Why do Christians have such a record of falling out with each other over church services? Why do we demonise other churches and Christians, feel such deflation and anger over services we don’t like; why are our emotions so engaged over notices, music and sermons so that we fall so quickly from some of the most fundamental patterns of the Christian life?
[Aside: There’s a whole heap of words that have been written in the States about how the ‘Church’ has kicked individuals in the teeth, how people have become disillusioned by fundamentalist teaching, narrow-minded and insensitive church discipline or the abuse of power by church leaders. I haven’t read too much of it. My guess is that the complaints are often quite specific and don’t necessarily translate too well to our situation. Still, it’s something to be away of and explore if opportunity arises.]
I think we get so tired and fed-up with church because we care. It’s an obvious point, but in the throws of a disagreement it’s not always appreciated. But I’m not simply going to advocate empathy and listening to one another. That goes without saying but doesn’t really address the something that seems to be underlying the whole situation.
My point is rather that we care because God and our faith underpin the core of a Christian’s personality and identity. If you confuse me about who God, if you make me frightened and doubt that God loves me, I will hate you. That might not make all that much sense, from one perspective, because surely we should be more interested in pursuing the truth about who God is than in getting people to tell us what we want to hear, but that’s rarely how faith works – for good or ill.
Let me give a couple of examples. A woman walks into a charismatic meeting. She’s used to a formal, liturgical service. Testimonies are given from the front about how God has been experienced directly in that person’s life during the past week. The sermon speaks of the necessity of ‘pushing into God’ in prayer. Those sitting next to her seem lost in the music of worship. How will this woman react? She will either assume that these people have something that she needs and doesn’t have, or she will miss what she’s used to and long for the familiar words of the liturgy that remind her of who she is in Christ and perhaps feel that her own faith is not valued here.
The situation could be flipped. The Christian whose faith is highly experientially grounded might well come to a Catholic liturgy and feel the ‘words, words, words’ just go on forever and leave him cold.
Would either Christian be able to settle in congregations they visited? Possibly some might, but the very fact that these different churches exists implies that most wouldn’t.
The point is that this is not simply a question of acclimatisation but rather that God and faith matters to us in a profound way and we look for a church in which our identity can be strengthened and nurtured and it’s very difficult for us to handle uncertainty or contradiction in that place that we call our Christian home.
The way forward for disparate groups is not compromise, a bit of a service that suits one person and a bit for another. That way leads to universal dissatisfaction. Nor is the answer simply listening and understanding one another, as though all practices are ultimately of the same value and interchangeable. The answer lies in participation, in ownership. The model of the body insists that church only exists in diversity and that all must be valued with the history and experiences that in part constitute each one of us and so constitute the body. The Church will not progress by getting rid of ‘dead wood’ or by attracting ‘the right sort of people’. It’s our job to find the lost sheep, not lose them.
That doesn’t mean there is no role of correction or leadership but that such activities take place in the context of personal relationships. It also means that leadership must be able to navigate diversity while maintaining the personal.
Does this give us an answer to our dissatisfactions? Perhaps it’s a start, and enough for today!