Crazy thing called Church

I’m just home after attending a church service in which the speaker talked about the mission of the church and our passion for the church. This week I have engaged with a couple of conversations taking place on social media where the central themes are around the role and nature of church. Last weekend Fusion Y&C UK had our national conference during which we explored and celebrated God’s hand transforming our society on every level – from our own individual lives to our neighbourhoods and up into our nation as a whole; this too, I believe is the expression of church.
The church seems to be a slippery thing that people struggle to lay hold of and define. As I have listened to people this week I can see different models of church in operation behind what they say. Then as we engage in conversation, bringing different perspectives, the struggle ensues as we try to squeeze another insight into our current model.

I don’t pretend to have the answers but here’s what I have observed this week:

When we start from a place of defining church as the organisation that gathers to worship once a week, be it in different places and with different traditions; it’s hard to fit in each new thing we discover from the scriptures that the church ‘should be’. The church should be missional, the church should be equipping the believers, the church should be a place of worship, the church should be transforming society, the church should be a place of encounter with the living God, the church should be relevant, the church should be a place where healing happens, the church should be heaven on earth… and the list goes on! If the church is the agent of new creation in the world, what exactly do we mean when we say church?

My experience has sometimes been, as a member of a congregation, that for me to belong I need to be personally invested in the specific mission and vision of that congregation. There have been times when what God was calling me to coincided with the congregation’s mission – that was good! There have been other times when the two didn’t match – that was lonely. Twice, though, God’s call on my life was nurtured and celebrated, and although it didn’t exactly fit the stated mission of the congregation, it was embraced by them simply because I was part of the family – that was the BEST! I imagine our pastor in those days when asked to share the mission of the church, describing with great love and excitement all the various roles and callings that the different members of his congregation were expressing in the city! Church to him wasn’t a discrete organisation he was leading with a unique mission, church was something organic that was greater than, but made up of, the sum of all the members each with their unique gifts, brokenness and calling. He loved us and he loved what God was doing in, among and through us.

I think we have successfully made the shift away from thinking of church as a building. The problem is, although we now talk about church being the people, we are still referring to an organisation that we expect people to align themselves to; both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. When the organisation’s mission becomes much narrower than living, worshiping, growing and gathering as Christ followers, we end up excluding members of our own body. I am not talking about different styles and traditions, I love that diversity when it is honoured and celebrated, it means that there is a place for everyone. It is one thing to connect to one congregation over another based on personal taste, it’s another thing to have to make that choice based one’s ministry. What if God decides to do a new thing in the congregation? What if he does it through members of the congregation… how will that go? As someone leading a service prayed recently ‘Father, we invite you to our church.’ ….a Freudian slip, and I trust not representative of that person’s theology, but sobering nonetheless!

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Crazy little thing called church

Last Sunday I went to my old church. It was really lovely to be there, to see people i hadn’t seen for up to 8 years when i first went overseas, to meet children of friends for the first time, to see and smell the familiar doughnuts and coffee (i didn’t have a doughnut but i did manage to spill the entire contents of my cup of tea over the serving table!). Church for me is a funny business, I have this love hate relationship with it! By church i mean the thing we do on Sunday mornings and the processes around making it all happen. A good friend of mine asked me about the churches i had been part of over since being at Vineyard and if I had learnt anything about what i appreciate about church, what i look for. As i reflected on the churches i have been part of over the last 8 years spent in 7 cities across 4 countries and continents, i realised a couple of things.

Being part of a church actually matters deeply to me, but discontent and frustration rises often because i crave authentic fellowship but often experience a superficiality on several levels. I know i do best when i exist in other’s hearts and minds and they exist in mine – not just when we are together, but perhaps more so when we are not. I need to be able to be real, and i really want you to be real with me too, its in that place that i can hear Jesus’ voice in yours and i hope you do in mine. I want to inspire and be inspired by God’s faithfulness in the everyday and the extraordinary as we share our eclectic journeys from the last week. But i wonder if for many of us we have grown to expect less from church? I know i do, i resign myself to an experience of social rituals held together by an army of busy beavers doing their best get it all right and try and make space for God’s presence in the process. Sometimes God snaps me out of my apathy by turning up and blessing all these efforts, reminding us all for a moment that there’s more to whatever it is we call church. Often either he doesnt or i dont see it, and i leave disappointed but hungry to be with God and relieved to find him in the quiet of my solitude at home.

So, yeah, its helpful for me to start naming some of this stuff, to better understand what is happening for me, and so to walk in grace and bring the fellowship i yearn for as i settle back in Oxford and find my place in ‘church’ again.