South Park’s 20th season featured the appearance of a cluster of unusual characters: Member berries. These little edible high-pitched grape-like fruits reclaim such nostalgic remembrances as “Member Chewbacca again?” “Aw yeah I love to member Chewbacca!”, “Member Ghostbusters?”, “Oh yeah, Ghostbusters!”, “Member Bionic Man?”, “Oh, I love Bionic Man!”, and so on. When one consumes a Member berry euphoric vibes and pleasant nostalgia are enjoyed.
The pleasurable memories of days of yore come to an end when Randy Marsh notices the Member berries begin to remember things with a racial context. The storyline runs its course and people become addicted to Member berries and Randy forms a support group. The citizens of South Park become drunk with nostalgia and long for the past. The allusion to Donald Trump’s campaign promises are clear, which is summarized by his call to “Make America Great Again.”
According to South Park’s wiki page, Member berries are, “the physical manifestation of the idiom “sour grapes”, used to refer to a negative attitude to something because they cannot have it themselves.” A true irony.
Not long after the episode, Carol Howard Merritt wrote a Christian Century piece, “The great power of nostalgia”. As I read it, the only thing I could think about was Member berries. So on Facebook I left a comment on her post referring to the South Park episode: “Member Chewbacca”. A humorous thread ensued.
In many ways, Christianity suffers from Member berries. Carol sums up the Member berry nicely:
In our churches, people long for the time when going to church was the center of a town’s social life. Mothers got to dress up after a week of housecleaning, fathers made professional connections, and teens met the people they would soon marry. The sanctuary was full, and everyone understood the importance of Sunday school.
In my 10 years of full-time ordained ministry, I’ve seen and heard a lot of Member berries in the church. “Remember when Pastor _________ was here, we were full.”, “More people used to come to this church meeting.”, “Years ago, we didn’t have problems filling volunteer spots.”, and “If just get back to the good old days, we’d be okay.” The sad thing is that there were challenges then, as we have new challenges now, but that’s what nostalgia does to us.
While churches are picking their Member berries and remembering a once full church the folks in their neighborhood are yearning for spirituality, connection, community, and real relationships. Churches often lament their problems through a lens that sees the past as the only way to a better future. This cannot be more wrong. The past was great for a lot of churches. People showed up to church, volunteered, tithed, things were closed on Sundays, and “everyone” was a Christian. However, as Robert Schnase reminds us in his book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations :
No church that is vibrant, fruitful, and growing performs its ministry exactly as it did in the 1950’s, and no pastor leading such a congregation is practicing ministry as she or he did in the 1970’s or 1980’s. Effective congregations change, improve, learn, and adapt to fulfill their mission…
Any renewal movement, congregational or otherwise, that is worth its salt does not find success in repeating the technical successes of the past, but finds renewal in envisioning their adaptive future. (There’s a reason Macintosh stop making the Apple II and starting making other stuff to became one of the most successful companies, ever.)
I’ve found that when a new vision takes shape and changes take place in church, Christians feel that the old was bad and the new is good. This is also wrong. When we begin to make changes in churches it is not because the past is bad, but what is being done is not effective. It does not connect with people today. It does not meant what was done in the past loses value. We celebrate honor the past by building on it as we move into a new future. As I used to tell a congregation in the middle of a vision process, “We are not changing the Gospel. We are changing how we share the Gospel.” Unfortunately, long term church people often get hung up on the “how”.
Member berries are great for a passing moment, but when Christians gorge themselves on Member berries they rob themselves of the ability to envision a new future. We cannot go back in time (if you can time travel, I want a ride in your Delorean). We can only create a new future in which God will do a new thing. Don’t we believe in a faith of resurrection and new life?
Do not let nostalgic Christianity think that the past was better and the future can never be as bright – those are the Member berries talking.