I’m pretty sanguine about the church. I’ve been through the kinda teenage rebellion, done the revolutionary bit where I fought against the institution. Now at 41 years of age I find myself 16 years in the same local congregation wondering where on earth the time went.
What I’ve learned is that I placed unsustainable demands on the church in my younger years. I wanted the worship to be inspiring and transcendent. I wanted the teaching to lift me out of the chair and drive me out the door with a passion to change the world. I wanted a depth of relationship that was transformative. And I wanted to serve in a fulfilling way. I wanted it all.
Now in middle age I’ve learned that the church can’t do that for me; at least the church as it is constituted and played out on the street corner. And that it’s unreasonable to expect it to.
I’ve written previously on my thinking about the church as the place of exile. The place where I feel a stranger, where the language is foreign and the culture unfamiliar. But also as the place where I am under the Jeremiah injunction, or better, the call of Jeremiah, to ‘seek the welfare of the city to which I am sending you’, the city of exile.
A call to seek the welfare of the place in which I feel estranged.
The other biblical metaphor I reflect on every so often is that of church membership as the cross I must bear. I am no more free to shed my cross that Jesus was his.
Now here’s the nub for me. Last night I was engaged in a workshop with some recent graduates here in Belfast whose matter in hand was finding a church post-University. We had a fascinating 2 hour conversation about how church works in and for us. A young woman, half my age I guess, challenged me that as I was older I had grown comfortable, and had settled for less than I should have.
It was a wonderful exchange, and though I think she’s wrong about me, it has set me off in a number of directions to think about the why? of church. Why have I remained committed to the local expression of the Body when the belonging is so, I don’t know…..exilic?…or cross-like?
At least a part of my conclusion is that I need my membership of the local expression of the body of Christ as the key part of my spiritual formation. Church membership is a spiritual discipline.
Firstly, being a part of this community, with many people I wouldn’t voluntarily choose to be in relationship with, is necessary to teach me that it’s not good for me to always get what I want. Secondly I need all these people because there are dimensions of the love of God which will always be closed to me unless I learn to see them ‘together with all the saints’, as Paul says in Ephesians 3.
Here in Belfast there is such a densely packed smorgasbord of churches to be part of that we have made choosing one just another dimension of our consumer culture. Who has the best worship? Where is the best teaching? When we choose on those bases we will more often than not be disappointed. I need the church for other reasons, which are more to do with the shaping and forming of my character.
At 41 I still get angry and frustrated with the institution. I still feel alienated from its interests and concerns. The language and practice is often foreign. But I’ve learned to moderate my expectations. I’ve learned to see, I think, that these are precisely the ways in which the Body forms me. It is this acceptance of exile, or the bearing of the cross, which is what is formative. Neither the preaching per se, nor the worship, do this in me, it is the voluntary acceptance of the restrictions of liturgy and practice and discipline (contemporary monastic practices perhaps) which do it.
More of this anon