Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Schrodinger's Churchgoer (or 'Why You Haven't Seen Me Around Lately')

I'm not going to church at the moment.  Except I am.  But I'm also not.

What I mean is, I'm not going to the main gatherings on Sunday.  Skating is an hour away, I train for three hours every Sunday between 12.30 and 3.30pm, and although I could just rock up to Late Church in my sweaty skate gear for 4.30 I suspect nobody wants that.  I don't want that!  This is not me quitting church, this is not me becoming an apostate or drifting in my faith, and this is not me breaking up with my community.  They are still my People.

I had to make a decision, service or skating, and if I'm honest in the end it wasn't that hard to make, for the reasons below.  What I'm doing now is a bit of an experiment, it's not a permanent arrangement, and I'm certainly not recommending it for everyone, but this whole thing has made me think a lot about what Sunday gatherings provide us with, and what we think church actually is.  There are things I miss and want to keep, and things I don't mind letting go.

What I've been thinking about...

1. Best behaviour

When it first occurred to me that I could just not go to Sunday gatherings, there was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction.  Not go?! You can't just Not Go!!  I'm a pretty casual person, but there's a part of me that thinks you just go to a church service on Sundays because you should, because you ought to, because it's what's done.  I see myself as a bit of an Enid Blyton child, curious and adventurous but also fundamentally Well-Behaved (except Enid Blyton's kid characters never had to resolve any tensions between the two!)  I used to feel guilty at the idea of missing even a single service, until I realised that God does not keep a register.  Over the last few years I've been deciding that following the crowd because it's the crowd is never a good reason to do anything.

A church service is not a school.  No one is keeping attendance, and just going out of guilt is rarely a good thing. The basic assumption here is that if you don't go to church to 'visit God' you're not going to see him until next week.  This is clearly wrong because if God is everywhere (which he necessarily is) you could visit him anywhere you wanted.  Driving to work?  Visit God.  On the loo?  Visit God.  Filling in your tax return?  Visit God.  It's so mind-numbingly simple, and yet I save all my visiting for a few hours once a weekend.  How strange.

2.  Sacred vs Secular

There's also this misnomer some of us have that suggests there is a difference between what is secular (everyday, humdrum, boring, practical) and what is sacred (religious, spiritual, special, extraordinary) but really that's codswallop. If it's in God that we live and move and have our being, then something like eating breakfast can be done in God's presence. Brother Andrew famously made washing the dishes into his main prayer times. As Charles Spurgeon put it:
 To a man who lives unto God nothing is secular, everything is sacred. He puts on his workday garment and it is a vestment to him. He sits down to his meal and it is a sacrament. He goes forth to his labor, and therein exercises the office of the priesthood. 
I don't know why, but I never thought about this extending to sport.  Sport, or games, or hobbies, seem somehow frivolous and unimportant, but they're also part of how we express the people that we have been made to be, and that in itself can be a kind of worship.  As the runner Eric Liddell famously said "God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. "  Maybe Liddell's not the best example as he did refuse to race on a Sunday due to his beliefs about a day of rest (which I share. My day of rest is currently Tuesday!)  I love this sport, and I want to progress in it, at least for a while.  And I think maybe that's ok.

3. I am the church

I bumped into someone in our church building when I popped in to return a book.  She asked me what was up, I explained, and she responded "I don't think I could stop going to church."
I haven't stopped going to church.  We're told very clearly that we are the church, we are the body of Christ, so if I seem a little distant right now it's not that I've amputated myself, but perhaps that I am currently a hand that's extended away from the main body but still attached to the arm.  Out on a limb, if you like.  Wherever I go, church comes with me.

I was considering which was better, to spend my Sunday with a group of fantastic people who already have plenty of God in their lives, or to go and hang out with a bunch of awesome skater ladies.  It's quite a contrast, even on the surface.  The unfortunate stereotype of a Christian is conservative about politics and gender roles, with a track record of intolerance towards the LGBT community, while derby girls tend to have a strong independent streak, not conform to gender expectations (we knock each other down for fun!) and have a high number of LGBT women in the sport generally.  There are friendships to be made here, loads of morale, and a melting pot of women.  We have students and mothers and singles, tall girls and small girls, accountants and nurses and shoe designers and shop workers, a variety of beliefs and backgrounds.  (Incidentally, if any of you are reading this, I have no plans to try and 'convert' you.  Even if it wasn't both rude and impossible, I don't even know how one would go about such a thing without some pretty advanced hypnosis training.)
As long as the shift isn't affecting my relationship with God negatively, it seems fairly obvious where I ought to be.

What I'm Keeping

1. Structured God-time

 I usually explain this to people like a date night.  "So I've met this person and they're amazing and I'd like to spend some quality time with them and get to know them better.  I'm thinking maybe a few hours every week.  You want to come too?  Are we all free ooooon... Sunday? Fantastic." and that's church.  Sunday is no longer free for me at the moment, but having regular time set aside somewhere to talk to and think about God is obviously really important, otherwise you lose touch and drift apart like any relationship.  This is a non-negotiable.  The risk is laziness, which I am prone to, so it's good to keep other people involved.  One way I'm doing this is by joining a cluster (see below).

2. Teaching.  

The nice thing about God being infinite is that there's always more stuff to learn (incidentally it's also the worst thing about it because there's always more stuff to learn).  We want to understand God and ourselves better, so that we can negotiate our lives in the best way possible and have the best effect on those around us.  No longer having the standard half hour talk to listen to each week (although I can get them on podcast) has made me personally responsible for which area I develop in next.  I can't just roll up, listen to what someone else has decided to tell me about and think 'job done'.  Where is my spiritual input coming from now?  What am I thinking about? What events or locations am I going to?  My worship time is no longer laid on either, so do I still sing or listen to worship music?  What other options are there?  I've found I've been reading a lot more.  I don't often get to the church library but I always have a backlog of books at home, and a half hour wait in the car every Monday to read them in.

3.  Community.  

It's good to be reminded that you're part of something bigger than just you praying in your bedroom alone.  After church everyone hangs out and has coffee, we chat and catch up, inevitably some event planning and admin gets done too.  But not all Christians in history have had what we'd recognise as a church.  Some of them made a point of isolating themselves to give God more of their time, and all through the Bible and wider history you have people whose relationships with God were deeply private partly because they had to be - there weren't always other people around!  Maybe there'd be a little hamlet, or a few families that met to share communion and pray at key times of the week, season, or year.  It has it's own challenges, but it has been done successfully before.

I subscribe to the 'modern village' idea.  In our technologised globalised world it's possible to be in contact with hundreds of people from our phone or computer, but really the human brain can only manage deep relationships with roughly the same amount of people as you'd find in a small village.  Our church has over 200 people in it...  I'm not close friends with most of them.  We know each other on sight, know a little about each other's situations, we'll say hi and be friendly.  But to have deep relationships with all of them would be impossible!!  They're my people, my tribe, and if I can help one of them out I'll do my best, but ultimately I'm after quality, not quantity in my relationships.

Not missing

Oh yes, First World problems.  I'm aware :)

1. The singing.  

I love singing, but there is a certain schedule in modern churches that's fairly predictable.  We sing for about 30 minutes, listen to a talk for about 30 minutes, make some kind of response to the talk via personal reflection or an opportunity to pray and share, and then have coffee and chat... for about 30 minutes.  There's nothing particularly wrong with the formula but recently I've been finding that I'm not so fussed about the songs (I often find it too loud, plus I'm the self-appointed Captain of the Theological Lyric Police, so I'm hard to please at the best of times.  I won't sing something I'm not 100% on board with).  

I'm also not that fussed about the talk, not because the talk is bad but because I've been feeling the need to do something.  Part of the reason I didn't go to our church's annual weekend away this year was because I couldn't stand the idea of being talked at for hours at a time.  This is not a comment on the quality of the talks, but simply where I'm at just now.  I don't want to talk, I want to act!  Can we sing for 30 minutes and then go feed the homeless for 30 minutes?  Or sit in on a local council meeting?  Or pray intensely into the conflict in Syria, or the racial unrest in France, or the upcoming British elections, or the ongoing awfulness in the Congo?  Can we all bring one can of food every week for the Loughborough Food Bank?  A tin of carrots costs 30p.  There's up to 100 of us at every gathering.  Can that be our weekly worship too?  Screw my personal development, let's go do something useful for someone else!  For about 30 minutes, obviously :)

A short while ago of someone in my church sadly suffered a loss it would be disrespectful to describe on this blog, and while we aren't close I was able to join a dinner rota cooking their evening meals for a few weeks - just one less thing for them to worry about at such a difficult time.  There'd been a similar loss in my family too, so although there's only so much you can say at times like that, I was able to at least tell them that they weren't alone in that experience.  Dropping off that food felt more like church than a service sometimes does.

2. Not being missed.  

One very interesting thing that has happened since I stopped going to Sunday service is that no one has apparently noticed.  I was a little offended by this at first.  At the church's Christmas Party (which I went to because see 'Community') someone came to talk to me and outright said "I'd been missing you!  I wondered where you'd gone!"  My first thought was 'Well why didn't you come find me then?'  She has my phone number, knows my address, is a Facebook friend.  A single text would have been enough to check I was ok.

I found a niche at this party as someone had bought a couple of friends along too and, being strangers and in a group, no one was really approaching them.  It's kind of understandable - people came to spend time with their friends - but I've seen this happen to new people in churches before. We're so busy catching up over coffee that we forget that even in church there's some bravery and reaching out required.

The onus has been on me, the person not going to services, to keep up my friendships with churchgoers, as almost none of them have actively come looking for me.  Fortunately I'd already decided to be intentional about that part of it, and it's actually been going really well.  I've invited more people round for dinner in the past few months than I have in the past five years, and I'm loving it!  Living in a shared house and not being much beyond competent as a chef I always felt awkward about having people over, but I've tried to have someone round at least once a fortnight.  I've still got a few
friends to hit up and then I guess I'll cycle round them all again.

The best part of it has been the conversations.  Post-church coffee chats are fun but having that one-on-one time with people has let us share a lot more deeply than normal.  I'm finding so much diversity between my friends.  One of them is a lot funnier than I remember!  Others take more effort from me because they don't really do small talk. Try to talk about the weather and it's a little clunky, but as soon as we hit a deeper topic (war, family dynamics, how our childhoods affect who we become, the political system of the UK) the conversation becomes challenging and fascinating.  Having the time to dig through the pleasantries and figure out how best to relate to them really helps.  And none of them have complained about my cooking!

My solution

To make sure I keep all these good things in my life, I've joined a midweek group (nicknamed a 'cluster').  I get along once a week, sometimes once a fortnight, and we follow along loosely with whatever the main church's topic is.
This has been a real master stroke for me.  I was prompted to get on with joining one after Christmas, when I was recovering from a patch of dodgy mental health, and really it's the best thing I could have done.  The first few times I went along, I was still a bit mopey and hurty and not very fun, but this little group of ten women kicked into gear and made sure to have an eye on me for the next few weeks.  I didn't even have to ask them, it just happened.  One or two of them invited me for chats or drinks, or checked in on me by text in an extremely casual manner.  I suspect some of them prayed for me as well.  It was just a few occasions but that was enough to settle me and make me feel part of the group while I was getting better.

Clusters are deliberately small - even when we're all present there's only a dozen of us.  If they get too big they divide like cells to form two new groups - and the smallness is it's strength.  The house-church was the original model of believers meeting, and it works well because of the personalisation you can bring to it.  Everyone can get to know everyone else relatively well within a short space of time, everyone has the time and safety to share more intimately if they need to, support can be organised at the drop of a hat.  When one person spoke about some medical difficulties in their family we all expressed our sympathy and then someone immediately asked 'What can we do to help you?"  There's a focus that is harder to manage in a larger group.

Oddly, I find that large gatherings are good if I want to worship alone - lost in the crowd (particularly if the volume of the music drowns out the singing of the people!)  But small ones are the ones that make me feel known.

So I haven't stopped church, I've just changed formats of church.  For now at least, I'm both in it and not in it.  Schrodinger's churchgoer, but not Schrodinger's Christian.

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