Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Far from being anti-church...

It saddens me, sometimes, when people I like and respect seem to write me - and thousands of others - off as being 'anti-church'. The reason for this epithet is that there's quite a growing movement of Christian believers around the world who do not attend Sunday morning gatherings (or 'services') every week.

I am, currently, one of this number.

To be sure, some of these folk have been badly damaged by organised 'church' hierarchies and rules, and can be quite vehement in their eloquence. Others have eased out more gently, finding that these gatherings do nothing positive for them, and that there is no role for them to have. Others have been turned off by angry sermons or off-key worship leaders or perhaps just by boredom. Not with Jesus - nobody could be bored with Jesus - but by the same-old-same-old style of getting together, week after week.

I read an excellent article just a few days ago: Maybe we should stop encouraging people to get out of their comfort zones. An introvert myself, I found myself nodding after almost every sentence. Church services - even quiet, reflective ones - are by nature extraverted. They involve other people, they require going somewhere other than one's home. They are often quite noisy, and although they are usually full of lovely folk, they are not energising or helpful for most Introverts.

This is not to say that Introverts should always avoid church services. I was a regular attender (at least once a week, sometimes twice) at various congregations over the first forty-five or so years of my life. I still enjoy visiting our UK church when we're in the neighbourhood. And, other than during the summer, I try to get to local services here in Cyprus a couple of times per month. I don't even try during the summer since I know that walking home in the late morning sunshine will guarantee me a migraine for the next two days. And a break can be constructive.

But I am far from anti-church.

Of course it's not just Introverts who find the whole church service thing quite stressful. Churches by their nature tend to be quite sensory - music, talks, banners, hugs... all very well in their place, and nobody likes hugs more than I do, from people I care about. But so much sensory input with little time for reflection and pondering can be draining too, for many of us with iNtuiting preferences. People who are not auditory learners can switch off during talks. Those who are tone deaf or sensitive to noise can find singing and instruments to be painfully loud.

And the less said about most church chairs, the better.

Yet there are times when I would love to feel that I 'belong' once more to a local body of believers.  So, when the weather is cool, I tend to walk to a church service at least a couple of times per month. Sometimes I pray that God will let me know clearly if I should commit to this particular group. I am totally willing to do. Yet, so far, every time I have specifically asked, there has been something equally specific which communicated a resounding 'No' - or at least 'Not now'.

We have our small circles, of course; people in our community with whom we share meals, and discuss issues, and help each other out.  And we are, by default, part of the Body of Christ in our town: the local part of the universal Church consisting of all believers. I'm on the email prayer chain for one local church, and run the website for a different one. We have friends in all four of the local English-speaking congregations. We also have several Christian friends who do not attend church services at all - or more rarely than I do.

What puzzles me is why so many Christians have elevated the Sunday morning gatherings so highly, when the Christian life is clearly so much more than a Sunday morning meeting. Why is listening to a sermon considered more valuable than reading a book? Why is prayer in a group considered more significant than praying on one's own? What is it about singing that evidently draws some people closer to God, yet pushes others away?

Some congregations, to be sure, include many other factors in their meetings. There might be visual displays, quizzes, dance, drama, painting. And let's not forget the all-important coffee-and-biscuits afterwards.

It's all cool. It's all part of life, and the Christian life in particular. There's a time and a place for all those things and more.

But why, when people decide for a season - or a few years, or even a decade or two - that they can worship God more effectively and openly away from a structured (or even unstructured) group meeting, are they considered heretics?

And perhaps the most puzzling question is:

Why do those who love church services seem to feel threatened by those who do not...? 

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