(I suspect this post will be a tad rambling and have more questions than answers – it’s a thinking aloud post, I’ll admit that up front. Maybe the answers are out there and I just haven’t encountered them in my limited experience which would, frankly, be awesome – please leave your thoughts in the comments section, especially if you’re involved in a radically different outworking of church.)
What does your church look like?
If you’re in the West, I can probably take a guess – chairs facing a central point from which the speaker delivers preaching and/or teaching, with space for some form of musical accompaniment roughly in line with this. There’ll be spaces for corporate activity of some sort and probably a kitchen. You might have pews or chairs, you might have a pulpit or a stage, but unless you’re a fresh expression or a cafe church, I’m willing to bet the description above is broadly accurate. Heck, it fits all the churches I’ve been involved in (so I guess this could be my bias coming through, and if it is, forgive me).
My problem is that I’m a traditionalist at heart but I keep having odd thoughts pop into my head, thoughts that don’t go away. I’m happy with sung worship and prayer times and sermons and social action, those things are good and valuable, but…
There’s a design principle which goes “Form follows function” – you figure out what a building is for and you design it around that. Broadly speaking, that’s why churches have roughly similar layouts – an area for a communal gathering that requires distinct areas for someone to speak and music to be played. That gives us halls and chairs. No problem, that makes sense.
But then we keep saying that the church is actually its people and their on-going relationship with God – our buildings are just shelters, convenient meeting places. And that’s true as well, but doesn’t that flip the principle above? When it comes to local churches, discrete groupings of individuals called by God into a particular place, is there an argument to say that function follows form? That one way of figuring out our corporate calling is by looking at the gifts held by the individuals making up the congregation and designing our meeting spaces around those gifts? Yes, a church will have key elements – worship, teaching, prayer, pastoral activities, social action, mission – but there are a hundred and one ways in which each of those can be expressed. One size doesn’t fit all and we shouldn’t expect it to – read 1 Corinthians 12, if all Christians are different, then all communities of Christians will necessarily look different as a result, right? Have key elements in common, definitely, but that’s not the same as homogeneity.
Yeah, yeah, I know, this isn’t the most radical or original ecclesiological thought any more. Smarter people than me have been thinking about this for years. However, we still prioritize certain gifts – preaching, worship leading, evangelism, children’s work – and while those things are hugely important, where does it leave you if God’s put you in a church full of engineers? Or storytellers? Or gardeners, or cooks, or people with additional needs, or if God’s raised up a congregation in a community where there are twenty churches but no library, where spiritual needs are fed but 200 local workers need retraining because a factory’s just closed down?
It’s been said that the voluntary sector in the UK would collapse if all the churches closed overnight – look at all the soup kitchens and youth clubs and coffee mornings that are run by churches, work out the sheer cost and resource that represents. And yet maybe there are even wider visions than that – why shouldn’t a church run a makerspace if it finds itself attended by a group of engineers or enthusiastic geeks following in Bezalel’s legacy? Young entrepreneurs arriving at church because of your youth work? Why not set up a business incubator? You’ve got a vestry and a new sound system; great, but do you also need a sensory room, or a bigger kitchen, or new art or an outdoor gym or a bigger greenhouse? Does it allow us to take all our gifts and use them in the service of Christ, or are we compartmentalising too much, leaving someone on the margins because she can’t play guitar but she’s been knitting scarves for sixty years and now just needs someone to help her get those scarves to the local homeless? We might just be catching up with Facebook and Twitter, but the digital natives on the fringes of our congregations are rolling their eyes because they’ve figured out the next big thing in social media – what do we do with that?
A shed on an allotment can be a church; heck, that’s something Ethiopian Christians might appreciate. A skate park can be a church. Because a church is a group of people who love and follow God with all their quirks and talents and eccentricities. And I’ll admit, sometimes in my darker moments, I’m terrified that God has given the church so many gifts and talents but we often lack the foresight and creativity to use them in the ways he’s asking us. Where two or three are gathered together, God is in their midst, and he’s big enough to have something unique for them to do in that very place. Sometimes what we think of as a ‘radical’, ‘different’ church really isn’t; God’s more creative than we are.
Maybe that’s why so many congregations are worn out – we’re so busy doing what we think God wants us to do, we’re actually missing his true calling and are therefore engaged in an uphill struggle without even realising it.
I guess it boils down to this – does your church look like your congregation or just what you think a church should look like? And does it help you to look more like God, growing visions and empowering mission that looks totally different from what we’re used to but that is still relevant and blessed because God is using and strengthening it?
And am I too comfortable in church or can I ask God to give me a radical, exciting, creative vision of my part in his kingdom?
(After I wrote this, I listened to a sermon by Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church, Ohio. In it, he spoke about how God worked with the things Moses already had – his belongings, history and talents – in other words, focus on what you’ve got, not what you don’t have, because God can and will use it. I think that ties in with what I was trying to get across with this post.)