Do you ever try to look behind the façade? Or is that just a little too scary for you?
I visited a church on Sunday.
The modern looking cross at the front struck a contrast with the old architecture, and was illuminated by lights from the base. On the columns were speakers, with big LCD screens positioned so that those in the side seating would have full visual access to all that happened.
There were no pews. Instead, loosely arranged rows of basic chairs were interrupted with deep seated couches. They had painted the churches interior - the vaulted roof, walls and all. And not just a plain colour, but with decorative areas of deep pastels among sections of off-whites, brightening up the place no end (although some wear and tear was evident) … even the organ pipes had not escaped. It felt like walking into a lived-in home.
The music was a modern blend of guitar, keyboard, bass guitar and drums - acoustics were less than ideal, and the projection lyrics got lost at times, but none of that really mattered. The lead was a prominently tattooed vocalist / guitarist, supported by an excellent backing singer. Volumes ranged from quiet to very loud. Woman featured prominently throughout the service. Robes and adornments were absent and the style was casual – a short denim dress for the main speaker! The feeling was unashamedly family! Kids roamed - the noise was not aggressively contained but remained at typical family levels. The opening songs were kid-focused, and un-embarrassedly led by a 20-something couple full of energy and actions. When the children left for their “life course” sunday school (it sounded like an Alpha course for pre-teens), everything stopped for 5 minutes to let people chat while we transitioned into an “adult-zone” … meaning that the intellectual language went up a notch, but without any theological dilution of the simple hard truths that had just been given to children (as is so often the case when churches overcomplicate simplicity in order to sound "adult").
The congregation – that's a poor word, let's say the gathering – seemed fully engaged; their attention was focused, voices raised in song, mobile phones put away, and bodies in motion. Ages ranged from the white-haired old gent down to the 20-year old's fashion statement. From the front the lead was as a conversation – not of imposing instruction or abstract idealism, but framed as discussion and an implied invitation to participation - as one might enjoy at a dinner table.
Theology was orthodox.
It was all just so natural, so normal. The speaker drew on everyday experiences … such as talking about an episode of “Game of Thrones” (which she admitted she probably shouldn't be watching), and a personal story of recently trying to gate-crash a live performance of a band she had loved as a teenager. When, during the talk, the presumed minister-in-charge (sitting in a front row couch) publicly interrupted to indicate that she'd only got to the first point and time was running out, she simply said “oh you, shush!” and carried on - I gather he was her husband. That he could interrupt her, that she could publicly “shush” him, and that everyone simply took it all as normal, only served to reinforce the sense that this was family!
This gathering appeared to reflect every-day lives coming together in a gathering around the cross. The typical façade of religiosity or the formulaic contemporary expression that I've so come to expect in churches (even in post-modern churches) was simply not there.
When the Dads were invited to stand in recognition of their role (this was fathers day), and when the Dads were prayed for with the kids and woman moving around to lay on hands, it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
At the back, next to the table serving pre-service hot bacon rolls and coffee for breakfast (at 11am!) was a display of recommended books. Alongside the expected Bible and a few easy-read authors like Yancy, were some that would challenge the motivation (and possibly the comprehension) of many in my church. Like the book on the essential Chesterton, or the thick academically-oriented tome critiquing modern thought on the tension between science and religion - both subjects dear to my heart but seemingly unshared by others in my own community. I bought both, and they didn't seem to know how much to charge, so simply took what I offered to pay - I think I overpaid, but that's good.
As best a visitor can read a situation, I took this all to indicate a community of believers who were engaged in living out who they were with a full heart, soul, mind and strength, and doing so naturally, imperfectly, and unashamedly.
I'm sure not everything is as ideal as it appeared There are probably, almost certainly, behind-the-scenes problems; this side of heaven there always will be. But this was a church that looked like it had thrown out the mentality of "tradition for traditions sake", and instead said "lets use the liturgy, form, function, and facilities to serve who we are and what we do – we'll not serve the heritage, but rather incorporate the heritage into who we are, changing, discarding, and creatively inventing as needed".
The result is a deeply attractive natural expression of Christian community.
I am reminded of Chesterton's comment: “The orthodox church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox church was never respectable. ... It is always easy to let the age have its head, the difficult thing is to keep ones own. It is always easy to be a modernist, as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of these open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple. … To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”
I dream of being in such a family this side of heaven. A family of wild and untamed orthodoxy, where truth leads and form follows, and where heart, soul, mind and strength bend all conventions to the real purposes of Christian living.
It seems I had a taste of what could be, which makes not having it all the harder.