Sunday, February 02, 2014

Of the Church, but not in the Church...?

For the first forty-five years of my life I went to a church service every Sunday without really questioning it. Sometimes I went to two services. Okay, so there were odd occasions when it wasn't possible: if I were sick, for instance, or if we were travelling on a Sunday. But basically if we moved, or even went away on holiday, the question was not, 'Shall we go to church on Sunday?' but 'Which church shall we go to?'

I suppose at some point during my childhood I realised that not everybody belonged to a church, but I don't recall what I thought about it. Church - or, more importantly God - was part of my life. I knew that each local expression of church was part of the worldwide Body of Christ - or the Church Universal - and on the whole I quite liked it. Even if I did sometimes find it all a bit pointless. Not God, but the church service bit.

Then 2006 rolled around. Lots of people around the world, it seemed, were starting to question the validity of local church congregations. Or, at least, questioning their necessity. I wrote a post about this - What is Church anyway? - after we had been reading on the topic and discussing it with friends. My husband had moved from the church we had been attending for some years (for a variety of reasons) and at the time was attending a more charismatic one. I wasn't comfortable with it, and didn't want to give up the place where I felt at home. One of our sons had left home by then, the other attended the local Anglican congregation. So three of us attended three different services on a Sunday.

It didn't seem like a problem. Sometimes my husband didn't go at all - he worked far too many hours during the week, in a Christian organisation, and needed to sleep on Sundays. Church services did not recharge or energise him; they made him feel as if Sunday mornings were the lowest spot of the week. Eventually he decided not to go at all (other than a few special services), due to some specific doctrinal issues where he disagreed, and which were considered essential for membership. He wanted to stay in fellowship - and friendship - with the leaders, and was concerned that if he stayed, listening to talks which he disagreed with (if he didn't fall asleep) then he might end up with conflict.

I totally understood. We both have the "NF" (Idealist) temperament, so harmony in relationships is essential to us. Friendship is - and always will be - far more important than doctrinal agreement.  I've written about this before - about Church and temperament, and about how neither of us is anti-church. And gradually, I also stopped going to services every Sunday.

However, I didn't want to give up entirely. I do quite like having a focus on Sunday mornings, at least some of the time. I quite like a lot of hymns and Christian songs, and I like keeping in touch with people I care about. For a while I would go perhaps once a month to the local Anglican church, and once a month to the local non-denominational community church - the one we belonged to for many years when we first moved here. At least, once a month was my aim. Sometimes other things got in the way, and during the Summer it was simply too hot for me to walk home in the heat of the Cyprus sun. I tried it once, I think in mid-June, and spent the rest of the day - and the following day - debilitated by migraine.

And so, I started this post some months ago, thinking about the phrase Christians often quote, that we should be 'in the world but not of the world'. I've heard talks on this, mostly stating the obvious: we are not to avoid people or situations outside Christian circles - we may have 'secular' jobs, or neighbours, or even family. We are part of the environment and society around us, and yet at the same time we have another 'world', that of God's Kingdom.

The actual words are not stated in the Bible exactly like that: they are paraphrased, or perhaps summed up from John 15: 19  where Jesus said that he had chosen the disciples 'out of the world'. By implication, Christians have generally seen this as applying to the entire Body of Christ. The idea of being 'worldly' had implications of materialism, or loving the world more than God, caring too much about the approval of other people.

However, the phrase is regularly used, and I started thinking about the worldwide church, which I am a part of. And it struck me that I could reverse the phrase: to be 'of the church, but not in the church'. I feel that a local body of believers should be able to embrace those who are undoubtedly part of God's kingdom, even if they do not attend Sunday morning services.

But life  - to use another oft-stated Christian cliché - has its seasons. I'm seeing these increasingly as referring to repeating cycles, like the traditional seasons of the year.  I would prefer another word for longer-term roles: we don't have a 'season' of childhood or hands-on motherhood - those are periods of life with a beginning and an end. However, we do, perhaps, have seasons when we love to gather on Sunday mornings, and seasons when we really don't.

I've just started reading a book by Brian McLaren called Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words, which talks about seasons in the Christian life where things seem simple, complex, confusing, or in harmony. I haven't read very far yet, but it makes a lot of sense. As we progress through life, and faith, some things seem very straightforward at first, then as we learn more, we realised they are extremely complex. We start to grapple, perhaps, with contradictions, or confusions; we discover that different people have radically different answers to questions - it's all quite perplexing. And gradually we find a sense of harmony, of peace, as we come to terms with it.

It was useful to see this in terms of local church commitment. It was so easy as a child, then it became more complicated as I realised how many different styles of church service there were. I became perplexed - should we stay with this one, or move to that one? We made the decision eventually, and peace reigned for a while. Life was simple again, until further complexities arose....

And so the seasons come around, varying in lengths and intensities. I've been perplexed about the whole question of church attendance for some years now, never giving up entirely but unwilling to commit to any of the local congregations fully. I am still very dubious about the idea of official 'membership', which implies a rejection of other local expressions of God's Kingdom on earth. But I can see myself gradually being drawn back to the congregation I was once a regular part of: most of the people have changed, the style has become more lively, more charismatic. It's hard for me to worship God through song - Gifts of Affirmation are not one of my love languages, But perhaps there's something important for me to learn.

I don't think I will ever enjoy sermons, or understand why they are necessary; they rarely say anything much, and I often find my mind drifting away, even though I don't actually fall asleep. But many in the church consider them important, even the focus of the meeting. They are unlikely to go away, but at least they are briefer than they used to be. And less noisy. When a preacher shouts, I switch off entirely and feel very stressed. But when they talk about God's love, with perhaps an anecdote or story, that's okay. I guess someone in the congregation needs to hear that message on that particular day.

I've heard from time to time that for each person God will have a 'gem', or perhaps a 'golden thread' in each service - the line of a song to give us goose pimples, or an encouragement from the front, or even something new to think about. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I always find it - or even that I mostly find one. But if I decide to attend church services regularly again - whether every week or every other week - I shall make the effort to watch out for the golden thread.

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

I suppose a lot depends on ecclesiology, one's understanding of what the church is.