Tuesday, 17 March 2009
How do you go to church?
Last year a young woman at the hairdresser, on finding out that I was the wife of the minister of the church, asked me, "how do you go to church?" I didn't understand what "how do you go to church?" meant but it became clear she didn't know if you booked, if you got a ticket from somewhere, if you had to be invited, if you just turned up (the right answer by the way!) I was amazed that she didn't know. But of course, why would she know? Because I'm so used to the whole business of church in all its combination of weirdness and marvellousness and lunacy and glory, I take for granted things that I really shouldn't. I grew up as a minister's daughter and am quite at home in Churchworld. I can even cope with the variety of different types of church that there are and can worship as happily (almost) in most settings from charismatic to ultra-reformed to Roman Catholic mass to whatever. But I have my preferences of course, and 21 years to the day after Him Indoors and I decided that perhaps after all we weren't destined to be just good friends, I fortunately am able to say I particularly like the church of which he is minister. What a relief, eh?!
Recently it was my privilege and joy to take a few prisoners to church. We have services in the jail of course and I'm at great pains to stress to them that they are part of the worldwide church even in prison. However, it's good for them to experience "church outside" before release as a preparation for them to help bridge the enormous cultural gap that undoubtedly exists for them to cross to settle in a local church after liberation. I tell them that when they get released they need to find a church if they want to stay strong in their faith and that picking what church you go to is a bit like picking which pub will be your local - you have to try a few and find the one you feel at home in.
I used to think it was desperately sad that there were so many different church denominations and that we should all be able to agree on one way of doing church. But I've changed my mind. Certainly it's sad when there is a split, say, because folks' egos have got in the way, or there's been a power struggle, or because too much importance has been attached to one person's interpretation of how church should be. But perhaps the upside of that is that, since God is so awesomely awesome and amazingly amazing and wonderfully wonderful, no one group can express everything there is to express about who he is and what he has done for us and how his nature is. We should try to maintain the balance point of all the rich paradoxes of Church and of our faith. But we're always at risk of unbalancing.
Those who emphasise the love of God are perhaps at risk of not taking sin seriously enough and being too flippant about approaching God. Those who emphasise the holiness of God are perhaps at risk of not taking seriously enough the close Father-child relationship with us that is on offer.
Those who like a very ordered and formal style of worship are perhaps at risk of trying to overrule God's leading. Those who like a very fluid and spontaneous style of worship are perhaps at risk of making people feel distracted and uncomfortable by the unpredictability and chaos.
I've taken two pairs of two things there as examples but it's a lot more complex than that of course and only God could possibly understand it all.
I think the important thing is always to be aiming to be real. Church leaders throughout history, being human beings, have often got it wrong. And sometimes that's been through going for what looked good, for the latest thing, for the most fancy robes, or the most academic qualifications, or whatever would massage their egos and their pride. The best church leaders I've met are those who're good at being real, who talk in their own voices (not fake preachy pious church voices) from their hearts and mean what they're saying.
Tonight, a former prisoner visited the jail and spoke to some of the guys about what the Bible says and about how God loves them and wants to be in their lives. He is so real that it is a pleasure and privilege to listen to him, and the guys were hanging on his every word. He has an authority that comes from his realness and from the fact of course that he's been where they are. He has made the transition successfully from church in prison to church on the outside, though he admits that it has been a real struggle at times. Sadly church folk on the outside aren't always as real as church folk on the inside.