Thursday, April 06, 2017

On going to church, and not going to church

One of the most important parts of the experience of being on sabbatical was the experience of not being a minister. After eight years of being a minister I needed to spend some time not being a minister. I needed to become a lay person. Actually, not even really a lay person. I became, a free, non-church person. Sunday morning came. I could go to church. Or I could chose not to. For the first time in ten years it was entirely up to me with no obligations.

What I discovered was that, for the most part, I did want to go to church. But when I did, I came to church with huge expectations. I mean absolutely huge expectations. And if they weren't met I was incredibly disappointed. And I tend to think this is the experience of most people visiting our congregations.

I think those of us who lead worship need to realise how hungry people are when they walk through the door. We need to not insult their intelligence or their spirituality by offering something paltry.

I mean do you know how wonderful it is not to go to church? Do you? I've got to tell you, it's pretty marvellous. I tried it. I liked it. It's absolutely lovely to sit in a cafe on a lazy Sunday morning, read the paper, read a novel or an interesting book.

And as a spiritual seeker, it's pretty good too. There are some amazing books out there that expand the mind and the heart. It is possible to meet God in reading those books. It's an absolutely wonderful, and spiritual experience to enjoy breakfast, coffee and a good book on a Sunday morning.

Why interrupt that and go to a church? Well, only for one reason that I can see - because church offers something more: because church offers a deeper experience of the divine and a deeper wisdom for life. That will get me there.

But I've got to tell you, if I go to church and experience something with less spiritual power and wisdom than sitting in a cafe reading a good book, then I am pretty pissed off. I feel cheated and annoyed. I've asked for bread and you've given me a stone. I wish I had stayed in the cafe.

Maybe I am a demanding consumer, a demanding worshipper. Well actually, yeah, I am. I really am. It takes a lot of effort to get to church, and if I'm offered something less than real worship, something less than what you are advertising, then yeah I am bloody annoyed.

Because I think we do often offer less than real worship. We often offer mediocre after-dinner speeches. We often offer academic essays. We often offer twee pleasantries. We often offer things I could easily read in a book. We often offer amateurism and mild embarrassment about the act of worship itself.

Am I piling up the pressure here on preachers and service leaders just doing their best? Well maybe. But my first response to that would be if this is the truth of why visitors don't stay, we need to know that truth. But my second response would be this is not necessarily about doing things better, but doing things differently.

It's not that we need to become more proficient public speakers. Rather its that we need to offer a transforming experience of worship (which does not ultimately depend on the skill of anyone but rather the openness of participants to the divine). And we need to offer humble reflections that have come from people who are walking a genuine path of faith.

People come to church hungry. They could be doing lots of other things, but they've made the effort, they've taken the risk and they are hungry for something of real spiritual depth. If we give them less than that, we are turning away the hungry or feeding them only a thin soup that will give them no real satisfaction, 

Worship leaders need to always keep this in mind. 


Blogger Lucy Ann said...

This is how I feel too. And this is why I stay away from some groups that fall within my community and go to other groups that are part of other congregations/communities. And it frightens me before I put together any service that I am leading. I don't go to church to talk about God, aspects of God, aspects of non-God, human behaviours or insights etc etc. I go to talk TO God, with others who are also talking TO God.

3:12 pm  
Blogger Stuart Abram said...

Did you feel so much more fulfilled because of the nature of the activity or because you were able to approach it freely as an individual? I think religion and spirituality run into trouble when the balance between the community (or collective) and individual becomes imbalanced. As a minister, I imagine, you are preoccupied mainly with the collective aspect, whose forces are often more conservative and inhibitory than the individual.

I know that feeling of longing when entering a Unitarian, or a Catholic, or an Anglican or Protestant church. To Unitarians' credit, there's much less "Jesus/God is The Answer" than in the others, but we all desire an encounter with the One who is beauty, goodness and truth. I can glimpse that in the beautiful language of the BCP, or the rhythms of the Mass. I can even find it in a sermon. A hymn sandwich does not so much.

I suppose any worship, to achieve what you desire, must be deeply theocentric. That's fairly straightforward when you have a tradition as old, say, as that of Christianity. It's harder with something much more fluid and liberal like Unitarianism. If anything, however, its faith could be stronger for being rational, shorn of the irrational elements of what it inherits. The revival of more monastic elements in mainstream denominations is interesting, because it brings theology into contact with daily life. Something similar might be helpful in Unitarianism, bringing together people to discuss faith, belief, scholarship and any other factors to bear. There'd be room for different forms of spirituality, both more fixed and fluid forms, as well as the more "sacramental" or monastic. Still, there is the challenge of ensuring such theocentrism is also anthropocentric and humanising.

This mode of church life would have room for individual spiritual encounter, as you did on sabbatical. There is a problem if it's not possible at the moment. The question is, what to do about it?

9:44 am  

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