I dilly dallied, as is my usual habit. I have some inner compunction that forbids me to turn up too early. It’s a learned behavior from early childhood: showing up too soon meant additional chores, whereas I’d rather be playing or reading or doing my art. However, Bon Jovi was coming to Verizon arena and that meant 18,000 people and possibly 6,000 vehicles were going to descend upon the twenty acres just across the river from downtown Little Rock. Late wasn’t an option. You can arrive late for church, walk in and find your seat while the congregation sings the first hymn or praise songs, but late for football or a rock concert means hoofing it from the far parking lots. Your seat may be reserved, but your parking space is a crapshoot.
I left my hotel at 5:30, arrived at the arena 15 minutes later, saw that the Burger King directly across the street was offering $10 off street parking, and I bagged this along with a Whopper Jr. with cheese and no pickles to go. About the time I’d finished my walking picnic (do calories eaten while exercising count?), I was at the entry. There a man asked me, “Will you be needing to drink tonight?” Do I need to or want to, I asked him. “Want to,” he said laughing. Oh no, I’m good to go as I am. I’ll be driving afterwards, so nothing for me. He wished me well and went about his work. He was checking the IDs and placing the orange bands on folks so the beverage people wouldn’t be slowed down for the inside sales. I thought of all the church greeters who miss an opportunity to engage in some type of meaningful conversation with the folks that are passing through their contact zone. If a church is a community, our first line greeters initiate that experience.
Once inside the door, I had two hours to kill or fill. Killing time is a long tedious process, but filling time is pleasant and refreshing. First I stopped to shop. Yes, I sacrificed at the altar of all things Bon Jovi to buy a $45 T-shirt with the logo on it. It’s a witness shirt. Of course, most people don’t read your clothes because they don’t see anything past the border of their personal space. We have been taught not to stare from an early age, so reading someone’s chest/breast is impolite. Only artists, children, and other rude people defy this social convention.
I sat next to a young couple from near Pine Bluff. The boy clearly loves this gal, but she’s had a hard life and can’t really believe it. When I showed her my shirt, I said I really wanted the hot red one with gold bling, but it didn’t come in “full mature womanly figure” size. “Oh I love red and gold, but I’d be afraid someone would take it.” Her boyfriend looks at her and says, “Come on honey, I think you’d look hot in that shirt!” Both these kids have had tough lives, but they have found each other and are making the days better for each other. I learned all this in less than an hour at a rock concert. How long do we take before we ever open up at church? Many of us never will, except for our physical illnesses, for we hold the mistaken belief that God rewards our silent suffering or worse, if we admit to suffering, we also admit to being an imperfect person. God already knows we are imperfect, so it won’t come as a surprise to the Almighty. It might only surprise the others who labor under the same delusion.
As I sat, I took photos of other folks killing time by checking facebook. Pretty soon, nothing would post and Instagram couldn’t refresh its feed, since too many bored people were online at once. I gave up and began to take photos only. It was as if we were all dressed up with no place to go, yet we were all here and being held in check, like racehorses behind the starting gate. Some found their way to the foot tall margarita stand, others to the beerita stand (half beer/half margarita), and others to the food and drink stands. I chatted with my other seat mates for a bit and realized I knew them from one of my appointments during my ministry. There may be six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but only one degree of Bon Jovi or Methodist ministers. I heard of the woes of their recent pastor and the trouble in their town. But it’s a broken and fallen world we live in, and we pastors can’t take responsibility for other peoples’ actions. This is why a God gave us Jesus to fall back upon when we fall down or the world falls apart.
At 7:30, I realized that the concert was no where near starting, no matter what my ticket said, so I went in search of the ladies’ room. On my way back, I chatted up the aisle folks. Some of them seemed surprised that a stranger was speaking to them, but then we do tend to live in our own little bubbles. This experience was the most like church, for I realized that while folks had come in groups or pairs to the concert, they came to experience it in their own private universe. They may have been part of the crowd, but their experience was much smaller and more intimate. I had come alone, however, and was seeking unity within the whole. Therefore, I was reaching out to connect with as many as possible to feel a part of the group. This is why a “friendly church” can seem cold to a stranger, but welcoming to the in crowd.
On my way back down to the floor, this handsome silver haired gentleman performed the requisite ticket check on me. He asked, “Do you like Bon Jovi?” Oh yes, I said. How about you? “Not so much, but I do get to say hello to very pretty ladies.” Aren’t you sweet, I smiled and said as I left for my seat. He probably had ear plugs for the evening. This was a nice moment to keep as a memory. I’m glad I’ve taken to wearing my hair up in braids. It makes me look approachable, young, fresh, and not all bound up. Uptight isn’t alright anymore. That was ok for the professional look, but now I want go look like me. My Sunday go to meeting clothes are now my dress casual clothes. I’m deep into retirement and not much on dressing up anymore. Once I had 47 pair of shoes, now I’m down to 12. I actually wear just 2 pair most of the time. Maybe we should simplify our lives, our dress, and our behavior: just be the same wherever we are. No one could call us a hypocrite then.
Finally the lights went dim and a roar rose from the crowd! Our anticipation wasn’t for naught. Bon Jovi and the band were taking the stage. The spotlights flashed brightly, strobing the darkened amphitheater. Blue lights burst into the stage that was just 17 rows and an orchestra pit away from my seat. Then oranges and reds quavered across this field and the sounds of “That’s What the Water Made Me,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Runaway,” and the “Lost Highway” rolled out over the excited crowd. We sang along, at the top of our voices. Some of us sang the whole song, others sang just the choruses, but we all shared in the experience. A rock concert differs from a classical performance in that the latter is done by the artist for the audience to appreciate the artist’s abilities and talent, whereas the rock concert is a communal or participatory event in which both the artist and the crowd share the creation.
This experience alone reminded me the most of why church ain’t bringing IT like Bon Jovi. How many of our congregations have the moniker “the frozen chosen?” For this group, worship is done to them and they merely observe the performance. After church they may intellectually discuss the merits of the sermon or the song selections, but preaching to this crowd is difficult, for encouragement isn’t their long suit. They are well trained in stillness, silence, and the flat aspect of their faces while in the sanctuary. It’s as if God might strike them dead if they so much as bat an eyelash. Get them around a potluck table afterwards, especially the deserts, and they are quite lively. Perhaps we should serve chocolate brownies instead of communion wafers and 5-Hour energy shots instead of the communion wine or grape juice.
A song that surprised me was “Whole Lot of Leavin’.” because it had never been released in the USA. Fresh to our ears, we applauded even louder, but when Jon rolled into “It’s My Life” the screaming broke loose! It wasn’t the nice church ladies on my left (who I periodically checked on to make sure they were still alive), but the gal who couldn’t believe this was her birthday dream come true. She was on her first syllable of the nonstop scream that was her entire commentary of the evening. When the Spirit takes over, some are wont to speak in strange tongues or languages. Others break out in laughter, barking, or whooping, while some twirl or dance in place. All that was happening all over the stadium as Bon Jovi sang “Because We Can,” “What About Now,” “We Got It Goin’ On,” and “Keep the Faith.”
This was one of the high points of the concert, for which we’d been standing, singing and clapping all the way through so far. We were probably 45 minutes into the concert and I noticed the young couple in front of me were plum worn out. I said, He’s 55, working it for all he’s got & you’re tired? Stand up and honor this! (I checked my fitbit after the concert when I got to the hotel. My steps/activity counter posted over three miles just from the aerobic workout dancing and clapping in my foot and a half of floor space.) I thought, I’m as bad as all those judgmental church folks who think this younger generation doesn’t have what it takes to “do IT the right way.” In truth, they are probably just worn out from a long week at work and hassles with the kids. I should give them a break. There may be more than one way to skin an IT, after all.
Just as preachers can’t bring the same sermon every week, rock stars don’t play the same set at every venue. Life would get old. For us Arkies, Bon Jovi played a set that related to our history and our connections. Just as there are the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, almost everyone in Arkansas is an FOB or an FOH, the Clinton’s of course. We heard “It’s Only Make Believe,” (Conway Twitty cover) and “Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night” as part of that recollection and connecting. As the mood slowed, we heard “Diamond Ring,” and “(You Want to) Make a Memory.” All the young and old lovers took this moment in time to hug and kiss, to make their own memory of the night they shared with Bon Jovi.
But enough of all that smooching, the band had come to rock! “Born to Be My Baby,” “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” (with snippets of Jumpin’ Jack … more), and “Bad Medicine” (with snippet of Shout) rounded out the main program.
The old preaching saw is strike fire & sit down. Leave them crying for more. Cry we did. More they had! “I’ll Be There for You,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Have a Nice Day,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” wound up the best night in twenty years in Arkansas. Don’t wait so long, BJ, you have friends here.
When I checked out of my hotel the next morning, the clerk was just in awe that I had gone to see Bon Jovi. I thought, no one ever says that about church. Is that because it happens every Sunday? If we held church once every twenty years, or asked people to pay steep admission prices, would that encourage us to attend? What if we had songs that we played over and over, like the top 40 and country hit stations play their lists, would that engage our participation? What if the seats cost more depending on their location (in church, the back row would cost the same as the concert orchestra pit)! We might have a better, if not rowdier, crowd down front. The preaching might get more exciting too. Then again, these two worlds aren’t meeting for the most part, for the same reason that the screaming fans and the prim church gals don’t run in the same crowd. They need a person who walks in both worlds to either be the church for them or to bring the church to them. The walls of the church itself are the barrier, even when the church ladies go out into the rock world, and the world can’t come into the church itself. This is why the church ain’t bringing the message of healing for the hungry and the hopeless like Bon Jovi is bringing IT. This is why the concert felt like the church ought to be, but each of us needs to bring our true heart to into true concert with the God who can rock our world, and not just our arena.