Having recently introduced Pete Rollins to you all, I feel at complete liberty to pinch his ideas (not that that ever stopped me before).
Expressed in Rollinsian terms, the idea of this post is: “Church is the one place where we should always be and to which we must stop going”.
Actually that’s not quite what I’m going to argue, but I thought it sounded good. 😉
Two conversations about churchgoing
The seed of this post was two recent conversations I’ve had about churchgoing. The first was on this blog, when a very lovely reader said they no longer attend any church precisely because of the dissatisfaction with organised Christianity I was expressing – the sense (to paraphrase and probably misrepresent!) that the life of the Kingdom is not primarily about church services, church politics, church rotas and all that stuff.
I have a lot of fellow-feeling with this – yet for myself I still feel the need to be part (however loosely) of some kind of community of faith.
The second was with a friend who’d just come back from a church small group feeling like an apostate for expressing the view that church attendance wasn’t the touchstone of faith, and that it might be okay for your teenage offspring not to attend church regularly. Which I wholeheartedly agree with.
So I’d like to explore this whole vexed question of going to church, belonging to church, and trying to get your children to go to church (or not).
Belonging vs. attending
I’ll say up-front that I don’t think that going to church is of absolute primary importance in the overall scheme of Christian faith. I certainly don’t think that’s what Christ came for – “Follow me, and make sure you attend a religious service once a week”. I’m not personally convinced that “Sing a few hymns and listen to a talk every Sunday” is quite up there with “Love one another” or “Feed my sheep”.
And nor do I think that it is the primary religious duty of Christian parents to force our children into regular church attendance. I don’t believe that our offspring’s souls are in mortal peril if they aren’t decorating paper plates with biblical scenes in Sunday School or comparing their Christian fashion in Youth Group. (To caricature unforgivably.)
I also suspect it may be deeply counter-productive to attempt to force attendance on our reluctant or rebellious teens. Surely better to live with integrity yourself, let them discover their own way and keep the lines of communication open.
Nonetheless, and despite all this, I do think that belonging to some kind of extended faith community is very important – both for us and for our fellow-belongers. This doesn’t necessarily have to be any kind of official church or formal gathering. It may be a bunch of friends you meet for coffee, and with whom you share some kind of common faith – though again, that doesn’t mean you all need to be signed up to the same (or indeed any) doctrinal statement.
Why do I think this is important? Simply because we’re interdependent, relational beings and we need community, or communities. We need to belong and to be belonged to (or belonged with). We need each other, not to bolster our belief or shore up our flagging faith, but to share our life.
I say this through slightly gritted teeth, because I’m not a naturally social being; I’m a loner by nature and a recluse by habit. I don’t find it easy to be part of groups, particularly not ones that require any degree of intimacy or self-disclosure.
I said that Sunday church attendance isn’t quite up there with “Love one another” or “Feed my sheep”. But of course, you could argue back that “Love one another” and “Feed my sheep” are precisely the whole point of church – and I’d agree. I just don’t think that Sunday morning services are generally the most conducive forums for the loving and feeding to take place in any practical or meaningful way. Sadly.
So, despite my reclusiveness, I do belong to a small group of men that’s part of our church – but that doesn’t really follow the rules of our church’s small groups. We meet on alternate Tuesday evenings (our unofficial name is ‘Every other week with Jesus’). And even if I don’t always want to go, I’m almost always glad I’ve been.
We play the guitar badly together, and pray stumblingly and slightly embarrassedly together. We’re mostly flippant and irreverent but occasionally deeply serious. To an admittedly small extent we share something of each other’s lives. There’s a sense of belonging. And it’s a group where I feel I can freely express my frequently heretical views without being rejected or ridiculed (or put on the prayer list for dangerous apostates).
Making space for the sceptic
And this, I think, is crucial. If churches want people to go on being part of them for the long haul, then they need to make room for the doubters and questioners, the heretics, the ‘stage-3-ers’, the ones who have troubling ideas, who won’t sing the Company Hymn or sign up to its doctrinal and mission statements.
Churches need the sceptics and cynics; these people are often uncomfortable truth-tellers and may even be unwitting prophets. And I suspect that the sceptics and cynics may just need the wider church as well, though we may not want to admit it.
So I do still attend our main church service, somewhat sporadically – maybe 2-3 times a month. (It’s ‘Every other week…’ again.) And that can sometimes be great and worthwhile, and sometimes not. But I don’t want to lose touch with the wider church community completely, because I do think that in strange ways I probably need them and maybe they need me.
Nonetheless, I’m still not convinced that regular church attendance is the be-all and end-all of Christian belonging-to-one-another. It can play a part, but it’s not the full thing.
Giving up church to find church
“Church is the one place where we should always be and to which we must stop going”.
So what on earth did I mean by this odd statement? Actually I’m not sure it benefits from explanation; probably better to leave it and let you make of it what you will.
But if you want what I think it might mean, it’s simply again that belonging is more important than attending. We can (and need to) belong to each other all the time, all of us – the doubters and the fundamentalists, the tired sceptics and the eager new converts, the ones who are sure what they believe and the ones who aren’t sure if they believe anything.
But we don’t necessarily need to go to a regular church service for this belonging to work. When I say we must stop going, I’m being provocative for the sake of paradox (or paradoxical for the sake of provoking); actually I think that in most cases it’s fine and good to go on going to church. Perhaps for some it may even be vital. But church as a building or an event may not always be the place where the true life of the church (the community of Christ) takes place.
In other words, we need to be church; we don’t necessarily always need to go to church.
Sometimes we may even need (in a sense) to give up church to find church, just as we may need to give up God (our ideas and conceptions of God) to find God.
Maybe. Perhaps. Or maybe not – for goodness’ sake don’t take my word for it. 😉