Why worship should be weird and churches should be small

This morning I read two brilliant blog posts on church. The first one was by Philip Yancey advocating the strengths of small churches over large ones (and making some accurate observations about families along the way) and the second one was by blogger Rachel Held Evans on why the church should stop trying to be ‘cool’ in a bid to attract younger members.

I’ll signpost both articles below so you can read them in full for yourself. My purpose here is just to comment on what struck me most about them both.

Rachel was saying that what younger people (‘Millenials’ those who came of age around 2000) is not points of style: such as hip music, coffee bar atmosphere,  or slick technology, rather they are more interested in authenticity.  They are put off whenever they sense more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following him. Interestingly they are more drawn to ‘sanctuary’ than ‘auditorium’. They are most put off by a church community that is judgemental and exclusive, most attracted by groups who are actually practising the teachings of Jesus (‘Love God and Love one Another’). ” The trick isn’t to make church cool” she writes ” it’s to keep worship weird”.

For someone like me who has been through churches that have reinvented themselves in order to make church ‘seeker sensitive’ (ie easy to understand, cringe free) then the very idea that ‘weird’ might actually have appeal sounds rather surprising. But weird IS good, I can’t put it better than she did so I will quote her here:

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

She is referring the sacraments and rituals – she suggests that we don’t need to repackage them or rebrand them only offer them and explain them ‘in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.’


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As I lead a church that is decidedly ‘uncool’ and possibly even ‘weird’ but definitely friendly and well on the way to being inclusive, I am deeply heartened and encouraged by this information. ( And I had been wondering why all these ‘millenials’ have been coming along…)

The second blog was equally heartening: Philip Yancy on why small churches are better than bigger ones.  In a nutshell he makes the point (backed up by GK Chesterton) that in small communities you have to rub shoulders with people who are different from you whereas in large communities you will gravitate towards those who are similar. ‘Anyone can form a club, or a clique,  but not a community… it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community’.

He then draws an interesting analogy between church and families. Families are not safe, peaceful havens of serenity, they are, like good church communities, places where I am forced into close contact with people I might otherwise avoid.  ‘A family is not a perfect institution but it is simply a place that accepts its members on a single criterion, shared DNA’ . If a family with a huge range of diversity or even deviance can hang on to its unity simplyt because of that single criterion (and let’s face it not all families can) but IF it can it does indeed become a great place for the learning of acceptance, respect, grace and tolerance. Yancy didn’t go on to make the point which seemed to follow on naturally from this (perhaps he felts it was obvious): church is ‘simply a place that accepts its members on a single criterion’: forgiveness. We are all forgiven, none of us is superior to any other. The closer we get to people who are different and challenging, the greater opportunity we will have for grace and forgiveness.

These two blogs can be found at

http://philipyancey.com/small-is-large

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?tid=sm_fb

 

It’s all about the welcome

Yesterday in church we remembered the conversion experience of the apostle Paul. This reflection comes too late for anyone who had to preach yesterday and lacked inspiration.

We speak about a  ‘Damascus Road experience’ or about ‘seeing the light’ to mean a sudden turn around of thinking. A dramatic conversion or change of view. In Paul/Saul’s case this was a change from ‘Jesus is dead and his followers need rounding up and putting in prison or worse’ to ‘Jesus is alive and I am one of his followers’ .

Many artist have painted the scene

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This one by Nicholas-Bernard Lepicie, 1767

But I think that what came immediately after this dramatic vision was as extraordinary, less dramatic but no less supernatural and  possibly even more amazing.

Saul staggers into Damascus blinded by his vision and a disciple named Ananias is sent to him by God. We don’t get to hear about Ananias again but we have a lot to thank him for. Ananias was listening to God and was told by God to go and pray for Saul. Initially Ananias argues politely with the Almighty pointing out Saul’s reputation as a violent persecutor of Christians. God is unimpressed and sends him anyway.

How was Ananias to know that this ‘I’ve been blinded’ routine, wasn’t an act?  A ruse to infiltrate the Christian community? I’d have been more than a bit nervous. In contemporary terms it was a bit like being sent to pray for whatever brand of fundamentalist might be your worst enemy.

So I was very moved yesterday when I read the passage that Ananias greets Paul with the words ‘Brother Saul….’ . Brother? Really? What an incredible welcome.

It one thing to have an astonishing revelation about God and quite another to be given a warm welcome by the local church. It’s so sad, but so often true that the one thing is not always followed by the other.

What if Ananias had not been warmly welcoming? What if he’d been suspicious, cynical or even just indifferently cold?

‘Brother Saul’ two small words that welcomed agueably the most influential Christian writer, thinker and missionary of the early church.

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They probably wouldn’t have shaken hands. Being middle eastern men they would probably have kissed. (And to think that in some Anglican church folks have a problem shaking hands with the person in the pew next to them).

Thankfully not the case in my church. My congregation are a welcoming bunch but this year we have made improving our welcome to newcomers one of three positive goals for this year. We want to address this issue alongside everything we are doing to try to get our building to more accurately reflect this same value of welcome.

Our biggest struggle is with a door. It happens to be the main front door into our church. (We do have another door obviously, but the problem is that the door that does open is not at all obvious). This door was blocked up in 1984 and we are planning, hoping, praying, applying and fund-raising our way towards opening it up and re-ordering our church to better say ‘You are welcome, come on in’.

 

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Our current bricked up door and how I feel about it

Photo from Rugby Observer