Facing forward in church isn’t being backwards

Have you seen #FlashMobVicar?:

I love it. It is fun, light hearted, and made that moment special and memorable for the couple and their guests. One would hope it would have been that anyway, but for people to be able to express their joy and personalities in such a way is ace. I am slightly suspect that the two older ladies who leave half way through truly are ‘going to the loo’ though as has been reported!

Vicky Beeching’s piece in the Independent applauds the flash mob as a way of making church feel participatory and suggests that the notion of inclusion and participation in services is something missing from church, or more so from non-church goer’s opinion of church. I can’t speak for non-church goers of course being that I go! But I’m not so sure it is so straight forward and I’m sure Vicky also has a much larger opinion on the subject than in her column.

For me, Sundays are about corporate worship. Our chance to get together and worship together in ways that take many forms which for me, happily includes speaking words of liturgy together, singing hymns together and speaking out our amens together at the end of intercessions. Classed in the article somewhat dismissively as religious practises, these methods of worship are often inferred as being negative, outdated and irrelevant. Cafe church, church in the pub and other fresh expressions are growing massively and brilliantly. I love having diversity, having a variety, but I am not sure that means we also have to rid ourselves of the old, or at least slowly phase it out so no one over 50 will notice.

This weekend in church, we had one service rather than our usual two, to re-launch our global mission work. It was great to feel that church was full, and see members of my church family I rarely see anymore because I like to lay in, and they like to get up early. I get why we have different, but almost identical services. On the simplest level having two services encourages growth by having empty seats so people feel like there is space for them. But I do dreadfully miss seeing people and having social time with them before and after the service, which as Vicky suggests in her article, is an important aspect of a participatory Sunday morning for most people. Having coffee, chats and biscuits (whatever have been left or not fingered by toddlers) is lovely but not the main reason I’m there.

Do we really need a radical change in what happens in church to make it feel participatory, or can we again embrace what we’ve already got?

I find it sad to sometimes find myself singing songs with lyrics about me, how God makes me feel, what he made me for and just how darn tootin’ great the church is. There is nothing wrong with those songs and those sentiments (though it is important to teach our young worship leaders the importance of song choice), but when 200 of my brothers and sisters are together, it would be brilliant to raise our voices in praise, glorifying Him with words that speak of who He is, not how He makes me feel on that given day at that given moment. Earlier this year at Spring Harvest, my sister made the same point: it seemed a waste to be with 3000 Christians singing songs singing ‘I’ and ‘me’, rather than ‘us’ and ‘we’.

Slight aside: I know as a 30 something raised in the age of Soul Survivor et al, I’m not meant to admit this, but I die a little inside when the chorus of a Jesus Culture song repeats for the 8th time as the worship leader ‘spontaneously’ leads us. If the Holy Spirit tells the worship leader to do something that alienates 95% of the room, it might not be the Holy Spirit after all! Just saying!

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As part of that 30 something demographic, I am meant to be a little more liberal and free in my acts of worship but I love liturgy. I love declaring my faith with voices declaring the same. It might be monotone sometimes but I mean it. I love a hymn, 250 years old, with lyrics that actually teach me something about God. I do love dancing in the aisles, waving a flag, whatever gets you going, but the tendency to demote anything formal or traditional to non-participatory is sad. Having a kids song with actions already alienates half our congregation (especially as our worship team only seems to know 3 songs!) Are those not joining in really gloomy, fun-hating, mess-loathing, boring old farts? Or is it something else?

And yes, someone might be stood at the front preaching, praying or reading, but my attention and brain need to be engaged in those activities so it is a participatory event. Vicky makes the point that schools rarely have forward facing seats anymore and perhaps Church should be the same. Perhaps, but worship is a funny thing. It is unique to an individual, but if that is all it is, we might as well stay home and just do it at home. We go to church on a Sunday because we’re meant to worship together and we can do that all facing the same way rather than looking at each other. My lecture seats at Uni were forward facing and that didn’t stop me having a holistic experience, especially because we mixed our learning with tutor groups and lab work, homework and library reading, like I mix church with a small group, conferences and festivals, personal study and prayer. Sunday Church just seems to be trying to be too many things. A watering hole for regular members and a shop window for seekers, movers and returners. Can it be both?

Then there’s the relevance/culture thing. I tweet in church, I’m a blogger and live massively in the online world. But I love it when someone tells me about an event rather than makes me sit through a high impact vox pop video about it. I am engaged when a preacher doesn’t bother with a Powerpoint or whatever the latest programme is from Apple that brings on waves of motion sickness. On a Sunday I need a preacher that engages me with his words and a worship leader who creates space for us to focus on God. No, we’re not all the same but Vicky suggests Church Version 2.0 could be about deliberate interaction at every stage. I’m not so sure that’s the way to go. I still need to hear the reading first, listen to the talk, digest, consider then turn around and ask my questions. There is a place for listening, which I don’t believe is a passive activity as Vicky suggests. So I am part of the service, whether or not my specific needs and tastes have been taken into account. I am ‘giving as well as getting’ by worshipping God. No more, no less.

Yes, there is a big risk of seeming cult like and unthinking to non-church goers when we all say the same thing at the same time. I think even non-church folk understand unity is important, but its outward appearance has always carried a risk. It is a shame wedding guests and baptism families can’t see us in our mid-week groups actually saying perhaps how much we disagreed with the Vicar and having our questions discussed and answered. So we do need to make a Sunday interesting enough to make people want to investigate more. Maybe remembering church goes beyond a Sunday morning is what Vicky’s version 2.0 could look like. Once again, I find the pressure to make church one thing and life another frustrating. Shouldn’t church reflect the people who are actually there, because that way it will be real and attractive? It should all be part of a narrative, so our faith infects our whole lives, spilling out because we no longer compartmentalise.

Interaction and participation starts with input on a Sunday and, assuming we haven’t exhausted ourselves delivering our Sunday shop window, we go deeper in our small groups and in our acts of service and in our work and families. Perhaps we need more variety on a weekend, but can we really be all things to all people ask of the time?

So, can’t church can be formal and still be participatory and inclusive. And not just be about Sunday.

p.s. I’d love to get your input on this dear reader! Have I got the wrong end of the stick? I recently promised myself I wouldn’t wait until I was an expert on each subject until I blog on it because I won’t ever truly learn that way. So probably some very confused thoughts above!

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7 thoughts on “Facing forward in church isn’t being backwards

  1. I completely get where you’re coming from. Does it matter that I’m in my early 60s and that I have been a Baptist Minister for the last 31 years? I can smile at the wedding video, although I think the later “freestyling” bit by the vicar ought to have been thought out (and left out) a bit more! I love humour in the church service and aim to “have some of that” every Sunday. But I also love and aim for depth, serious reflection and serious Bible study in the sermon. People want to be entertained outside of work commitments these days and the Church has to recognise that and lighten up in lots of ways, but people still need to be made to think and feel deeply. Jesus must have been great company to have had such an active social life – always being invited to dinner somewhere. And His parables were ear-catching and often humorous (picture someone with a floorboard sticking out of their eye). But He was never flippant, or entertaining just for the sake of it. I just conducted a wedding a few days ago which was considered “lovely” by all because it was informal yet dignified and a young married man spoke of how he enjoyed the depth of the traditional vows, especially the promise about “till death us do part.” Life, and church, needs to be deep enough to be meaningful and light enough to be fun. But it needs both.

    • Thanks for your comment BG. I thought the freestlying bit was uncomfortable!

      And I think you’ve nailed what I am trying to say: We need to be lighter in many ways but we need to have depth. A true ‘balance’ (especially in a diverse community) is almost impossible to achieve, but variety is reachable. As you say, Jesus managed it. He entertained and taught truths without compromising.

  2. Hi Heather. I think you are spot on with your blog. I recently tweeted Vicky Beeching in response to that article. I like you believe church is about what we bring and give to God, our interaction with Him and His interaction with us. Form, music and generational governed music is not as important as our heart for God, hunger for God and as you said what is taught to us impacting our daily lives. As a minister and lover of God and His word it is refreshing to read some one like yourself which believes that Church is about us engaging with God and Him impacting our lives. Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you Rodney for your encouragement. I recieved a comment last night that said the biggest problem the church has to face isn’t being cool enough, or relevant or even that it is boring…but that we are perceived (and in some cases are) bigoted! That’s why it has to come back to love, and expressing that love in action and in worship.

      • Hi heather. It is interesting that some people see the church as bigoted, I suppose in some cases they are. I do agree with you that we need to get back to love for each other and expressing that love in action ant worship. We should follow the example of Jesus, He held to the truth, He is the Truth and yet related to all people within the community, the religious, outcast, those on the fringe and the average person all without compromising the truth and always showing love. If only we could be more like Jesus many more would want to know Him.

  3. As someone involved in church leadership and in trying to steer “how we do church” in whatever way the Holy Spirit leads us, all I can say is “probably, maybe, give me some ideas”.

    I think questioning is great. Good leadership encourages questions, challenges, and embraces change.

    Of course the problem is, as ever, the human element. The simple maxim “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” (its in Proverbs somewhere, right?) is never more true than when speaking of styles of worship and churchman(person-?)ship generally. And whatever style of church we end up with will never please us all. Ever. In any church. For goodness sake, they were even whinging about the

    So we are thrown back grace, and the realisation that “what we want out of church” is a lot less important than “what the Lord wants us to learn from our church membership”.

    Developing a style of church that will satisfy all ages and preferences is impossible, and so we are faced with two options. Shop around until we find a church that “suits us” (with the awful possibility ever present that we may never find one), or stick with the church we have and feel part of, and change ourselves to suit the church. Somehow the latter option feels a lot more biblical.

    Of course it is always valid to question, challenge and grow, and to seek growth in others, but I am reminded about the following quote, talking in 1788 about the “new” music of Isaac Watts (author of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”: “There are several reasons for opposing it: It’s too new. It’s too worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style and because there are so many new songs you can’t learn them all. It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances, making people act disorderly. The preceding generation got along without out.”
    It has always been the case that congregants whinged about “new” styles of worship, and it will always be the case that just as many also whinge about “old” ones and get bored with the status quo (I admit the latter is my own preference for whinging!). The key is not to let it get us bitter, or distract us from the real purpose of church – which is to help us grow in grace, ever closer to Jesus. And someone truly with that goal in mind will be less bothered about what suits their own preferences, and be much more concerned about what helps others, and will in all things seek operate out of love.

    “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Cor 13: 4-7

    Until we can complain about something in the church that annoys us in a way that fulfills these criteria, sometimes I feel it is better not to complain…

    • Thank you Paul for such a wonderful response. I adore the way you’ve put this: So we are thrown back grace, and the realisation that “what we want out of church” is a lot less important than “what the Lord wants us to learn from our church membership”. I might get that put on a t-shirt!

      I mentioned in a reply to another comment above that someone pointed out to me something I hadn’t particularly considered when reading Vicky’s article but I think is insightful. The ‘boringness’ of church isn’t our biggest hurdle to overcome, nor is it really even an urgent or high priority. Making sure we are known for our love, for what/who we care about rather than what we stand against and whom/what we dislike is far more important. Love is key and you’ve made that central. Thank you again.

      Because it is ‘up front’ and a relatively uncommmon part of our culture, musical worship will always cause tension. And I think there is a distinct and difficult tension between style and content, especially when it comes to sung worship. If we are all consistently saying “whatever is right for them, rather than me” I think we run a risk of not settling on or doing anything. Leadership of the church should determine a direction (with input of course) and then I can choose whether to get on that bus or not. If I choose not to. The onus is on me not to cause conflict, because even if that decision was made with love and for good reasons, just going a different way can be seen as disturbing.

      Your comment is timely as I am (we are) about to move on from our Church. Many reasons have led to this decision, but the thought of not being part of the solution to some of our problems has, as you say, a distinctly unbiblical flavour and caused no end of anguish for me and my husband. In our case, developing our own identities, really digging down into what we are meant to be doing for God, has become quite difficult where we are because, for well intentioned and resourcing reasons, we’ve been pigeon holed and drained dry. Recovery from this isn’t always possible by staying where you are. It would be like trying to take a holiday but not actually stopping going to the office every day. I think there are times that moving church and finding a place that will suit is sensible as long as you have realistic expectations, and expectations to love and serve and be part of the community.

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