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Not going to church

March 8, 2014

I think I’ve seen 4 articles this week about why it is important to go to institutional organised church every week.

I’m not to sure why smacking people about the ears on this is suddenly trending. I am tempted to point the finger at a single article on an overly inflatedly influential north american collective of reformation-enthusiast bloggers as setting the bar and the others as copy cats, but perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps, it is a move of the Spirit in a completely spontaneous way. I don’t want to be naive about the real possibility of either of these explanations.

I’ve done this weekly church thing my entire life. For the first 23 years and then in other patches since I went at least twice on a Sunday. At one period, when I worked for the church, I went to three sunday services. When I was pregnant with my first son, I remember every week for months stopping on the western ring road to throw up on the way to church – but still kept going. I was in church 6 days after my son was born, c-section. So I’ve been there. I don’t think I could be called a slacker. And I don’t think I could be called ‘soft’ on the gospel either. Most conservative evangelicals find me too passionate about the power of the gospel for their tastes.

But frankly…I’m thinking about not going tomorrow in solidarity with the many people for whom, to go into one of these gatherings would be impossibly damaging. I know many people like this. And they too, are not slackers. They have been deeply hurt and impossibly compromised by painful abuse within churches. Men and women of deep conviction, sincere faith and strong conscience, whom the church has betrayed. This will not be healed by a posture of institutional compulsory conformity.

ImageOne of the articles I read dismissed people pursuing ‘incarnational’ faith practices with a derisive

“I know we are the church and don’t go to church (blah, blah, blah)”

How disrespectful to those who live lives of deeply integrated incarnational discipleship who make spaces of gathering for prayer and opening the bible with others regularly and missionally in their week more than once, but in many fluid and open ways, in order to encourage and goodnews others.

If there is a problem with church attendance or a ‘scandal of the semi-churched’ as one article put it, it is the failure of churches to be integrated, intergenerational, participative and authentic.

You tell us it’s important to gather together, and then you act like we aren’t there, that we don’t have minds, or hearts or voices or lives or spirits to be present and contribute. You tell us it’s important to gather, that we need community, and then seat us in straight lines facing away from each other. The architecture, technologies and culture through which power is manifest is not something to be naive about.

And then, there are all the children who are taken to church, only to be evicted part the way through, or even worse, not even allowed in the door, but ushered into a separate space, where they are treated like students, or consumers of entertainment, or a bit of both mixed together. We have a nerve telling those children they ‘should be in church’, when the opposite message is enacted week by week.

Until the church is seriously able to gather as its 100% whole-self, those who want 100% attendance will have a hard time sounding convincing. It appears that you don’t want 100% attendence. You want the people you value to come everyweek. That is a completely different scenario.

There is also, now long gone,  the generation of children who have grown through that experience, of being rejected each week by the church, who, now given time and wheels and independence of their own, simply live what they have learned – that church isn’t a place for them. They will come to playgroup, they will send their children to theatre group – but unless you are able to configure those spaces as ‘church’, really, genuinely – which of course can be done – you likely won’t see them back in church. The future of engaging with this generation will depend on responding to the call to be sent – to take church out of sunday, and into all our gathering spaces. In order to re-imagine places like Theatre-group or Play-group or Pilates or Greening the Parks as ‘church’, and be truly and unreservedly sent as church in them,  we will need to begin to do something very different in the space we currently call ‘church’. We will need to let go of the romanticised image of pews and pulpit, passive congregation and passionate preacher which are by no means the hallmarks of authentic biblical faith community. We will need to revise our practices of who speaks, and how much, radically re-apportioning power and privilege. We need to recover the potential of the artisan’s shop, the marketplace, the fast food counter and the leisurely dinner as the site of gospel gathering. And we need to reintegrate our vision of mission and discipleship, not as a two stage process, but as a mutual circle. As Jesus puts it, you are not being disciples unless you’re making disciples. There’s no preparatory phase. Just discipling, and in the midst of this, you will yourselves become disciples of the Jesus.

I knew a pastor who refused to give stewardship sermons. He argued that such sermons guilted the already faithful and generous givers who were giving beyond capacity, and rarely shifted the habits of those who didn’t. I think the ‘get to church’ song probably falls the same way. Here I am, hardly missed a week in 46 years, ranting about it.

However, here’s what disturbs me most about the ‘get to church’ marshalling. It (perhaps inadvertently) reinforces the dependence of followers of Jesus on institution, and not on each other.

I am not here arguing an individualist cause, that each person has their own relationship with Jesus and so doesn’t need to gather with others. Far from it. I am wanting to highlight that the rally call to gather rarely comes from the followers of Jesus for the purposes of determining how we shall love and serve the world together.

The articles calling for every week attendance are invariably by clergy (or in one case clergy spouse). This makes the issue of conflict of interest awkward. Why don’t I hear followers of Jesus calling across the street, saying ‘let’s gather and seek the Spirit’s sending!’. 

Rather, we have  sadly grown accustomed to going to church to worship and be taught and to pray for each other. These are things that I think, biblically belong in the home. Arguing ‘temple practice’ in the early church ignores the continuity of jewish culture for the early christians – they were in fact, practicing two sets of religious observance in parallel for quite some time. Christian practice occurred in households, and jewish practice (still well integrated with the movement of the Jewish Messiah) including synagogue attendance for men, persisted for quite some time, though of course with local variations.

The idea of gathering as the body of Christ – this I am passionate for. But over the years I have had my heart broken time and time again by gathering with the body of Christ, and discovering it seems no one is there to seek ways to serve the world; no one is gathering there to discern the call of the Spirit and be sent out. No one is even there to feed the hungry. We seem to be gathering then and there for the sake of then and there and for the ‘spiritual’ sake of ourselves, as if we were not like the Corinthians ‘enriched in all word and knowledge and gift of God’ already.

And even so, we are rarely there to serve even one another with our abundant giftedness, except if you are a preacher and someone wants preaching, a musician and someone wants music…and a few other things in side cupboards involving tea towels and perhaps children.

This self-centredness of gathering, and the lopsided power dynamics through which it is expressed, is what I think makes it a ‘not every week’ pattern for many who are followers of Jesus. It’s easy to call them slackers, or half-hearted, or culturally infected with the world, but perhaps they reflect to the church what it has become.

As a family we are sorting through the complexities of belonging to an ‘age and stage’ church. The preference of the church is that we should all be consumers in services geared to our ‘level’. This clashes with our anthropology and our ecclesiology. I am talking with my son about the importance of belonging to a faith community in which he is mutually both supported and supports others. We live in an area of the city with lots of churches. But he says to me. “What if none of them are supportive (to anyone)?”

We are an intentional community of faith as a household, in which the bible is often vigorously interrogated, philosophical and ethical implications are explored and integrated with local and world events, and prayers are made constantly for dear ones. I am not concerned so much for his faith, but for a context in which his faith is stretched to serve with others, those whom are not so close to home.

And in addressing this, the simple ‘get to church’ is yet to hook a catch.

Some of my favourite anglican words are the sending words at the end of the liturgy:

Father, we offer ourselves to you
as a living sacrifice
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to live and work for your praise and glory.

Go in Peace to love and serve the world In the name of Christ. Amen. 

I long for gatherings in which this is our purpose; in which this is not only our sending statement, but our rally call. We don’t come for teaching, we don’t come for singing – we come seeking to be sent to serve together.

And I am wondering, how often is it important for people to meet for this task? And what ought we give our time to in the days in between. And what should pastors, prophets, teachers, evangelists, helpers, advocated, noisemakers, carers, mercy-givers, peace-makers, administrators, healers, sorters, leaders…give their time to in between. These are questions that are sometimes addressed in mission conferences, pastor’s retreats and professional development. I wonder why these are not questions for the whole church? Why would pastors or missioners have more idea about being sent to serve the world than any other follower of Jesus, catching the train each day, standing in line at the supermarket, coaching the hockey team, or calling on neighbour? If mission is an important conversation for the church -who is part of this conversation? and why aren’t we having it in the church? I know I need it more than I need another exegetical sermon on John’s gospel.

Perhaps the pastors who have written the articles I’ve read, have just such churches. Maybe they don’t preach 25 minute sermons. Maybe they don’t have 5 minute kids talk object lessons, maybe they don’t have long periods of random music on vaguely spiritual themes. Maybe they give their time to genuine engagement between those who are present, thinking and praying and planning gospel solidarity with those beyond their walls.

To an extent I have written polemically here, and if you don’t know me well, you might think I have it in for pastors who lead organised churches. This of course could not be further from the truth. My love and loyalty towards pastors is profound and personal. In writing a consciously reactionary piece to the articles doing the rounds, I am seeking to hold the hand of the pastor and the person who, no matter what you do, no matter how deep or transformative the grace of God, will never be an every-week in organised church person. To be such would be a sign of spiritual death, not life. I know the hearts of pastors in my orbit are tender towards this person. Their concern for their community to embrace such a person is genuine. So I write, not just in advocacy with the person beyond the fringe, but also for pastors. Congregations often keep expectations high for pastors to keep the church ‘looking healthy’ by a cultural standard that is perhaps best abandonned. Freedom to find models of mission that don’t depend or measure attendance on a sunday is rarely given to pastors, either by their congregations, or their denominational accountability bodies. So my polemic against the ‘get to church’ drive is as much to release pastors from this as a metric for the insidious word ‘success’.

The question of how we can live in a collective and yet still mobile way needs some creative work. We gather but often in a static ‘snapshot’ of time on a Sunday. Our sending is often construed individually. As people of faith, we should be well equipped to ask bold questions of ourselves, knowing we are held by a faithful God. How can we move out from ourselves in the sentness of mission and still ‘fly in formation’ – faithful to the shape of the gospel community. If there is one thing I think we have learned form the christendom project – which had a decent innings in which to prove its strengths and failings – is that safety, in numbers or routine or state favour or legislation does us no great service in the venture of discipleship and mission.

For the sake of the marginalised, the church-abused, the children, the church-rejects, the faithful hangers-in and hangers-on and the pastors: let’s have a different conversation. May we look less at our church attendance, and more at what and who we are paying attention to – in our assembly and in our sent-ness.

 

7 comments

  1. Amen! and Amen again!

    Have been saying the same for a while now.


  2. Well said. So many have that problem. But you can’t reform the current structure. You nred to start new. A


  3. AMEN!


  4. Thanks Beth, lots to ponder over here. I’m interested particularly in the paragraph where you said that you believed that what we go to church on a Sunday to do: worship, be taught and pray together, from a biblical perspective belongs in the home instead. You go on to make parallels and contrasts with Jewish and early Christian religious practices. Can you expand a little on this? Biblically, how did the religious observance in the temple differ from the practices in the home gatherings for early Christians? How would you respond to a pastor who would say that the place for discussion and questions and exploration of the Bible belongs in the cell groups. What s the Biblical model of this? Thanks a lot – I really appreciate reading your articles.


    • Hi Paul, I think the practice of small group discussions and questions, also pastoral support, care and celebration is wonderful. For some people, this is a safe space in a way that church isn’t. Many churches however communicate this as a ‘secondary’ spiritual discipline, as well as going to church. I guess I hope that our models are flexible enough to see that those who are committed to this kind of engagement, but who are alienated and abused by the power dynamics in larger gatherings are full participants in the church, too.

      As for the New Testament models, reading Acts, there is early association with the temple, which was natural for those Jewish believers gathered in Jerusalem. As Paul, Barnabas, Silas and John Mark head out into the provinces, they start with a pattern of going to jewish meeting places first, but this tends to a pattern of trouble and conflict, and as Acts wears on, they do this less, and then there is the large rejection by the Jerusalem church of Paul. The communities not in JErusalem, which are the ones we have letters to in the New Testament are not Temple based, but home based – some large, but some presumable very small – the social classes are mixed, but the largest part of the population generally are poor, and this is generally accepted to be represented in the demographic mix of the christian gatherings too. Temple worship is mostly oriented towards taxes, sacrifices and prayers. Household gatherings were meal based. This is reasonable in reflecting the christian acceptance of Jesus as putting an end to the need for sacrifices…and therefore making the temple obsolete. In addressig the Corinthians Paul of course refers to them as the body of christ as the temple of the holy spirit, because although there were temples in Corinth, they were sites of worship for other gods, not Jesus as Lord. In 70AD of course the temple was destroyed…making the shift away from temple centred worship irreversable.

      I am encouraged by Jesus support for recognising the presence of God ‘where two or three are gathered’; for the huge diversity of issues in the letters of Paul that suggest christians in differently places were living out their faith in quite different ways, even if some were problematic, the integration of life and faith seem quite close.

      Returning to biblical models for questions and discussions in small groups is very strong in the synagogue tradition, which Jesus, Paul and other early shapers were raised in. In Acts 20, Paul is dialoging with people late into the night and Eutychus falls out the window, dying, but being restored to life…and then Paul keeps of ‘dialoging’ or discussing through to morning. This is not as has often been pictured, a super long sermon, but in a small room in a cheap tenement, a few people, many lamps, it says, but not necessarily many people…This seems a common enough image.

      Some of the common reasons given for not just having small groups is to check people’s theology…I think this is a red herring, as there is plenty of church theology that is terrible, and some people in small groups are brilliant teachers/exegetes, but not ‘upfront’ preachers. A great challenge is how open are our small groups to mission?
      We have been in a small group for 19 years, started with 6 couples, now has many kids from 2 to 16 and over the years people have come to faith through belonging, questioning, being loved, valued, serving together…

      Hope that helps.


      • Thank you Beth. Really appreciate the time you have taken to answer my questions. Very helpful. I do think that the way we ‘do’church has to change and become more dynamic, more missional and more together. I think the place of children and young people in our faith gatherings needs to change dramatically if we don’t want to lose them. We need to stop doing what we have always done just because it is what we have always done. Big culture shift.

        Rant over.

        Thank you God for the body of Christ and please help us to be in every way more like who you need us to be.


  5. Sorry, sounds like more “me” generation selfishness. I go to church to be prepared and serve others. If it’s not exactly what you want, you don’t go. There are many churches that keep kids in worship services. There are many churches that function inter-generationally. It’s our responsibility to make the church what it should be. By opting out you forfeit your right to make change and therefore your criticisms are hollow.



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