My old RE teacher, Mr Lamb, once said – in a casual, throwaway manner, little realising the significance of his words – “Lads, the point is that we should love people and use things, not the other way round.” It’s a popular enough saying – Google gave me 532,000,000 hits for goodness sake! – but it still has a significance for me anyway, despite its apparent ubiquity. There’s very little I can, or care to, remember from my time at high school but that one has stuck with me – even through my most hedonistic, self-absorbed and downright stupid times, of which there have been many!
I’m hopeful that I’ve lived as closely to this idea as I could since I heard Mr Lamb say it – with varying degrees of success, ranging from “Bang on the money!” to “Who am I kidding?” – but, I’m sure that I don’t get it right anything like enough of the time!
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of church – again as part of my own personal response to what we’re looking at in my home church at the moment; the idea of church and ‘belonging’ – and it got me thinking through my experiences and my ideals.
A good few years ago now, I went through what I refer to as “The Pastor Factory” – i.e. theological college – but didn’t end up taking the plunge and getting my ‘License to Minister’ and becoming a fully fledged “Reverend.” (It just wasn’t the thing to do, I couldn’t imagine myself as anything even approaching ‘Reverend’ and I don’t think I’m cut out for the whole turned around collar thing.) Whilst I was there, I was encouraged to think of ways to encourage ‘every member ministry’ and to think of ways to engage the entire community of church, but somehow I always felt it was through a prism of ‘programmes’ and ‘projects.’
There was then, and there is now, a feeling that the church has gradually been infiltrated by a sort of target driven mentality – how many members do we have? How is the giving in church? How many baptisms are we doing? Are we getting enough bums on seats at our Alpha course? It’s a short leap to league-tables, I’m telling you …
Whilst I understand that any kind of communal venture needs some element of organisation, planning and structural accountability, I frequently felt – and often still feel – that there’s an over-reliance on the form of things, theories of organisation, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the latest management techniques. I’m not advocating that we rely solely on a ‘seat of the pants’ approach (often sanctified as being ‘spirit-led’) but going too far into short, medium and long-term plans and strategy meetings drives me bananas! I’m not sure if that’s because I have a deep-rooted antipathy towards middle managers and buzzwords like ‘blue-sky thinking’ and ‘thinking outside of the box’ and ‘forward facing’ and other such meaningless twaddle or whether it’s just that I’m pathologically really, really, really badly organised!
I remember sitting in a seminar about ‘Leadership’ and becoming increasingly concerned that I could have been in just about any context other than allegedly learning about leading a church! I remember reading textbooks that talked about Christianity and its ‘market share’ and such like. It seemed to me that as much as we said that ‘we’re in the world and not of it’ we had wholeheartedly bought into the idea that the world’s ways were the things to take on board; I found myself thinking that I was in danger of getting sucked into an ecclesiastical machine and formed (however gently) into a ‘cookie cutter Christian.’
Mind you, there does seem to be this sort of default position for a lot of us engaged in church life, one that causes us to huddle in committee meetings and elders and deacons meetings and church AGMs and endlessly discuss future plans. It feels like we take a position that adopts the forms of business and busy-ness to get us through an implicit or an implied agenda; we assume an attitude that ‘feeds the beast’ of rotas and meetings and somehow forces the church of God to resemble a board meeting at some black-turtleneck-wearing advertising agency. I recall (with horror) sitting in a church meeting and hearing one of the founding pastors say (without even the slightest hint of irony or even self-consciousness) “Of course, like any other business, we have a five year plan …”
You may well have already guessed this … I think that just sucks!
Ralph Neighbor Jr, writes about PBD (“Program Based Design”) churches as places structured around specific programmes and constructs, like board meetings, trustees meetings, prayer groups, study groups, youth groups etc., etc.. Whilst I’m not Ralph’s biggest fan I get where he’s coming from with this, or at least I think I do – there are (in my opinion and – sadly – my experience) too many churches that exist to sustain and perpetuate their internal structures and practises, that spend more of their time focussed on their own needs almost to the total exclusion of considering anything that takes place outside of the church building and/or congregation. PBD churches are set up to sustain themselves as distinct entities, not to engage with and serve – oh, they’ll tell you that they are, but they’ll tell you that in the sixteen week ‘How to serve the Church’ seminar series that forms part of the ‘expected commitments’ for any prospective member …
I get agitated by the horrible feeling that too many churches are focussed on their ‘product’ – using advertising methodologies and jargon to present a gospel that feels more like just another self-help doctrine, rather than a revolutionary challenge to live a real, up and down, confusing, exhilarating, exasperating, uncompromising and profoundly counter-cultural life.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe that all churches are like this, or even that many of them are; I just think that there are too many! One is too many!
When Jesus walked through first century Israel, He didn’t spend too much time debating with people about the internal layout and decorations that should be used in the local synagogue; He met people wherever they were.
He didn’t seem to put too much store in ensuring that everyone signed up to a specific, exhaustive set of doctrinal statements before He’d extend a hand of friendship and healing.
He didn’t seem to be any great respecter of pompous, pious religiosity and those who would argue the minutiae of Sabbath theology when there were people around who needed to know that God was on their side.
He didn’t spend His time checking whether people were the ‘right sort of person,’ to qualify for His blessing – in fact He sought out those that the religious judged were the very antithesis of the ‘right sort’ – instead, He gave His time to those who needed it, even when the ‘righteous’ condemned Him for it.
And, even though He was acutely aware of the value of history and tradition, He wasn’t interested in preserving the way things were just for the sake of it, He was more interested in building a future that brought the promises of the past and made them living realities in the lives of those around Him.
He had no patience with those who wanted to preserve the ‘product’ at the expense of the person. He knew, and demonstrated, that people – regardless of gender, past, origin, and even belief, were more important than religion. Jesus was far more interested in reaching out than He was in holding back; He wanted to see people set free from their fears and doubts and included in God’s grace and story, not cowed and rejected by judgemental exclusivists who set the bar impossibly high.
In short, Jesus loved people far more than He ever loved ‘things.’
The challenge for us is to try to be the same.