Leaving Church 2- discussions with Jason Clark…

(Part of a series of reflections around an exchange with Jason. The previous one was posted yesterday.)

open door, rock chapel

6. I’m not arguing for institutional church and reject the ‘black and white’ thinking that because we have buildings, staff, programs (alongside experiences and life changing growth), that what I say is aimed at promoting institutions. I actually believe we all believe to institutions, the current preference being for the self in consumer society. What imaginations drive the way we relate about church is what interests me the most.

You lost me a bit on that one I am afraid.

I think you may have been reacting a little to my suggestion that people who are part of large institutional Churches, with their paid staff and building/admin costs have a lot at stake when faced with people leaving. It is an understandable pressure on those whose life has been in faithful service of these institutions and each time someone leaves it can feel like a real kick where it hurts. It is hard to then maintain relationships and remain open to learning from that rather hurtful event. Those who remain will also likely see the leavers as having betrayed them in some way- they will now have become ‘the other’, and it will be a natural tendency to make easy judgments. Of course this works both ways. The end result is that the gap widens.

I would reiterate however that I am someone with a love for the Church- and am puzzled by my current situation on the outside (trying to find other ways to do church.) Gifted pastors are a treasure (I know several of them who need a pay rise) and in our climate a good roof is rather necessary.

But you also used that word ‘consumer’ again, as if leaving Church was primarily a consumer choice for most of us. Can I push you a little on this one too?

In an age where we have been hammered into being consumers above all else, it is not surprising that our Church members make consumer choices- including changing their religious outlet when better spiritual bargains come on the market elsewhere. But surely the same is true of those who stay. They are perhaps expressing consumer satisfaction- niche product though it may now be.

Are consumer choices not the main reason for individual Church growth in the UK? People leave to go somewhere else- where the music is better, the preaching more entertaining, the seats more comfortable, the congregation younger, trendier and more dateable. Are these always poor choices? Do we rail against this kind of consumerism when it delivers corporate success? (To be fair, I know that my friend Graham has really struggled with this in his Church.)

Also (and most crucially)- what alternative to consumerism is Church really offering? Is there a danger that we ask people to reject consumerism as far as church is concerned but change nothing else? Drive to church in the same cars, from the same big houses, full of the same gadgets? The logical extension of what you say might be to continue to attend a Church even if it tears you apart, as to NOT go would be to serve the institution of Consumerism.

There are other movements challenging consumerism head on- questioning the nature of our economic system, proposing cash-less transactions, time banks, trying to live simpler more sustainable lives based around shared common resources. I know Christians are involved in many of these movements but can you honestly say that Church is characterised by this kind of engaged criticism of the core of consumerism in our culture? I wish that we were, but most of our activists are fully engaged in something more pressing within the institution of Church…

Can we really complain of consumer choices within a Church that is fully participant in the consumer marketplace?

I would suggest that people (like me) leave Church for other reasons too. To categorise leavers as somehow having sold out to easy consumer choices might risk not listening what is going on at a deeper level. It also means that re-engagement with Church for people who have left is that much harder.

7. My post was not a diatribe against non attenders trying to get them to attend. The future of the church is not in attendance, but in participation. I just think people mistake non attendance with participation. We are all attending something weekly, and participating on ways of life, the only choice is what sets the agenda for that participation and regularity.

But given that your post was in relation to people attending corporate worship, what is the difference between attendance and participation? Can one participate without attending? The fact is that we attend less and less ‘club’ like activities as a nation- increasingly we live in interior spaces, with the odd foray into collectivised consumer ‘events’. I suspect that, like me, you would regard this as problematic on all sorts of levels, but it is a fairly well understood trend that Church has a few possible responses to;

  1. We can condemn it as another example of what is wrong with the sinful world.
  2. We can demonstrate an alternative in the form of a flowering of all that relational Holy Spirit fruit. People would then know the Church by the love we have for one another.
  3. We can take note of the new social landscape and start to re-imagine a Church that fits within it.

I would sadly suggest that there has been too much of 1, not enough of 2 and 3 is a work in poor progress. (This is a generalisation from my limited perspective, and is certainly not intended as a description of any one Church!)

8. I get tired of being pitted against fresh expressions, and consider my church to be one. But having new christians, sundays, and facilities means we are instantly labelled as institutional. Again a black and white correlation I don’t accept :-)

Sorry if you felt that I did that in my earlier comments- I certainly did not mean to. I was more suggesting that the Fresh Expressions movement was an attempt to move Church away from corporate worship in the more traditional sense- as in meeting to sing and hear preaching in a large building.  Again, not that there is anything in the slightest bit wrong in doing just that, my suggestion was that the cat gets skinned in many different ways.

9. The state of the church in the UK is dire. If I wasn’t planting one, I’d probably struggle with the ones local to me. I hope I’d choose the one that offended me the least and let me serve, give, pray and engage in mission with others. I’d want to be part of the solution and not just walk away, which is what I hope I have done.

Me too.

But there might come a time when we all have to walk away. Your reason might be different to mine, but our hope is that the faith journey would not end there- rather we would be looking to start again.

We usually have to start small- with a few friends. Some of us will be carrying wounds and scars from the leaving. We may avoid using words like ‘Church’ and we will be suspicious of how people use power. What we start will be very fragile, shot through with the same imperfections as we are. Most of our projects will not survive- particularly without support from Church.

What this support looks like is unclear, but we will probably not be easy to support as we will be very sensitive to (perceived or actual) judgementalism. We will tend to keep away from those in Churches who do not understand the journey we have been on.

Church may chose to ignore us, watch us inevitably fail but this would be a dreadful mistake. Many of the people I have spoken to who find themselves outside Church are the very ones who have been the Church planters, the worship leaders, the youth workers, the street preachers, the messy church makers, the alternative worshipers. They burned out on Church, but are people of vast experience. They can not go back, but they might go forward with the right kind of encouragement.

10. Context is everything, and I fear people reading the comments here will do so without listening to my talk and the context within which it was made!

Fair point Jason. Observer bias in blogging is pretty hard to fight! I hope I have not been disrespectful of your comments in responding in the way that I have.

All the very best to you and yours.

Leaving Church 1- discussion with Jason Clark…

rainbow church, Dunoon

A few days ago I wrote a post reflecting on some thoughts by Jason Clark on leaving Church. The sort of issues Jason raised included;

  • whether a ‘Churchless faith’ is possible
  • the centrality or of gathered corporate worship
  • the rise of consumer choice as a determinant for Christians as they decide to stay or leave church
  • the dangers of allowing faith to collapse into private spaces, private lifestyle choices

If you are interested in this debate, I suggest you go and read Jason’s post (and listen to his podcast), as well as reading my post in response.

There were some great comments on my piece, including a poetic one from Sam and a deeply heartfelt one from a dear friend (and the Pastor of the church I attended before we moved to Scotland.) Jason also took the time to make some further comments, and I decided to extend the discussion a little in a couple of further posts.

I do so because people continue to leave Church and even though I have been a leaver too, I am certainly not done with church. I think that what both Jason and I have in common is a hope for the kind of Church that is a an engaged, hopeful, critical part of our society. One that tries to work out what living the radical call of Jesus might mean in THIS culture, not the Victorian one. What this looks like for me is small community in all its fragility and brokenness. What this looks like for Jason is large urban growing Church, in all its fragility and brokenness. We need both. Our contexts dictate that they must be different.

My journey through Church has led me to be very critical at times yet it is obvious that Church is very much alive. Many good things are happening all over the country. People are engaging in acts of service to their communities because the Church enables this. You only need to check out the website of my old Church, or Jason’s church to see this.

Jason made ten points in relation to this discussion, and I intend to split my responses to them over two posts. The first part of this is below.

I would repeat my deep respect for Jason (although we have not met.)  This debate feels rather retro really- blogs used to be full of these kinds of discussions 10 years ago. We have all moved on to tweets and short status updates now. So- those of you who persist in reading all this stuff are part of a future-retro elite, and I salute you!

KIlmory chapel door

1. Context: I’m not speaking to a US context, the talk was for my church community in the UK. I am convinced more than ever that the future of the church in the UK depends on communities of faith not disappearing into private spaces, but to have a vibrant public life. That is in contrast to the civic religion of Sunday services by many churches that are more about cultural religion than faith communities.

Making generalisations about what church is, where it locates itself and whether some forms are more vibrant/cultural than others was not the point of my post. Rather I was concerned to understand what it meant in MY context, and in my community.

My experience has taken me towards a small community that meets in private spaces but seeks also to provide worship events in public spaces. This was in part because a feeling that Church (with many glorious exceptions!) has often become a no-go zone for the vast majority of the local population. The ‘public’ meeting is anything but- it has become a private club for a dwindling minority. Sure, we talk evangelical language, but engagement with our local communities was mostly confined to hoping that they realise that we were right all along.

I know I am describing a kind of church that is NOT like the one you lead, and that many churches are fighting to change to become something else- more missional, engaged, vibrant etc. But that is your journey, I was speaking of mine.

I mention this not because I want to defend my position, but rather because I really do not think I am alone.

My friend Graham (and former Pastor down in England) rightly pointed out in his comment on my entry into this debate that my small community (Aoradh) is ‘church’. Some of our members still also attend ‘Church’.  Many of us were people who left Church. I suppose my point is that we are a bit of a melting pot- all trying to make sense of what is happening in a changing an challenging context. We respond to the reality we are faced with through the set of goggles that we are given…

2. My talk and post was not about Sunday attendance. I have no interest, as I mentioned at the start of the talk, about Sunday attendance, and calling people to that. Being church is all too often reduced to Sunday attendance, by those who attend and those who don’t. Two sides of the same coin – those just turning up thinking they are doing something and those established by their non attendance as the measure of having done something.

Apologies if I misrepresented you, I think I responded to your use of the words ‘meeting together for corporate worship’, which is usually understood to mean Sunday services. Of course, ‘corporate worship’ might mean many things.

I think every church tradition would echo your words about church not just being about Sunday. It certainly has never been this for me- in fact at some points of my life I have spent most of my available non-employed time doing church related activities. Most of this was focussed inwards though; it was planning activities for services of varying descriptions, organising music, having meetings, even doing one-to-one pastoral work. All of it felt very necessary. This was often exciting, it gave my life urgency and purpose. It was often exhausting.

The best of what I have experienced was good indeed, shadowed by inevitable human imperfections, but as to whether all the activity I was involved in was necessary, even advisable- the jury is out on this one I think.

3. I was focused on something I do believe as mentioned in 1 above as key to the church having any future. Christians will need to figure out a way to not collapse church into private lifestyles. Too much of evangelical church dispenses religious goods and services to people to fit around the lives they were making elsewhere. The logical extension to this, is to collapse church even further until it is just a resources for experience and private God spaces. I believe the church is about real concrete communities, like the household codes in the NT, visible and able to transform communities by living and being something other than personal interest groups.

I very much agree with you about how church has become as much consumer driven as the western world it is part of. I am also convinced that finding ways of living dependent lives in real community is part of the way that people of faith can show a real alternative. Sadly I am not sure that this is always a defining characteristic of Church- what we tend to form are what Scott-Peck calls ‘Pseudo communities’ (there is a discussion about this from the perspective of my community here.)

Another friend (who is a NT scholar) cautioned me once about the way we tend to suggest that our way of doing church is reflective of the NT idea of community (every new church development seems to claim this!) Firstly, we no longer live in the NT world, and have a poor and partial understanding of their culture and context. Secondly, Church tend to owe more to Victorian ideas of service to establishment than it does to embattled scattered persecuted 1st C Roman citizens/slaves.

What we do know about the NT church though is that it tended to meet in private spaces. The transformation it achieved was often in spite of persecution which prevented the visible gatherings that you seem to advocate.

I like your warning against a collapse of Church into just being a resource for ‘experience and private God spaces’. One criticism of Western Evangelicalism is that it has fallen into the trap of ‘Therapeutic Moralistic Deism’- offering a psychological God who will make your life happy if you follow a certain moral code. Church has followed the same individualising trend as the rest of the world – it offers individual salvation and an individual bonus-reward scheme.

I am not sure however the degree to which continued attendance can be seen to mitigate against this kind of privatised individualism. Perhaps we should leave this kind of church.

4. There is a current trend in thinking we can separate a relationship with Jesus from the church. We can’t, that’s the myth of consumer and secular imaginations.

You also used the word ‘myth’ to suggest describe Churchless faith. How are these things mythological? Is it because you believe they only exist in imagination? If so, they are powerful myths shared by many. Even if we are all wrong, then the relationships between church/Jesus/individuals have become a very poor one in lots of cases.

If people did not separate their belief in Jesus from their relationship with the Church then how does the church become challenged, changed? How can it respond to what may be prophetic critique? Jesus himself was hardly conformist after all.

That is not to say that we do not learn in community and in respect for those who have gone before us- I like Karen Ward’s differentiation between small and big theologies- the latter being those of our forefathers, the former being what we work out in small community. I think this is perhaps another one of those both/and paradoxes, but not a ‘myth’ surely?

On a personal level I had no choice but to go through a very painful experience of separation. I have spoken to many others who have done the same. This had little to do with consumer choice and a lot to do with survival of faith (it was touch and go for a while) by rediscovering Jesus in the midst of what can only be described as traumatic loss. To suggest that this was an easy consumer decision is to profoundly misunderstand the hurt that many people who have been through this process experience. I think this was at the core of my original response to your blog post, although I did not articulate it clearly at the time.

5. I’m not naive (at least I hope I am not), I spend a great deal of my time exploring the problems of church, and it has many. But on the other hand I do believe there is also a problem of Christians who don’t understand how to relate to church at all, that is not the fault of the church. It’s a two way problem.

I know and respect your thinking on lots of aspects of Church having been dipping into you blog for years!

But I must push you a little on this- if an institution is no longer doing the work it was intended for, is it reasonable to blame the people who no longer find it useful? That seems like a rather Stalinist argument to me!

The now rather antiquated debate around the so called ‘emerging church’ was founded on a dissatisfaction on Church and a hope for what might be developing. The question many of us still ask is what did all those blogs and conferences and books actually achieve? I suppose this is still a work in progress, but if all we did was open up some space for theological debate then it is an entirely unfinished project.

For people like me, the issue was not to try to preserve what was withering before our eyes, but rather to look in hope and expectation for what was becoming. Like a starving man grabs for bread we seized hold of ideas – missional church, new monasticism, fresh expressions, forest church etc  – some of these things were lovely, but could not really be regarded as a new stream of church, just different flavours of what was there already.

Even more worryingly for those of us whose theology had gone through something of a revolution, some Churches appeared to be doing very well- those whose version of religion was all hard lines and narrow doctrine.

Meanwhile people continue to leave Church…

Part two, including a discussion about consumerism, tomorrow.

Leadership, networking and the trajectory of pioneering groups…

network

 

I am part of a small ‘missional’ group. We had ‘emerging church‘ conversations, flirted with ‘new monasticism‘. We found the old ‘paradigms’ restrictive and so wanted to do a new thing, using new ‘alternative worship‘ styles.

There you go; I have established my credentials- the badges and trendy buzz words that have allowed me to find a groove to travel in, no matter how shallow and indistinct.

The reality is that this language has often felt contrived and pompous, and the journey of our group has been one of ordinary people trying to get along, whilst searching for a way to live out faith that has some integrity and authenticity. Groups like ours are not unusual, even if they are ephemeral, fragile.

Many small groups like ours set out with pioneering passion- they have this idea of the purity of community releasing a power in them to achieve something special. Often they are right- but very soon it will get messy. The enforced intimacy of small community will crack things open quickly- there is no place to hide at times.

Then there is the inevitable reduction in passion that comes over time; things that were exciting always feel stale with repetition. How do you refresh, revitalise and renew. How do you avoid creating a new narrow liturgy that ensnares every bit as much as the ones we gratefully left behind?

This is the trajectory of most small groups- excited start, success, stagnation, crisis, reinvention (or destruction.)

If we are to be sustainable, if we are to make the longer journeys together, then we will probably need some help in the form of some external connections- we will need to speak to people who understand, who have made some of the same mistakes and dreamed the same dreams. Sometimes we may need others to listen to our pain or laugh with our small absurdity.

Groups like ours are inoculated against organised booted-and-suited religion for the most part. However I remember some interesting research from my old group work days within social work.  I nforget the references (I will try to add them later) but it goes something like this;

The success of a group depends to a large extent on the external context it is embedded within. An example of this might be an encounter group within a hospital or a prison. If the group lacks the support of the establishment this might be a plus at first- people feel embattled and react against their context – but it is simply less likely to be successful in the longer term. However, a little external validation seems to go a long way. So if the staff in the wider hospital speak positively of the group, see it as valuable and helpful, the group absorbs it all, and thrives.

Of course, the links to groups like ours is rather tenuous, but it is no surprise to me that many of the pioneers of missional groups that I know arrived at their adventure after many years of established churching. Despite their maturity, experience and a degree of reaction-formation against the context they escaped from, many of them still look back. Some return.

And this is no bad thing.

In Englandshire, there are good supportive links now for ephemeral groups- there is a wider recognition of the value of micro church through movements like CMS and Fresh Expressions. This is much less the case north of the Border in Scotland.

Last night (and this morning) I had a long discussion with David from Garioch Church, around this kind of stuff. We talked about the possibility of a new kind of network- an old theme for me. 5 years ago we tried to start such a network (see here and here for example) but things did not work out for various reasons.

So here is a question to people north of the border who find themselves on the ragged edge of organised church- where do you find your connections, and is it time to try this networking thing again?

Reflections on the census- the end of Christendom…

a church under reconstruction?

So, there have been a number of articles and opinion pieces reflecting on the recent 2011 census data, and what it tells us about the nature of religious belief in the UK. Here are some of the head liners in case you missed them;

• The number identifying themselves as Christians is down 13 percentage points. In 2001, 72% (37.3 million) called themselves Christians. In 2011 that had dropped to 59% (33.2 million).

• Interestingly, Christianity is not down everywhere. Newham, Haringey, Brent, Boston and Lambeth have all shown increases in the Christian population.

• The number identifying themselves as having no religion has increased by 10 percentage points from 15% (7.7 million) in 2001 to 25% (14.1 million) last year.

In response, Humanist Nick Cohen, writing in The Guardian, said this;

The number of people who say they have no religion jumped from 15% in the 2001 census to 25% in 2011. If the remaining 75% were believers, this leap in free-thinking would be significant but not sensational. But those who say they are religious are not faithful to their creeds, or not in any sense that the believers of the past would have recognised. Church attendance is in constant decline. Every year that passes sees congregations become smaller and greyer…

…When millions of people tell the census takers they are “Christians”, therefore, they are muttering the title of a childhood story they only half remember. What is more, their spiritual “leaders” know it. Long before the census figures were in, you could hear the screams that always accompany ideologies and institutions history is leaving behind…

…while everything is changing in British society, nothing is changing in the British establishment. England still has a “national” church – even though in 2010 its average weekly attendance was down to 1,116,100 (or 1.8% of the nation’s population). Twenty-six Church of England bishops are automatically granted seats in the House of Lords to support or oppose any legislation they please. On top of the decaying heap sits Elizabeth II: a grumpy priestess-queen, who in theory at least is the state religion’s “supreme governor”. In the education system, almost one-third of state schools are run by religious authorities (and Michael Gove will ensure that number will rise).

This humanist perspective is not without merit. Much of the institutions of religion in the country are indeed relics of a time when religious power was inseparable from the power of the State. Church and Government were connected by bonds at every level. The Church marked out comings, our joinings and our endings. The shape of the religious calendar became the shape of our working life. The very law of the land was approached through (an often flawed) Biblical interpretation.

But this link between ordinary people and institutional Church has been in decline for years. Perhaps the last vestige of this kind of Christendom in the life of the UK was that people who otherwise had no connection to Church, and no active faith journey, would still describe themselves as ‘Christian’. People did this almost by some kind of inherited instinct. The be Christian was to be decent, British, middle class, well mannered, one of ‘us’.

However,  the rigidity exhibited by some parts of the religious hierarchy is increasingly at odds with the culture that it is part of. There are the totemic issues- homosexuality, gender equality. There is the lack of a critical or analytical voice in a time of consumerist economic meltdown. There is the swing towards ultra conservatism in the Catholic Church, and all the sexual abuse scandals that diminish all organisations of faith.

The time for hand wringing and desperate attempts to preserve what Church used to be is long gone, although there are still people who have a passion for preserving the traditions of our institutions. And perhaps we should be grateful to them as they are a repository for our organisational memories. Without them, we lose our connection to tradition, and all the rich variety of previous experience. But it is not enough for faith to be in a museum cage. It is not enough for faith to be an abstract historical curiosity.

I have been chewing on what this might mean for those of us who still try to follow in the way of Jesus. Here goes;

Lies and Statistics.

It is perfectly possible to understand these figures as a reduction in nominal Christianity. A reduction in people identifying with a label that has no relevance to life. In this sense, perhaps there has been no real change in the last ten years- apart from the words we chose to describe ourselves with.

The word ‘Christian’.

It is however significant that people no longer what to wear this as a badge. It is a devalued word, a word that appears to have gathered to it lots of connotations that people have less use for. Ideas of stuffy right-wing judgementalism. A word that has no relevance in the here and now. It is a word that even I use to describe myself with some discomfort. But a decision to walk in the way of Jesus is not an easy choice- he was very clear about that. It is a decision to make an ever new daily adventure, and this is so much more than wearing a comfortable middle class badge.

Incarnation.

The Church is not the place where God resides in these islands- rather he lives in us. The Hebrew Temple was replaced by the human heart. He took on flesh and dwelt amongst us. In and over and through. Along with us and despite us. In the cracks of everything we are. This is not a numbers game- who cares how big your corporation has become?  This is now to be tested in new ways, in a new context.

Mission.

At some point, probably around the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the Church became an instrument of the state. The mission of the Church was the mission of the State. God was co-opted by the people in power. We then spent Millenia trying to disentangle the mess of this- movements would rise, then they would fall, or become assimilated. But perhaps we are now in new territory- the mission of God can be set free again in the minds of we his followers. It is not to the strong that the Kingdom belongs, but to the week, the poor, the broken.

Finally however, I find myself taking a more sociological perspective. If nominal religion anchored in the State is in decline this may be no bad thing for faith- but I still wonder if it may be a bad thing for the State.

The Church contains us, or used to. Old Emile Durkheim captured this well- he suggested that people need to be part of something bigger- to be integrated and linked and that when this begins to break down the end result is anomie (a lack of social norms) leading to a time when the anchors and moorings that hold us together are gone.  He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life- which to my mind describes British society in 2012 pretty well. (There is a great article discussing some of these ideas here.)

Durkheim thought that religion was one of the key social mechanisms that created these bonding social norms. However, he also thought that these old bastions of society where in decline- that the institutions of faith were dying. However at the same time he also thought that they were being replaced by new forms of sacred passions.

The question is- where are these to be found in our society? It is easy for cynics like me to rail against consumerism, ephemeral celebrity entertainment and post modern fluidity of connection and belief, but the story is more complicated.

There is a groundswell of goodness in British society. Some of is might well have roots in Christian traditions and ideas, but we see a turning towards simple living, small community life, and a rising up against the power of the big banks through the Occupy Movement.

We the followers of Jesus always have to find our own mission, our own Peregrinatio.  Here is my prayer for the journey;

Lord stain me with salt

Brine me with the badge of the deep sea sailor

I have spent too long

On concrete ground.

If hope raises up these tattered sails

Will you send for me

A fair and steady wind?

The ‘Shaping Of Things To Come’ event, reflections 2…

missional

Here is the word of the moment (from Michael Frost);

Excarnation

…defined as the burial practice of removing the flesh and organs of the dead, leaving only the bones. More of this later.

Frost gave a whistle stop tour around what he saw as cultural trends. He suggested that he was less concerned about the process of getting people back to Church, and more about the irrelevance of church within our cultural context; in particular, the fact that we have failed to pose the right questions, or to articulate alternatives.

He used the following analogies;

The Gate Lounge (Airport waiting room)

(An idea pinched from Martin Baumann.) The suggestion is that increasingly we engage with our world as tourists, in a place of constant transition. We live in, and create, sterile artificial environments that we pass through quickly, always on the way to the next non-real, commercially curated experience. This leads to a kind of life where we skim over the surface, living a commodified experience that lacks satisfaction.

It also leads to a disconnection from place, community, belonging.  Frost mentioned the film ‘Up in the air’, which I reviewed previously on this blog here.

Screen culture

We are increasingly a culture whose head is down- always looking at our tiny screens. Life is lived in the abstract, and we develop two selves- a screen self, and a real self.

Frost mentioned the novel ‘The Lost Memory Of Skin’, about a man who is addicted to internet pornography, but has never had real sex.

Dualism

Here the church may have contributed to its own disconnection, as we have presented a polarised perspective on everything- heaven/hell,  earth/heaven, world/church, flesh/spirit. Jesus is presented as living in the soul and waiting in heaven, not incarnate- flesh blood and spit here, right now.

Likewise church has followed the same disembodification as the rest of our culture- we learn through sermon podcasts rather than the process of experiencing and testing truth in community. We create individual worship experiences in auditoriums with a stage at the front and us, eyes closed, seperated from those around us.

Back to the word, ‘excarnate’. We human beings are made to experience the infinite depth of what we inhabit. We are tingling flesh on tingling flesh. Strip away these parts of what we are, and all we become are dry bones.

Frost described a communion service he once attended- a large empty church with the floor covered in black plastic. In the middle of the room was a mountain of stinking, oozing, rotten rubbish- the human kind- every kind of filth. The putrid juices ran out in rivers into the room and the communicants struggled to stand clear, and to cope with the smell.

Then two people in swimming costume entered the room, and walked towards the filth. They waded in, first ankle deep, then up to their waists. From there they led a service of communion.

The imagery is astringent. We follow Jesus- God-who-took-on-flesh, whilst at the same time living a world that increasingly avoids touch.

I am not sure whether you find this analysis of current cultural trends to be exaggerated? Frost is of course an agitator, but I there is something in what he describes that make me sit up and pay attention. Whilst engaging with our culture, seeking to understand and participate within it, we also have a duty to understand the Zeitgeist, and where necessary, to oppose- and perhaps most importantly (in the way of Jesus) to oppose by example.

Frost described how his community (Small boat, big sea) are seeking to do things differently. They have agreed to apply this method, and to hold each other accountable for it. Each week they will;

Bless three people- with words, gift, favour

Eat with three people- sharing their table as an image of Kingdom

Listen deliberately

Learn from the life of Jesus

‘Sent’ consider life as a mission

In this way, we might not exist only in our ‘head’ (excarnate) but encounter God in practice- in the mess of real flesh.

Local discussion forum thingy…

We have had a house group at our house for a number of years- some dear friends, a pot of tea and lots of chatter. However, for some time now I have been thinking that it is time to move on into something new. We have floated the idea of starting a local discussion- probably in a pub.

The are a few reasons for this- groups like ours (no matter how lovely) can simply become too familiar, too safe- and the Lion of Judah is not a tame lion. I just think it is time to step out again a little.

Next, those of us who were part of all the ‘emerging church’ discussions/conversations/debates/slanging matches perhaps became a jaded with the same theological merry go round. Post modernity, post evangelicalism, post charismatic- we all embraced the questions but had no certainty about where the road might be leading- and that was fine.

But there comes a time when a new direction for our theological journey begins to become a little clearer. All those questions start to find some kind of answer, even if incomplete and held lightly.

Of late, there have been some discussions about ‘teaching’ within Aoradh. I was rather shocked at first as I was not that sure I wanted to teach anyone anything. I was happy to learn alongside others as we journeyed together, but the idea that other people should be shaped and moulded by  my (or one of my friend’s) knowledge and wisdom was rather beyond me. At first the whole idea of it seemed a step back towards something that I was glad to leave behind.

But of course, St Paul talked about the gifts given to the body of the church- apostles prophets teachers miracle workers healers helpers organizers those who pray in tongues. I am no longer given to treating the suggestions of St Paul to the people in Ephesus as a blue print for the organisation of ‘church’, but neither am I going to ignore him either!

Having said that, there are a few other positions in St Paul’s list above that still have no certified incumbents. Whilst I hope that we can be respectful of church tradition, I have no real desire to start a journey towards a new clergy. Rather let us use the passion and talent that we can, and encourage the same in others around us. If we have a teacher, let him/her teach.

Or let us just gather to learn together- this still sits much easier with me.

So- if you are in the Dunoon area, do you fancy being part of a discussion group?

My working idea has been to use some of the questions proposed by St Brian of Mclaren in his book ‘A new kind of Chrisitianity';

1. What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?

2. How should the Bible be understood?

3. Is God violent?

4. Who is Jesus and why is he important?

5. What is the Good News?

6. What do we do about the church?

7. Can we find a better way to address the issue of homosexuality?

8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?

9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?

10. How can we translate our quest into action?

I am determined that any of these discussions has to start and end with respect for a diversity of opinion- and even to embrace this, and if we start to fight truth wars than we will not continue!
Up for it?
Here is a taster of St Brian, talking about Questions 9- pluralism;

Crash course in Churchianity…

I heard a story about Church the other day from one of my close friends that made my eyebrows shoot skywards. More on this later…

I have spent too long deconstructing institutional Church in all its glorious contradiction. Initially I did this as someone who had been chewed up by a negative experience of church – burnt out by it all – and then latterly, more from a respectful removed distance. Eventually however, all this deconstructing has to stop and we need to start constructing again, or we are remain caught in some kind of pointless cynical loop.

All things change. The usual human cycle of any project of human organisation always goes something like this; new thing-expansion-slowing down-dissatisfaction-deconstruction-emergence of new ideas-start of new thing. 

Except in Churches, things sometimes seem to go so slowly. It is almost as if the religiosity of these institutions becomes a gate for the flood of change. If the shape of Church is God-ordained, defined by theology, supported by Scripture and managed by the chosen ones then how could it ever need to change?

My answers to this question, thought over long and hard, are as follows;

  • Change will happen, even if you try to ignore it.
  • The institutions of Church are human constructs, not divine templates floated down on angel cushions.
  • Church arises in a particular time, place and culture- it answers the questions of this place, and everything about it is shaped by these requirements.
  • But then the time place and culture have moved on, and there is a danger of disconnection.

Sure, many will suggest that culture may change but not The Truth, but I am afraid I do not agree with this either. What we once held as absolute gospel truth on all sorts of things has shifted- the divine right of Kings, remarriage after divorce, the place of women (even though this is still a work in progress.)

Back to the story;

My friend grew up in a Church in the north of Scotland and she frequently visits her parents there still. The Church they attend has a room at the back, with a glass partition between it and the main auditorium. The sounds of the main Church building are piped in by speakers on the walls, but otherwise the room is a smaller version of the main Church- plain, unadorned, lacking in any distractions such as toys or books.

It is known as ‘The Training Room’- where young people learn how to behave in Church. When to stand and sit, how to keep silent and when to sing, how to dress and to maintain proper decorum.

Initially I was shocked. How far have we come from the Jesus way of putting the kids first (see Matthew 19.)

But is this so very different from what we all have to go through in entering Church? We learn first of all to conform- to how to behave; to what is correct. Later on we may be able to question some of the edges of what we have become, but the pressure to conform, to belong, is too great.

Perhaps this might serve us well in part. We DO have things to learn, and we learn best in our collectives. However, these collectives also need to be learning, changing institutions and this is not an easy thing to achieve. In the worst case scenario the choice we have is to accommodate or take the nuclear option- and leave.

Leaving is no panacea of course, because as individuals or small groups setting out on our own we will start to form our own Training Rooms.

The open question for all of us is; how do we remain open, questioning, teachable, lovers of the way (not sitters on the pew?)

I have some flickerings of an idea as to how we might do this- and it is about being a sent people, not a gathered people. It is about going with love, not staying with doctrinal truth.

Hmmmm.