December 7th, 2011
05:00 AM ET
Editor's note: Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio is an ordained Episcopal Church priest and is author of "God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom."
By Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, Special to CNN
(CNN) – Dear Kermit,
You’re right. It’s not about the building.
In your newest movie, I hear them saying that you guys are irrelevant, washed up.
But I’m an Episcopal priest and for years they told me that I and other Christians were washed up and irrelevant, too.
You see, since beginning my ministry, I, like many other Christians, have been bombarded with facts about church decline. The number of people attending church is decreasing while churchgoers' average age is increasing, and a turbulent economy means that the number of people able to tithe or even to give pocket change to churches is decreasing as well.
All this increases my blood pressure because the fallout is so painful: Parishes lay off clergy they can no longer afford. Two or three or four congregations yoke together under the service of one overextended pastor. Churches close, destined to be converted to condominiums or demolished altogether.
But most anxiety-provoking to me is the belief underlying all these financial woes that church is for “old” people, that the Christian message is no longer relevant in this modern, technological age.
Your story, I realized, is kind of the same. In your new movie, "The Muppets," you meet Gary (played by Jason Segel), his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and his brother Walter when they visit Los Angeles and discover that the Muppet legacy is in jeopardy. You haven’t performed together for years; your studio is in disarray, and the public seems to have forsaken you.
Then the evil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) connives to purchase your studios, demolish it and drill for black gold, Texas tea, oil, that is.
When Walter and pals discover this menacing menace, they find your house, and the four of you embark upon a montage to recruit the old Muppet gang to launch a musical spectacular – hosted by Jack Black – and raise $10 million in a single night to avert Richman’s machinations and buy back Muppet Studios.
But at $9,999,999 – or maybe it was $99,999.99 – and one minute to midnight, your plan fails. Foiled by your nemesis Richman, you lose the Muppet property. Muppets Studios and the Muppet Theater will be no more, and even though it’s never easy being green, at this moment, Kermit, I bet you felt like you’d rather be florescent fuchsia.
In the words of Tex Richman: maniacal laugh … maniacal laugh.
But the thing is, Kermit, you’re not alone: Many a pastor, many a Christian, knows this storyline all too well. In this era of shrinking resources, full-time pastors become part-time pastors; the rectory needs to be sold. The church closes.
It feels maniacal but without the laughter.
Kermit, I loved your message to us all at the end of the film: It doesn’t matter that you lost your building. It doesn’t matter that you failed to raise the money.
The experience of becoming a community again created a foundation of relationships more stable than any building’s.
And that allows you to live into your calling as Muppets, to work together so you can show your relevance to a new generation by offering them, as you say, the third greatest gift that can be given – laughter.
That was more valuable than a studio could ever be.
The Muppets teach us Christians that a building does not a church make.
Financial resources do not a church define.
Instead, a church is constructed upon the relationships between people who undertake a journey to love God and their neighbor together.
It is a community of individuals committed to discerning their greatest gifts and then offering those gifts to meet the world’s great needs. And even if that journey is sometimes short on material rations, the love of our neighbors is always available in abundance, and that is the most nourishing and relevant resource of all.
Thanks for reminding me, Kermit, that it’s the people who matter. Or, as you and your friends like to sing, “Life’s a happy song when there’s someone by your side to sing along.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.