Why The Church Needs To Hear S-Town

On May 30, the day the church calendar remembers Mary's visit to Elizabeth, I listened to Brian's visit with John B.

No, the B. does not stand for "Baptist," and Brian is not an obscure character in the Bible.

Brian Reed is the host of S-Town, a new podcast from Serial and This American Life. John B. McLemore is the reason the podcast exists. Nearly five years ago, John emailed Brian about the dire state of his hometown in Alabama.  He told stories of corruption, murder, and cover-ups. His language peeked Brian's curiosity and caused him to ask, "Who is this guy?" John suggested that the crew of This American Life come to Alabama and dig more deeply into his speculations.

So, Brian Reed set off to visit with John B. McLemore. He made many more trips to S-Town than Mary made to Elizabeth. He stayed in hotels for more days than Mary stayed with Elizabeth. He spent years compiling the stories of John and Woodstock, Alabama, the real name of S-Town. In March of this year, there were over ten million downloads in the first four days of the podcast's release. Told in seven chapters released at one time, S-Town brims with twists and turns and insights as numerous as the maze John built on his property. Some critics have called the recordings great story-telling. Others love the depth of his interviews. Art. Poetry. Journalism at its finest. Thorough investigation. The praise for S-Town abounds, and I agree with every positive word.

Yet, as I listened to the final episodes, alongside the lectionary's readings about Mary and Elizabeth, what I heard was theological education. Pastoral training. A lesson in non-judgmental interaction that the Church needs to hear.

Granted, S-Town is not for every churchgoer. The language and content are for mature audiences. We learn in Reed's first sentence of episode one that the "s" in "s-town" stands for a certain four-letter word oft repeated in the show. John is a self-proclaimed atheist and has some raging thoughts on God and religion--and especially "Christians."

Whether or not all seven episodes of S-Town are for us individually, the curiosity, respect, and care we witness in Brian's research should compel us to treat one another with the same dignity he extends to Woodstock, Alabama.

When Mary visited Elizabeth in Luke's gospel, they had wild stories to tell each other, too. Angelic visitations. Unplanned pregnancies. Mute husbands. Yet in one another's company, they felt safe to tell those stories. They encouraged each other. They listened to each other. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, but we only have 17 verses to summarize their conversation.  What we encounter are more than songs about how mighty and merciful God is. We also enter a story of how merciful we can be, with God's help, toward each other.

I think trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do.
— Brian Reed, Chapter VI, S-Town podcast

Once Brian visited John, he began a journey of trying to understand this stranger. Even when John said shocking and offensive things, Brian refrained from shirking away in judgment. Instead, he leaned forward in merciful curiosity to seek the worthwhile in another human being--and to tell his story honestly and accurately.

Churches have a tendency to retreat in judgment to our comfortable spaces when someone says or does something with which we disagree.

Churches spend a lot of time inviting people to visit their sanctuaries instead of visiting people where they are.

S-Town invites churches to live in the uncomfortable space of listening and responding not for our own gain but for the good of all.

Let us not only extend an invitation at the end of a church's worship service. Let us accept the invitation to go to Woodstock--and hear the worthwhile John B. McLemores for ourselves.

all good things to each of you,

Pastor Darian