This is My Church

An email from a friend this week asked me a simple question: “what would your ideal church look like?”

My ideal church would consist of maybe three hundred people. It would gather around 10:30 on a Sunday morning. Everyone would arrive in a dribble, to sit together, in a kind of cafe format. There would be good coffee, pastries, and a general breakfast atmosphere for at least half an hour before anything formal kicked off.

Then, from a dais on one side of the cafe, there’d be brief introductory music or a song. Then the minister would welcome everyone and rehearse the church’s dedication to the worth of all people, and its shared quest for meaning and growth. She or he would explain that this place isn’t about gods or spirits: every person is free to bring whatever god they choose with them, but no person should fear being confronted with one belonging to someone else. That neither brains, nor problems, should have been left at the door. She or he would explain how this, most unusual of churches, works, and how to get the most from it.

After no more than 10 minutes, the church would separate into smaller groups focussed on individual proclivities. Some weeks I’d feel like going and singing. The singing group would sing, but they’d also learn to sing. It would be somewhere between a choir rehearsal and traditional worship. Many people do love singing, but music is better if you feel you doing it together: becoming more of a group and producing an increasingly beautiful result.

Some weeks I’d feel like going to the meditation room, and spending the time in silence, meditating by myself in a room with many others. This meditation time would begin with a few words from the meditation leader: help and advice for how to get more from my meditation. But otherwise it would be silent. There would be no need to meditate on anything, and nobody would feel the need to break the silence with their thoughts.

Many weeks I’d feel like going and hearing the sermon. These sermons wouldn’t be moralizing. They wouldn’t assume there are easy answers to be had, or even that the right questions could be asked. I imagine a kind of long-format TED, where one week the speaker talks passionately about Joyce’s Ulysses, another week we are treated to the wonders of gene signalling networks, and another we hear about a relief agency’s struggles to provide basic contraceptive and STD education to poor communities in the developing world.

There may be times I’d feel like joining some others in a ritual. Here I’m imagining a blend between a tea-ceremony, a communion meal and the mutual washing of hands: a structured dance of the physical and mental that focuses the mind, makes the profane into the profound, and draws from a well of symbolism with no claims of fixed or ultimate meaning.

During this time my 3 year old would join with his peers playing games, doing craft, and singing songs. When he’s older he’ll join the group of older children who’s personalities, goals and moral senses are being challenged to grow. Still older still he’ll join the group where he can hang out, express his social needs, and have his natural teenage activism nurtured.

And there’ll be weeks where what I really need is just a good chat. And I’ll stay in the cafe, drinking and talking. Until everyone files in once more from their activities. The dais would once again be occupied, with music or a song to naturally bring people’s attention in. Someone would introduce that week’s (or month’s or season’s) charity or development project, and members of the church would be encouraged to financially support that specific project over and above the day-to-day running of the church. (It would be a church who’s financial success is measured in how much it gives away, and the leanness with which it runs).

And, as it began, there would be a closing word, an exhortation to use any growth we’ve experienced for the good of all humanity, and to cherish the relationships we’ve formed and nurtured that day.

It would take a while to finish my last coffee of the morning, to file out to the car and go home with my wife and son. But that is the kind of church that I’d want to be a part of, and I’d look forward to going back to.

Would any of you join me?

The title is a reference to this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hcfxm8wM0A

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “This is My Church

  1. Ian, I like it. Would you have a franchise stall for The Church of Jesus Christ Atheist?

    🙂

  2. I may join, with these thoughts:
    meat or veggies (no pastries)
    Silent meditation or discussion [agree]
    (no songs)
    No minister!!!!!! Guest speakers as an optional group OK.
    Groups need little structure please (otherwise cliques)
    Ritualize eating or cleaning (as in Zen temple) if you must.
    Agree, lots and lots of chat time
    Group games, kid education
    Community projects – picking up trash, tutoring, hospital visits …

  3. Hi! Interesting post, thoughtful ideas…. Everything is well, except the “No Jesus” part…

    When you have a moment, would you stop by for some Coffee with Jesus?!

    It’s very similar to the place you describe, but…

    ~ NRIGirl

  4. Ian

    NRIGirl – Thanks so much for stopping by.

    In the above I have been inspired to some extent by the cafe church movement, and its siblings (pub churches in particular appeal for some reason). There are other threads in the emerging movement that I find deeply attractive and that seem to resonate clearly with modern urban life.

    But I also think you read something that wasn’t there. There is definitely not a “No Jesus” rule in my ideal church. You’re welcome to bring Jesus along if you like. And your fellow churchgoer can bring along their deity of choice too. There just isn’t a “Jesus only, please do not bring other ideas into the building” sign at the door.

    Religious communities of all stripes seem to provide spiritual and interpersonal sustenance for their attendees. It isn’t the Jesus in your church, or the Krishna in a Hindu temple, or Yahweh in a synagogue that makes that happen. People gain spiritual and interpersonal sustenance from meeting together with common purpose, and committing time to experience that spiritual and interpersonal growth. It isn’t tied to any particular deity or religious tradition, it is a universal human experience. It has been found as vibrantly in polytheistic, atheistic and monotheistic communities.

    I suggest that the deity bit is something many folks have just assumed is important for doing church, because it has always been that way. But there are groups who get along being a church community just fine with no deity at all. And so I have to conclude that it is the church that is important, not the deity who’s story gets repeated within its walls.

    You may think Jesus is essential to you. And if (as you seem to be) you’re a regular protestant / emerging church kind of person, you probably also believe that it is your faith in Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that mediates your relationship with God. But think about that carefully, because neither of those things is communal. If you stripped away the veneer of Jesus from your church, it would be uncomfortable initially. You wouldn’t know what was going to be said when, or quite how to act (in fact you’d only be experiencing an element of the confusion of the unchurched generally, though not nearly as badly because the overall structure would be familiar). But it wouldn’t fundamentally change the experience for you.

    So you’d be welcome to come to my church. You’d be welcome to spend your meditation time praying. To address your songs to Jesus, and to sense his presence as you meet with others. You’d be welcome to stand alongside a hindu, a muslim, a pagan and an atheist in common humanity. Drawing spiritual inspiration from the whole range of human experience and sharing your journey with others in a truly open and honest way.

    But unfortunately, I suspect, most of the world wouldn’t be welcome at your church. At least not the kind of deep welcome that genuinely includes, seeks to learn from, and avoids the need to control people and change their minds. As an atheist I find I am welcomed into most churches I go to. But a kind of superficial welcome. As a potential convert, as someone with a major failing to be fixed, or as someone to be pitied for falling from the way. I’ve never, for example, been asked to preach at such a church. Or to lead the music. Or lead the church in a time of meditation. Or even to share my testimony. And that fundamental inability to welcome people for who and what they are is mostly why my ideal church doesn’t exist among Christian congregations, even cafe and pub churches.

  5. Ian

    @sabio

    1. You wouldn’t have to sing 🙂 The music to top and tail the service I was thinking of as performative. A piano etude even, or more of a small band or singer-guitarist.

    2. Ministers are essential, I think. You wouldn’t have to call them that. But the church needs a CEO. And small businesses live and die by how well their CEOs promote, enthuse about and spread the word about their ventures. My ideal church isn’t a commercial business, but the laws of entrepreneurship are inviolable.

    3. A good minister would also be my answer to the problem of cliques. It takes strong leadership to make sure that cliques don’t form. It takes expectation setting among the leadership and the delivery teams. It is doable, I have seen it before.

    4. Yes, the model of the mall-of-services is a great one for opening to other ideas. Like service, for example. I also thought you could use it as the context for groups such as divorce recovery workshop, or specific community activities. I’m not sure how far one should go with that, because the purpose of church, to me, is not to be your everything, but to be a place where your spirit is fed.

  6. Ian, I think you are (as usual) spot on there. It is not the deity that is responsible for the benefit people feel from being part of a church community, but their common humanity. As you know, I would go a teensy bit further because I know from personal experience that Christian church communities (and presumably those of other religions too) contain very many people who would under normal circumstances be called Atheists. My very unscientific guestimates suggest that in Northern Ireland, the most religious region of the UK (an irony in many levels of course) at least 15% of regular churchgoers don’t actually believe that there is a god *at all*, or take the view that Christianity isn’t “true” as such.

    Those are not “bad” people, they are not “backsliders”. They are usually thoughtful and kind people, keen to help others, and who value a sense of community. They help out in the organisations, they keep the churches maintained, they play the organ, sing in the choir, and very frequently they are the man or woman in the pulpit.

    This is why I set up the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist – not as an alternative denomination, but as a recognition of reality, and to help such people *remain* within their churches, and to act as positive influences within those churches, to be role models for the kids, and to help the churches themselves adopt a positive social role. This would even apply to denominations that I regard as batshit crazy, like the Baptists or Elim.

    As for me, I don’t currently attend a church, but yours sounds nice 🙂

  7. Ian

    Thanks for the comment Shane.

    “and very frequently they are the man or woman in the pulpit.”

    That’s also my experience.

  8. Peter

    Ian, hi (again)

    Interesting comments. And although a Christian, which you already know, you are on to something here.

    I was part of a church similar, in some ways, to this once; although we did define ourselves as followers of Jesus. However, neither was there a sign at the door reading, “Jesus only, please do not bring other ideas into the building”. Maybe though the perception would have been different.

    I’d also comment on another part of your response to NIRGirl; the concept of an ‘indwelling Holy Spirit’ (whether you accept that as possible or not) need not preclude the idea of communal. In fact I’d say that Christians best know Jesus in community, the kind of community activity you describe, or something close to it. I don’t think everything you describe would work ‘in the name of Jesus’ as we say, but the concept of community/normality is, I think, essential.

    I do recognise however your concerns about a superficial welcome, about you being a potential convert. In response I guess what I’d want to say it that perhaps it is possible (if not always common) for ‘Jesus Church’ to shift from ‘informative propositional statements of belief to be accepted or rejected’ (often immediately), to a ‘genuine welcome and opportunity to participate/have a look at the community in action, no strings attached’, kind of church. But does the idea of ‘convert’ ultimately still lurk there, possibly/probably!

    I guess there’s all sorts of reasons why you have not been asked to preach or share a testimony, part of it is the form, there’s just no space; I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve participated in church in this way in 40 years, and I do ‘believe’!

    One more thing, I’m not convinced that the ‘pub church’ or ‘cafe church’ answer so favoured by Christians these days is ever going to be an answer for either you or me. But let me put it this way, I know a group of people (yeh ‘Christians’!) who’d I be happy to meet up with at home, or wherever, and I’d be more than happy to have people like you or Shane there too. Maybe we’d never agree and maybe we’d eventually have to go our separate ways, but you’d be welcome and I’d be happy to hear what you had to say. But is that ‘church’, I don’t know! Whatever ‘church’ looks like, the ‘faith in Jesus’ thing, just ain’t going away for me. 🙂

    The question I’d ask you though is, given that this description of church sounds so much like tradition God believing church, what would prompt people to gather in the way you suggest, especially if they had no church background at all?

  9. John Clavin

    Hi Ian, Your church is a bit like our Friday night “We Agnostics” AA meeting.

    Then once a year in December we also have a Solstice pot-luck party before the meeting. I always bring my “Secular Yams”.

    But I would come to your church anytime.

  10. Ian

    I’d also comment on another part of your response to NIRGirl; the concept of an ‘indwelling Holy Spirit’ (whether you accept that as possible or not) need not preclude the idea of communal.

    No, absolutely. Sorry if that was the impression I gave. What I meant was that the theology of the reformation is that non-communal processes are sufficient for salvation, and further than no communal processes are necessary for salvation. So I was really encouraging Christians to understand that the Jesus content in the church isn’t necessary, even under their own theology. I say that because I was trying to encourage NRIGirl to think of my church as a kind of super-set of a regular Christian church, rather than as a subset.

    I guess there’s all sorts of reasons why you have not been asked to preach or share a testimony, part of it is the form, there’s just no space

    In the time I did identify as a Christian, I regularly did these things. Certainly around here, visiting preachers and speakers are particularly sought after. I have also been asked to speak and had that invitation withdrawn when I’ve shared my beliefs. But anyway, let’s not get drawn into a conversation about my experience. I think the generality holds.

    The question I’d ask you though is, given that this description of church sounds so much like tradition God believing church, what would prompt people to gather in the way you suggest, especially if they had no church background at all?

    I think it sounds very unlike a traditional church, to be honest. A traditional chuch being a hymn-reading-sermon sandwich in parallel rows in front of a man in a dress. The Christian church has come a long way in the last 50 years, but if you talk to unchurched people, I’d be very surprised if they thought church was anything like I’ve described.

    As for your question. Interesting. And here we go from “what would my fantasy church look like”, to “can I come up with a business plan to start it”. And there, sadly, no. I was talking about this very topic with a minister of a liberal congregation a couple of weeks ago. How do you bootstrap something like this? I’m thinking about it (as in mulling on it, not as in considering doing it), but I’ve no good answers.

    In fact I’d say that Christians best know Jesus in community,

    Its something I’ve thought a fair bit about, particularly because although I have long-since left my Christian faith, I’m in no hurry to sever connections with the church. I think about the time I thought I ‘knew’ Jesus, from the church context. And I think it was largely about those communal and spiritual experiences.

    When I would have said something like your comment, I think I meant something a little more mercurial than its obvious meaning. I never learned something new about the character of Jesus from being in community, and certainly not some new ‘fact’ about Jesus. I guess you’ll baulk at that characterisation as being unnecessarily naive, but that does seem to be what I mean when I say I know any other person better. So I conclude that to say I ‘know Jesus better’ means something different to saying that I know a friend better. Some what is that knowledge which is gained?

    I learned certainly about how people put their faith into action, and the way that Jesus forms the vocabulary of the stories about what they are doing and why (e.g. I learned the stories about Jesus that people used to justify their actions, and the stories that used to interpret their problems). I learned an increasingly sophisticated rhetorical foundation for talking about life. I learned real life lessons as well, by hearing similar stories from others. I learned that Jesus allows you to experience temptation in advance of some significant piece of service, for example.

    But that isn’t Jesus I was learning about. It was a combination of the theological wrapping around life lessons (the imposter complex in the example above) combined with a deeper understanding and connection with the church community.

    My challenge to NRIGirl is to try to tease apart those strands. My intuition is that it isn’t really about the Jesus story or vocabulary that makes you feel that way, it is about the things you are doing.

  11. Ian

    John, thanks for signing up 😉

    In what way is the AA similar? The informality and lack of god talk? Or is the federated activities also present?

  12. John Clavin

    “In what way is the AA similar? The informality and lack of god talk? Or is the federated activities also present?”

    Although the original AA literature, that has never been changed, implies a supernatural deity, many AA members refer to a power greater than themself that can be anything from gravity to the collective consciousness of the group. Our “We Agnostic” group reads at the start of the meeting that any belief or non-belief is welcome here. The religious sounding AA stuff is not read at that meeting.
    The concept is that one who may believe in a deity and one who is an atheist both live in the same universe. They both have to deal with life on life’s terms and that can be discussed without getting into specific beliefs. They both agree that there are things beyond their control, a supernatural diety on one hand and the natural laws of nature on the other hand, but it really makes no difference. If it rains they both get wet and they both grow old and die.
    I have often thought of a futuristic church like the one you describe above. Everyone would have a different belief, but they would come together with common human values.

  13. This is pretty much what a Sunday morning in Portland, Oregon, is like at a Humanists of Greater Portland meeting.

    http://vimeo.com/channels/hgp

  14. Ian

    Wow, watching the video now. Thanks a lot. Boy I wish I lived in Portland 🙂

  15. Ian

    Rowan, and thanks so much for commenting and sharing! You’re most welcome.

  16. Hi Ian – great to talk to you today. Might be worth pointing out that you are “allowed” to lead a housegroup here! And greatly valued for the breadth of knowledge and depth of reflection you bring to the task. At least by me . . .

  17. Ian

    Welcome to the blog, Rob! Thanks for calling me up on this.

    I agree, except that I don’t think I am ‘leading’, officially (care to run that one by a church meeting 🙂 ). But yes. I wasn’t referring to ‘here’ 🙂

  18. Ok, the renegade outsider persona is safe with me!

  19. I would like to publish this article in The Unitarian magazine. Could you let me know if that’s OK, and supply me with a mini-biography. My email is yaburrow@gmail.com

  20. lightamusement

    Yes, I was just thinking your ideal church bears some similarity to Unitarian Universalist groups I know.
    http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles/

  21. Very thought-provoking post. I noticed the following apparent contradiction, and wonder if I’m missing something:

    its shared quest for meaning

    no claims of fixed or ultimate meaning

    If I imagine this as multiple groups voyaging out to the stars, I can think of two basic options (one might say ‘extremes’), although others may exist. One is that different groups of us are headed to different galaxies, and will ultimately diverge and become so distant that little communicate can happen. Another is that we may have different ideas for how to get to a given galaxy, and perhaps we can only make it if all of us contributes to navigation. Can you do anything with this metaphor? I’ve been working on it for a while, and think I need someone else’s help at this point.

    P.S. Your lack of inclusion of worship songs reminds me of A.W. Tozer’s alleged claim, “Christians don’t tell lies; they go to church to sing them.”

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