays from a class on church revitalization and wrote a few original pieces reflecting on my experiences as a Millennial who was also a practicing Christian. In one of the posts I wrote, which I called “The Original Fandom,” I drew a line connecting the people who call themselves Potterheads, Trekkies, or Bronies/Pegasisters with the people who call themselves Christians. This article of mine was the very first place that I began to think that maybe fandom had something to teach those who follow Christ about what it means to be shaped by a story, or a Word, in the Internet Age. Though the article itself hasn’t survived my seminary’s transition to a new website or my transition to a new computer, the act of writing that article set me on a course where I would be continually fascinated by the activity, practices, and commentary of fan culture. This, in turn, has inspired me as I question and experiment in ministry.
The impact of story fandom (think books/movies/RPGs/TV shows) on larger culture has been maturing on a parallel path to my own growth and maturity. In some ways it feels as if story fandom has been growing up with me. I was four when The Little Mermaid released, five when Beauty and the Beast hit theaters, and so on. The Disney Renaissance was my childhood. Toy Story came out when I was nine. The first Harry Potter book came out in 1998 when I was 12, and Harry, the eponymous main character, had just turned 11. I spent my teenage years soaking in massive movies about Jedi, hobbits and elves, and pirates. I was 22 when Iron Man was released. Maybe it was only a matter of time before I and the members of my generational cohort (with our neighboring cohorts!) began to approach fandom as something more than child’s play. Maybe it was only a matter of time before we began to examine the casual and lively networking of fan cultures that was blossoming alongside our churches, which were struggling to adapt to new rhythms and realities of a culture in flux.
Over the years, I have come to understand that Christians rarely innovate institutional structure. Instead, Christians mimic what is effective in their particular time and place. The earliest Christians mimicked the model provided by private clubs or associations. After Constantine, they mimicked Roman governance structure. Monasteries were alternative feudal manors. In America, churches took on a democratic flavor with constitutions and elected representatives. The Church mimics so that it can come up beside culture and say, “Our God is like this, but also, nothing like this. Praise God!” As a Lutheran who believes that there is no single ecclesiastical model decreed by God, but only the organizational infrastructure that gets the Word preached and the sacraments rightly distributed (and, I add, holds accountability), I’m comfortable thinking this way. If that is true, then there must be an existing organizational model for the church to mimic as the Great Emergence, the current 500-year shifting of Christian expression*, continues to break over all of us, accelerated by the pandemic. Unlike much current speculation, we should not be taking inspiration from entrepreneurial business models or nonprofits, but instead from the structures that promote critical engagement with fandom culture and practices: structures that promote engagement with vital story.
If fandom will blaze the trail of the future church, a church that is comfortable gathering around multiple media, that has reinterpreted what it means to belong, that is funded in a multiplicity of ways, that has learned how to navigate through the crowd of narratives, that has learned how to love things in public and in private that are distinctly uncool or odd, then it has shown me over and over again the importance of loving the story, which is the beating heart of fandom. As Christians, our story is found both in the Bible and just beyond its borders. Our story is incomplete and unfinished and wholly enough so that there is space for us to find ourselves in it, because that is the audacious claim of the Bible: that the same God who spoke from the burning bush and crowned the travelers of the Way with tongues of flame is still here. That the Bible is, in fact, a book about each of us and the God that calls us Theirs. What hope does the future church have if we do not love, crave, and anticipate joining the interplay between sound and silence, between printed letter and empty space, between what is recorded and what is unrecorded, between the written and the read and the heard? What hope does the future church have if we do not love our Word, who is still now standing by a gate to show us the Way?
* For further reading, please check-out The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle.
Courtney Young is a bi-vocational Lutheran pastor/stay-at-home mom from Minnesota. She was honored to spend the first part of her career in campus ministry. Currently, she is on leave from call to care for her family during the pandemic and is writing a book. Connect with her at www.courtneyryoung.com.
Image by: Courtney Young
Used with permission