Following on from my last post which centred on one, very skewed view of Church: I wanted to think about Church… and church…
The title quote, by the way, is Groucho Marx.
Many people who don’t go to church, imagine that going to church or being part of a church is a choice, like a hobby, to belong to some kind of Christian club. I know this is so, they’ve often told me.
I think in their minds, ‘church’ is a place where like-minded people, with a rather tedious hobby, and a need for approval, meet to pat one another on the back and tell one another ‘everything is gonna be fine’, there’s coffee, and singing, and sometimes special events- which are a little bit traditional, but not quite ‘ethnic’ enough to appeal to sensationalists. …It may even be, that amongst a regular congregation, there are also people who feel it is a club like the one described above -in fact, these people may well be the first to complain vociferously when the Gospel preached makes them feel uncomfortable, or when the inclusivity of God’s love is described in a way that takes away their self-satisfaction.
But that is not what church is supposed to be, and not what it is about, and generally, not what keeps people going along each week.
I have always gone to church, and I have never really looked forward to it much… it means getting up early rather than sleeping in late; it means sitting on uncomfortable seats or pews, often somewhere cold; singing songs one may or may not know, to accompaniment that varies from tape-recorded backing track, to idiosyncratic organist; it means participating in ritual activity with a variety of people who sometimes don’t know you and sometimes don’t like you, and when you’re young, it means behaving yourself for longer even than in a school lesson.
But whilst all the above is true, to varying degrees, none of those things are the reason that I kept, and keep going to church. I go to church, because the Bible is read, and the Gospel proclaimed, and in amongst the teaching that follows, God’s Holy Spirit teaches people there something they need to know… so that all the people, regardless of their apparent life differences, can experience the same service and learn to know God better, and serve him better in their lives. I go to church, because there prayers are said, and long before I realised their importance, I began to be changed, transformed, and to see others transformed, through prayer, by the activity of God. I go to church because Christ died for me -he died…and it is incredibly churlish to suggest that one believes this and yet cannot be bothered to give an hour or so in thanks and service to him once a week!
And I find in church, that despite the differences: the inadequacies and disappointments of the service- less awesome, less shiny, less dramatic and less beautiful than one might desire; still something awesome happens, something quietly dramatic, something with a hint of shine and beauty that is almost more tantalising than obvious, outright beauty… Something that unites a group of people in an experience at which God is somehow attendant, somehow present…
I do love people, and when the much-used cry goes up ‘the church is the people, not the building’… I do agree, BUT on condition that one understands the church IS the people, but it is only the PEOPLE GATHERED (ekklesia), in a place, in the Lord’s name… and that makes any place potentially ‘church’. And it matters that people continue to gather, that, in this country they are fortunate enough to be permitted to gather, without fear of arrest… (and yet, they would not be allowed to just gather openly wherever the spirit took them… without preparing to face the risk of persecution once again). In England, the buildings of the Church offer a territory, a mutual meeting place outside of personal space, and semi-public, sheltering the gathered people so that they can safely worship God and learn about his transforming Word…
But this is not so everywhere, in Iran, Iraq and Egypt, even in the last few weeks, Christian churches have been bombed, killing people who gathered in Christ’s name… people who did not gather as part of a hobby, or a ‘club’, who did not just gather for the coffee, or the singing, or even the support of like-minded fellows… but people who gathered out of obedience for God, in the service and worship of Christ, called in the Spirit to be transformed and also to be light… strange and incomprehensible and often weak, but true light… to the world.