Do you have an idea of what church is like? Or perhaps what the church should be like? Perhaps your ideas are based on personal experience of a musty old building or a grand cathedral. Maybe you’ve seen various TV depictions from Father Ted to The Vicar of Dibley or the sexy priest from Fleabag. It is possible you are or have been part of a church community – gathering for worship on a Sunday, engaging in Bible study and prayer, and possibly involved in some kind of social action initiative.
The word ‘church’ can conjure many ideas and images, many of which I love and many of which I struggle with. Whilst I think we should aim for the best we can I am not a fan of polished performances when it comes to church worship. I have sat through enough church services wondering where God is, and in others (or more commonly with broken and vulnerable people) able to recognise God’s Spirit in our midst. I wrestle with my own desires to lead a large church with great music and with people hanging on my every word, publishing books and turning my sermons into memes versus my desire to seek and to serve the lost and being part of the processes enabling freedom. These pages seek to express some of the vision I have for what the church could be, what it should be, and perhaps how I may be privileged in playing my part.
Around the turn of the century I was sat in Starbucks in the small town of Newark, Delaware. I can’t recall why I was there alone, I guess I was waiting for a friend and had some time to pass. I’d been involved in some Christian mission in the States and met a wide range of people all excited about the potential of the Church, there was disillusionment for some and hope from others. The people I was with were seeking to live out faith that was genuine and authentic; a faith not satisfied with the regular pattern of church on a Sunday and Bible study one evening midweek. There was a desire to learn and to question, to dream of our actions reflecting the radical love, mercy and compassion of Jesus. At the time I was keeping a journal but for some reason I didn’t have it with me that day, so I picked up a napkin, found a pen and wrote or, more accurately, scribbled down an idea for the church I would love to see and be part of. It had been bubbling away for some time but in that moment I dared to dream it might become a reality.
I think I told one or two people about that dream, those words, but I carefully folded it up and when I could I placed it safely, hidden in a journal. I don’t know where that napkin is now, but those words and that dream have haunted me. I’ve taken on different roles and positions in churches, organisations and community groups, I’ve travelled and studied, fallen in love, married and have children. That napkin, the words, that dream will not leave me and the time is either now or never to take the plunge and metaphorically upfold that scrap of paper and to dare to see if a dream can become reality.
First and foremost, the Church must be a people of life and hope who humbly and freely offer life and hope to others, as given by Christ. Church should be a community of people who know that we are not perfect, but with the wrinkles and scars of life, belonging as we are. The church should be a place of questions – those posed to cause enquiry and those we bring because we are unsure. Questions and doubts must be celebrated as indications of growth, and a desire to learn and to develop (in other words – discipleship). The church should be a sanctuary in which there is freedom to be honest (authentic) with and as ourselves, one another and God. The church should provide space for creativity – God is a creative God (speaking life into being) and if we are made in the image of God, the community of church should reflect the imagination and inspiration of God’s Spirit in and amongst us. The church should be a community in which it is safe to make mistakes, admit mistakes and to find grace, repentance, forgiveness and encouragement to learn from our mistakes. The church should be a reflective community willing to own its errors and seek forgiveness, humbly acknowledging actions and words which may have caused suffering, and willingly change behaviours (repentance) through continually learning what it means to love our neighbours, not only as ourselves, but with the love of Christ that is prepared to lay down our own lives. The church must be engaged with acts of charity, not as a demonstration of good works or as a means of placating guilt, but as a support whilst working and wrestling for justice. The church is not to be a crowd pleaser or a follower of fashion. It is not to be satisfied with minimum obligations but always endeavouring to improve and together challenge and change oppressive systems, structures and powers as a prophetic witness to the world. The church should be a family, a body, that loves, accepts and includes, and through relationship, dialogue and engagement, receives and nurtures the gifts of others.
A contemporary Arts Centre may consist of galleries, studios and exhibition spaces as well as the coffeeshop or bar. Some exhibitions or performances are brief, others extended. Some people visit occasionally others regularly. Some people engage with the full programme of events, activities and exhibitions on offer whilst others will come for something specific. There may be classes for art or learning musical instrument, discussions about art work or lectures on arts history. Workshops and studio space offer opportunities for learning and creativity whilst theatres and galleries exhibit the final works. Imagine walking into a church (building) and being able to discover and explore what it means to worship God and to be loved by God. I love the idea of rooms in churches where discussions and debates are taking place, whilst next door paints flow and sculptures rise up, with music drifting down the hall from another room and then a quiet sanctuary in which prayers are whispered and wept.
Of course, whilst this may be liberating for some it would all be too chaotic and messy for others. Imagine then the lecture that stimulates your mind or the musical performance that invigorates your senses. Envisage the painting on the wall that stops you in your tracks as you become lost in wonder or the enticing dance stirring something in the depths of your soul. Listen to the songs, poetry and stories speak empathy and expectancy, that rouse activism and inspire hope. Hear the laughter, the tears, the joy, the pain, the suffering and the optimism.
Imagine all this and more. Not a programme of prayer meetings and Bible study (though these would be available) but rhythms of worship, with spaces and opportunities to explore or observe. Prayer, meditation, Bible study and worship as well as social activism, evangelism, and justice would be included within, and the result of, the creative endeavours.
The coffee shop may not seem important but this is the meeting space, the assembly, the place where bread is broken and all are welcome.
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