What the Church Can Learn from Moana

We humans love to settle down.  We find comfort in routine.  We design our lives and communities for predictability in order to gain security -- a sense of control over an outside world that threatens.

Disney's Moana resists this social inertia and its mantra, "tradition is our mission", on her Polynesian island.  She finds herself yearning for years to know what lies beyond the reef, the line islanders have been forbidden to cross. Her gut-level push back against the ways things have always been can remind the church of its own tendency toward institutional survival over and above, at times, the pursuit of its real mission: "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ"  (The Book of Common Prayer, p.855).

In an important turning point early in the movie, Gramma Tala reveals a cave to Moana that contains the boats of her "wayfinding" ancestors.  "We're voyagers!" she exclaims in surprise.  I experienced a similar moment of interest and wonder when hearing the newly elected (Episcopal) Presiding Bishop Michael Curry's paraphrase of Jesus' suggestion to Peter as he held his empty nets: Go to where the fish are -- don't wait for them to come to you!  In other words, there is a going out movement and seeking approach to the Christian life that is not an ancillary activity but central to our Christian identity as missionaries, not churchgoers.

Of course, church going is becoming less popular of a pastime today, anyway, given the ways society has changed over the past several decades.  Such an external threat, much like the encroaching darkness in Moana, may very well serve as the impetus that invites us to claim once again our missionary mantles.

And God knows missionaries are needed to share the good news in this place and in this time!  This Sunday's lectionary includes Paul's evangelical antics in Athens, a city crammed with idols and a made up of a citizenry confused by its own hyper-religiosity.  In a way, Athens then isn't so different from America today -- so accustomed to and distracted by the next best consumer product or political scandal that as a people we're losing our moral compass and our spiritual grounding in God.

Who did God create us to be as Christians?  Churchgoers...or missionaries?  Even though our churches are beautiful and we love the people there and the food is wonderful and we leave feeling well fed we leave every week any way.  We leave because we have a mission, a purpose, that God calls us to out in the world, beyond the reef, beyond the church doors.  That mission is to look for God’s work around us and point it out to our family and friends and neighbors and coworkers, so they’ll be curious about God and search for God, too.  And when it’s time we know the way home because we remember who we are -- children loved by God.  So our island, our church, becomes a place of safety and comfort and refuge between our voyages into the world where we, with courage and boldness, notice God at work and point those moments of glory out to all who would hear us.

This is not easy work, and most of us haven't had much practice as "wayfinders," as missionaries.  I think the "Parable of the Life-Saving Station" can be a helpful conversation starter within our churches, but without the need to dwell much on the depressing ending.  Since fewer and fewer folks are depending upon church as a club with social cache, I think respectability is less our obstacle to mission then basic inertia and a lack of practice.

Let's begin then and experiment and fail and succeed in God's name -- and in the process reenergize ourselves as we claim again our Christian identity as missionaries.