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.