the art of choosing a church, part I

This summer I read Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday. It includes this passage at the end, in which she imagines what the church might say in a woman’s voice, as a body and a bride:

“Perhaps she would speak of the way a regular body moves thorugh the world – always changing, never perfect – capable of nurturing life… Perhaps she would speak of impossible expectations and all the time she’s wasted trying to contort herself into the shape of those amorphous silhouettes that flit from magazines and billboards into her mind… Or maybe she would explain how none of the categories created for her sum her up and catpure her essence… Sometimes I think the biggest challenge in talking about the church is telling ourselves the truth about it – acknowledging the scars, staring down the ugly bits, marveling at its resiliency, and believing that this flawed and magnificent body is enough, for now…”

I liked it. At the end of a book about struggling with being a part of church (something I could identify with a lot) it felt like making a good peace. A kind of acceptance without lying to yourself and saying that accommodations aren’t being made. It was something I needed to be reminded of, because I’d just embarked on a summer of visiting some of the churches in my immediate neighbourhood with a view to moving from the church I’ve been a member of for the past four and a bit years to somewhere closer to my current home (by which I mean: somewhere within a mile radius not a three mile radius, because LOL, London).

Church shopping is a term that gets used for this process. I’ve used it myself at times, because its an easy term to describe what’s happening, and people understand it. I don’t like it though, because even when it’s used with a sarcastic eyebrow, it says something about our assumptions about what matters when we’re deciding on a church to join. It says, I’m choosing a church like I’d choose a pair of trousers, looking for the perfect fit in all the important places so that I feel comfortable- and hoping this church will be so wonderful that it will keep all the ugly bits tucked in and hidden away. It makes the search about me and what I’m going to get out of a church, not about the church and what I’m going to put in to it. It expects church to accomodate me, not me to accomodate myself to the rest of the church.

But that’s not what church is about, and it’s an approach that’s not good for me and not good for the church because it perpetuates a set of false expectations about what and how church should be. In church shopping world, if we’re not happy with our church it’s the church’s fault, not a fault in us. In this world, if a church doesn’t work for me, either it should change, or I get to go somewhere else, because one of those options will fix the problem. But they won’t, and that way disillusionment and pain lie, and at its ultimate end we’ll church and  its congregants yelling at each other because, why  can’t they just be better?

And yet church isn’t supposed to be about me, it’s about we – and we are not intended to be a clone army. If church is a body, then it’s made up of lots of different bits thats somehow hold together and mostly function, if not always as perfectly as we’d like, because, hello, broken. Yes, I’m supposed to learn and grow and stuff, but that’s not supposed to be some kind of wholly self-interested pursuit where I gain some self-improvement from the church that I then trot off with into the rest of my life. It’s supposed to be that I grow with you and our rough edges kind of rub down a little bit, and we start to become an us. There’s an eternal dance where ‘the church’ is something that we inherit from across history, but I shape it and you shape it, and it shapes us and we shape it, and each church and the whole church shifts and shapes very v-e-r-y slowly because of who is in it and when they’re in it. I don’t have to annihilate all of me to join and belong and neither do you, but neither does it, as we all move around that eternal being in the middle.

Have some T.S. Eliot:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,

(doesn’t that help?! Never mind, it’s beautiful)

Yes, there are some dances that I will dance better than others – so the individual church I’m in matters. There’s a difference bewteen tripping over yours or your partner’s feet and bumping your knee and doing so and doing more serious damage (has anyone ever concussed themselves dancing? Also, I don’t enirely know where these metaphors are going. Sorry). But – it is important to remember that you are going to bump your knee from time to time.

So, where did I want to dance?
Come back for that in the next couple of days…

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