It is amazing how certain comments stick in the mind. It is hard to know whether it is the context in which they are spoken or the sheer simplicity with which the comment nails its intended target, but nonetheless some things remain with you. I am regularly reminded of one of the funniest, and yet searingly clear, comments I received whilst engaged in mission work.
The context was my regular pilgrimage to the Holy Land; or, Llandudno as it is more commonly known. I was co-leading a week of mission. Much of the work involved cold-contact evangelism; approaching folk on the promenade and trying to generate conversation. The aim would be to share something of Christ and perhaps leave them with a Christian book or piece of literature to read in their own time. Sometimes conversations take off – often in ways you wouldn’t expect – and excellent theological discussion can take place. RC Sproul was right when he noted, ‘everyone’s a theologian’.
One particular afternoon, I got chatting to a couple of couples. It was the usual Llandudno clientele: nominally Christian, vaguely religious types who believe in ‘something’, probably God, but generally don’t bother with church and whose supposed Christianity had very little practical outworking. I remember mining some of their inconsistencies. They had strong views on what Christianity was supposed to be but little in the way of anything to back it up in practice. They were certain church should be traditional but didn’t see much need to go.
At some point, however, things took a slight detour. I suppose in a bid to sound a bit more religious, presumably feeling a bit exposed and wanting to fit in with the God-botherer presently forcing them to consider matters they had long tried to block out, one of my interlocutors volunteered that they did watch Songs of Praise periodically (presumably as they were led by the Spirit, who apparently saw no need to lead them to a church). The lady proferring this defence of her religiosity clearly hadn’t counted on her husband’s similar view of the programme to me.
In the way that only a plain speaking Northern man can, he said something approximating this. The final key sentence, however, is verbatim:
It used to be OK. It used to be traditional hymns and that. But last time we turned it on, they had that Stomp on. It were a right racket. I mean, that’s not church; it’s just banging dustbins!
Without realising, this man had offered a fine theological defence of the regulative principle of worship. I daren’t argue that I wasn’t quite a fully paid up regulative principle adherent – though I’m not so far away in practice – because, despite our divergent logical paths, we both alighted on the same conclusion: that’s not church; it’s just banging dustbins.
But where to take the conversation from here? Should I push these people toward an actual church or affirm them in their errant belief that it is unimportant? But I wasn’t there to send them to church, or encourage them to try and be ‘a bit more religious’, I was trying to share the gospel. What about talking about sin as rubbish for the bin and Christ as the divine binman? Absolutely not. That’s the kind of schtick reserved for ill-prepared gospel services in which the speaker is trying far too hard to be ‘relevant’ and the captive audience too polite to get up and walk off, sickened by the lameness of it all. Truth be told, beyond agreeing with him about the programme and leaving them with some literature I forget my response, which I’m sure wasn’t all that interesting anyway.
The reason this comment came to mind again is that it tells us something instructive about church. Even those who have no real Christianity to speak of expect church to be relatively ‘churchy’ when they come in. Far too many of us spend our time wringing our hands hoping to make church accessible and remove the barriers we presume will keep people away. My experience, as this conversation also affirmed, is that more people are put off by our innovations than anything we tend to think put them off.
It seems especially pertinent this time of year as Christmas and New Year often see a slight break in the standard programmes of the church. We may begin thinking a bit more evangelistically in the not unreasonable hope that, this time of year, people may just wander into our church for a sprinkling of culturally acceptable religious tradition. But tied up with this mode of evangelistic thinking comes a heavy dose of hand-wringing about the religious stuff that may put people off. Will they come in if we’re too religious? Won’t the things we do be off-putting because they have no frame of reference?
It has more commonly been my experience that people find the church ‘cult-like’ (the chosen word of actual visitors I have met) when it tries hard not to look like a church. People expect the church to be churchy. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be down to earth or act like real people. It simply means that people are more likely to be repelled by the things that we think they’ll embrace than we perhaps realise. In the end, we need to make sure that we don’t end up just banging dustbins. After all, that’s not church – it turns out nobody else will think so either.