This past December, my wife was talking with a fellow teacher at her high school. It was the last day of the semester. Both students and teachers were eager for their long-expected Christmas break. As they talked about their respective holiday plans, Kim's colleague offered some "insider information" regarding a flash mob that was being organized the next afternoon at the large regional mall in our community.
If you're not familiar with flash mobs, they are a relatively recent phenomenon. On the surface, these groups of people seem to gather for a spontaneous public performance and disperse after a few brief minutes. Chambers Dictionary defines a flash mob as "a group of people who arrange to assemble briefly in a public place to perform some activity, often of a humorous or surreal nature."1 They seem to have found their place in popular postmodern history, thanks in part to the flexibility of cellular communications.
As Ian Urbina notes in a 2010 article in The New York Times:
It started innocently enough seven years ago as an act of performance art where people linked through social-networking Web sites and text messaging suddenly gathered on the streets for impromptu pillow fights in New York, group disco routines in London, and even a huge snowball fight in Washington.(2)
According to the classified information Kim received that Friday afternoon, her colleague had schemed to join other musicians from her church at noon the next day. They planned to surprise Boise's busy holiday shoppers by assembling as a flash mob at the base of the food court escalators where they were going to sing "The Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah.
Along with our three teenaged daughters, we were eager to take in Saturday's surprise spectacle. After all, Kim and I had sung "The Hallelujah Chorus" many times before, during, and after college. We?ve also seen other flash mobs perform Handel's Christmas classic online. Some are spectacular. Secretly, we hoped this might be a story we?d be weaving into our family's holiday lore well into the future.
I underestimated the vehicular congestion we encountered in the mall parking lot that Saturday, so Kim, the girls, and I arrived at the top of the food court escalators a couple of minutes past noon. Lots and lots of people were milling around. But no one was singing.
When I looked down on the escalator's center court, I saw the problem: four uniformed security guards, complete with flat-brimmed Smokey the Bear hats(3) perched on their heads, had discovered the flash mob's plot before it was fully hatched. Everything was now at a standstill as the head security guard questioned the conductor and awaited permission from mall management about whether the orchestra and choir members would be permitted to perform. More and more holiday shoppers gathered with us on the rail of the upper deck to witness the stalled performance below.
Apparently Kim's friend and her church group tipped their hand prematurely, which took some of the "flash" out of their mob. Rather than having one clandestine, unaccompanied soloist burst seemingly into spontaneous song with Handel's bold hallelujahs, then growing voice by voice, this church group assembled on the floor as a horde. They dragged in metal folding chairs, an electric keyboard on a long umbilical, and about a dozen rickety music stands.
Every choir member carried a full fan of sheet music in their hands. Even the drowsiest mall cop could have seen this group assembling from a mile away. What should have been a four-minute performance, followed by an immediate dispersion of the musicians back into the crowd, dragged into a 40-minute waiting game with dismayed shoppers ultimately chanting, "Let them sing! Let them sing!" in exasperated unison.
When it appeared the growing crescendo of customers might soon get out of hand, the beleaguered security head took matters into her own hands and waved for the group's conductor to get on with it. Many in the crowd cheered, while still others groaned over the long, drawn-out process. After a few more awkward moments, the musicians then proceeded to tune up their instruments.
Finally the singers commenced, while some shoppers on the rail - Kim and me included - even sang out our parts of the chorus from memory. In a few minutes, we belted out Handel's final "Hallelujah!" together in fairly triumphant harmony.
As the flashless mob began folding up their tottering music stands and packing away their instruments, Kim and I ambled down the mall concourse with our kids. Just then, I heard one disillusioned passerby comment, "That seemed more like a flush mob than a flash mob!"
Our misadventure reminded me how those of us in the Christian mob can turn flashes into flushes. Most of the time, we really have the best intentions. But if we're not careful we can do the right thing for the wrong reason. Or we do it the wrong way and communicate a very different message to those who gather in our midst.
Compare my family's Christmas mall experience with that of some Catalonians sauntering about on a Saturday evening roughly seven months earlier:
On May 19th at six in the evening, what appeared to be a single, tuxedoed street performer playing a bass for people strolling around Plaça de Sant Roc in Sabadell, Spain, (just north of Barcelona) turned into a mass ensemble performing a movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - including more than 100 musicians and singers from the Orchestra Simfònica del Vallès, Amics de l'Òpera de Sabadell, Coral Belles Arts, and Cor Lieder Camera.(4)
Trust me: before reading another word on this page, you really need to go online and see this four-minute YouTube clip for yourself.(5) Classical music fans know this piece as Beethoven's final symphony(6), those in the European Union sing it as their national anthem, but most churchgoers recognize it as the tune accompanying Henry van Dyke's enduring hymn, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."(7)
As seen in the video, a solitary street musician emerges initially out of a frozen pose after a young Spanish girl drops a coin into his top hat. The soloist's performance soon becomes a duet, grows into a quartet, then an ensemble, and ultimately swells into a choral symphony. Cellos, violins, and bassoons quickly meet with horns, clarinets, timpani and what appears to be a rousing, randomly amassed choir.
Trent Gillis correctly reminds his readers, "Let's make no mistake here - this is a commercial for Banco Sabadell. And, yes, it's a majestic, highly orchestrated flashmob organized by one of Spain's largest banking groups."(8) But the piece's musical and video production quality pales in comparison to the wondrous expressions seen on the faces of those passing by.
From a father with his son hoisted on his shoulders, to an elderly woman heading home from the market, to small Spanish children straining to see over the crowd or whirling feverishly to the strains of the orchestra, to a young strolling mother entranced by the music with her infant in tow, this ad hoc musical experience leaves Catalonians both young and old beaming and breathless.
It's not merely the difference in musical quality that differentiates the summer flash mob at Plaça de Sant Roc from the Christmas flush mob at Boise Towne Square.
It's also about the degrees to which the musicians succeeded in engaging their audiences with intentionality and ultimately invited them to participate fully in the performance with them.
It's also about how one group of performers emerged seamlessly out of the population's ranks and then melded back into the crowd.
One experience transformed an audience full of passersby into inspired participants. The other experience left too many on the perimeter simply feeling flushed.
All I know is that the little girl outside the Banco Sabadell sure got her money's worth!
As missional disciples, I hope we'll offer the same value to our world.
Jay Richard Akkerman is professor of pastoral theology, director of graduate theological online education, co-director of Wesley Center Conferencing at Northwest Nazarene University, as well as co-host of the God21 podcast.
6. Kennedy, Maev. "Beethoven's Ninth Manuscript Could Fetch £3m." The Guardian. April 8, 2003. http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/arts/2003/04/08/9th.jpg (accessed March 27, 2013).