We like to distance myself from painful or humiliating emotions; it’s much less painful to talk about the abstraction of “Church” and “churches” than to talk about ourselves. But I don’t want to dodge into abstraction in this conference. So, to avoid that, when I speak of Church, I’ll be replacing it in my mind with the words “church people”. It is our collision with Kingdom we’re exploring. Let’s own it.
My intention is to explore what we’re up to; to look at what we’re doing, (consciously and unconsciously), to make the collision happen. If we recognise it, we might be able to stop. I don’t detail how we should stop. But I believe that stopping is all we need to do.
What I say at this United Reformed Church conference obviously applies to us – but not only to us; I believe that all British denominations have a propensity to collide with Kingdom. However critical I am, ( and I am,) I am talking here about most churches, most of the time; not all churches, all of the time. In doing so, I make no distinction between National Church people and local church people. We behave precisely the same.
I also realise that there are those who find it difficult to accept that their church (local or national) is in collision. This paper, however, does not seek to persuade. I write for those who already see aspects of the car-crash.
Lastly: we won’t avert the fatal smash by being clever; cleverness is not a Kingdom trait. Honesty is. So, let’s remember that we’re in collision because Kingdom is non-negotiable. Kingdom moves in one direction; towards Love.
It shall not move over. We must make way.
What do church people see happening?
Jesus talked about the Kingdom in two ways, Kingdom now and Kingdom not yet; those moments now – and that blessed epoch in time to come – when relationships with each other, with our world, and with God, become calm, sound, creative and loving. It will not happen without us. Jesus made that clear: we have our part to play.
And we’re all here, I imagine, because we recognise a truth in the title of this conference: Church and Kingdom are colliding, in ways we seem unable, or unwilling, to stop. We’re smashing, at some speed, against Kingdom; the state of being which Jesus yearned for – and preached towards – the very thing God wants for us.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of how church people routinely describe the symptoms of that collision:
• church isn’t like it was
• few children attend
• congregations are shrinking in size, hope and confidence
• funds and investments, both local and central, are diminishing
• the Media frequently takes a poke at the value of organised religion
• non-church-goers perceive church as “out-of-touch” and “irrelevant”
• Christianity is “misunderstood” and ignored by society, local government, schools etc
• knowledge of Bible stories is diminishing
• significance of Jesus’ story/meaning can’t be taken for granted when preaching
• it’s difficult to give non-usual people authentic welcome
• we seem a bit out of touch with wider society
• few “new” people come through the doors
• fewer still stay
I point out that growing churches rarely experience a sense of collision; even though they may be colliding. This is because we often attribute church-growth – especially if it’s our church – to the approval and co-operation of the Spirit. And when Church is shrinking, (and perceived truly or falsely to be failing), we equate that decline with withdrawal of the Spirit.
Let’s not do that. The assumption doesn’t hold water. Christendom’s global boom seldom kept company with Kingdom; its two-millennium authoritarian structures, practises and traditions often ran diametrically counter-Kingdom. (Imposed enculturation of invaded territories and Slavery to mention just two). While Church or churches are stable or growing, only the faithful notice collisions with Kingdom – and only the brave speak out.
Jesus noticed such collisions – and dared mention them.
He noticed the disparity between the love of God and the ossified stability of the Pharasaic behaviours, ethos and practise of His day. He saw that the exclusive “do’s and don’ts” of orthodox observance, the obsession with contamination, the orthodoxies, rules and regulations were no longer fit for purpose. He recognised that Love and self-absorption are incompatible – and He blew the whistle. He did not value stability above Love.
Neither should we.
A few decades later, Paul managed, with astonishing acuity, (especially in the context of lively growth), to notice the collisions of the early church communities and to help them – in various extremely human situations – to weather their growing-pains and to grow straight. He did not value stability above diversity. Neither should we.
What do “outsiders” see happening?
Since we Church people live in the World – or try to – let’s look at how non-church-goers seem to see us – and our collision:
• quaint, insular and old fashioned behaviour
• archaic attitudes towards women
• prescriptive about sex and sexuality
• believe difficult things which we can’t fully explain
• still think we own Christmas and Easter
• exclude homosexuals,
• regularly insult the gay community in the Media
• behave oddly, and shyly, when welcoming people unlike ourselves
• hush up scandals – (even to the extent of such systemic disgraces as the physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual abuse of children – and the Magdalene laundries)
• pronounce only on selected injustices
• routinely bicker with other Christian groups about stuff
• don’t do what it says on the tin
• don’t look as if we’re following Jesus
This second list is important. However damning this “outsiders” list feels, it’s more helpful than ours. That’s partly, because it shows that the World still cares about us enough to comment; and partly because we cannot see the wood for the trees. Our list is, (predominantly), a catalogue of aspects of church which we have lost and which we are missing. It gets us nowhere. It seems to be about what is happening to us. Whereas, their list shows, (albeit with stereotyping and condemnation), what we’re doing.
There is something that humans do, (church people no less), to protect ourselves: we ignore really painful facts and really frightening situations by denying them; literally by pretending they aren’t happening – or that they can be controlled. Nowadays it’s called “being in denial’.
And because it’s a bit of a trendy phrase like “getting in touch with your anger” or “setting boundaries”, we can sneer at it as being clichéd self-help-speak. Let’s not do that… These phrases give us handles to concepts which we didn’t have a few decades ago. When we sneer at them, we are sneering at tools which may help us explore processes we need to address – even if we hate doing it. Let’s look at two types of denial:
Denial Type-1: Ignoring That Things Are As They Are
These are some routine ways church people ignore Truth we are supposed to uphold:
• prioritise spending money on buildings over spending money on people
• pronounce, (falsely), on our buildings that “all are welcome”
• allow influential people in church to prevent right being done
• give some groups of people more voice than others
• expect “new” people to know how Church works
• despise/condemn normal “outside” behaviours (phoning, texting, swearing)
• offer “spiritual/emotional” support; but seldom financial help
• receive gay, differently-coloured, disabled, unwell, homeless people, etc. weirdly
• withdraw warmth from some people when we “find out” about them
• seldom identify and address racism, sexism, ageism, bullying
• perceive noisy or non-usual people ( including children) as problematic
• don’t get angry; don’t show we’re hurt; don’t confront; so can’t forgive
• conflate the living of church-life with living Christian life
Why these sins of omission and commission?
Well, I think we do what we ought not, and don’t do what we ought, because we have been living fearfully, trusting our own judgement more than we have been trusting Christ.
And we fear so many things:
• moving from or changing our buildings
• spending our money unselfishly
• letting in “new” people whom we don’t want to understand
• disrupting the flow of our services
• examining the difference between beliefs and habit
We truly believe that confronting the disparity between the huge dimensions of Christ’s free-thinking and our cramped wishes for stasis, will break Church….
Denial Type-2: Betrayal
And this is another kind of denial that we are engaged in.
In the Oxford Dictionary you will find this older definition. It goes like this:
Denial: The disavowal of a person as one’s leader. It’s what Peter did to stay safe, isn’t it? He denied Christ. He disavowed his Leader; and in disavowing him, betrayed Him.
We are doing the same. In our ongoing efforts to keep church stable for ourselves, we have routinely disavowed Christ. We have let our love of our human churches usurp our love of Christ. We follow self-protective, defensive practises so very faithfully. We preserve our squeamishness so devotedly. The World has noticed this; that we hold on to our old ways as if they were Christ…
In all of this we fail to trust the words of Jesus, his mode of life, His death, or His life after death. We fail to trust that he is agency in all churches, even agency which terrifies us. So, without trust, we aim for grace and redemption through our own efforts. We aim for salvation whilst retaining Self.
We aim for resurrection without death.
I mentioned earlier that I believe we often conflate in our minds the living of church-life with living of Christian life. We have slid into a form of unwitting idolatry by confusing, and replacing Christian tenets with church tenets. We fear that church decline is a sign of a decline in the spirit’s presence and in Christ’s power; actually it signifies our shift in priority. We gasp at all this decay and dysfunction and wonder where Christ is…
Well He’s in it obviously.
Our Denial of Christ
Why does it not occur to us that Christ is in the breaking of our Church and churches? Why don’t we see that Christ is doing the breaking because it’s needful (and characteristic) that He should?
We have a leader who despises hypocrisy, who upsets money-tables, who associates with contaminated, marginalised people, who blows the doors off prisons*, and who conquers death. We refer to Christ as being “counter-cultural”, but He is counter church culture too.
In all this stasis, if we have ears to hear, He is blowing the whistle.
Why would Christ not break Church and churches which have become self-seeking exclusive, pseudo-faithful Sunday-morning common-rooms?
Why would he preserve an ossified remnant, so hemmed about by irrelevant do’s and don’ts that it is no longer fit for purpose?
Why save institutions so self-absorbed that they persistently collide with Kingdom?
Christ doesn’t break people; but if we know Him at all, we know that He joyfully destroys notions, nostalgia and nonsense. He is breaking our Church and churches because we’re no longer recognisably HIS. He is too big, too unorthodox, too clear, and too fair to let our habits and behaviours go on in His name. As we persist in nonsense Christ will speak, and work, through other souls who accept things His way and who will work His purpose out; people who are not bowed down by habit, and who do not bow down to habit.
Here I make, instead of an observation, a reflection: I believe and trust that all human existence (inside and outside Christianity) has within it a holy pattern of dissonance, death and resurrection. It is a pattern embedded into every aspect of human thought, emotion and spirituality. It is how we humans grow, individually and in community. In this eternal pattern is the move from false self-certainty, through self-doubt and despair, into a truth which can be depended on. But to go through these lesser resurrections we need to be humbled for a season.
Church and churches, at their very best are nothing more – and nothing less – than people using all their hearts and all their souls and all their minds and all their strength, (and, by implication, their funds); not to be comfy. Not to survive. But to Love.
In many ways church people are denying this – and the cock is crowing…
Written for the When Church and Kingdom Collide Conference – 2014