One of my colleagues* when we lived and worked in Newcastle upon Tyne frequently used the phrase ‘we are a church of ragged edges.’ It was probably more accurate to say that we were ‘becoming’ a church with ragged edges, but the intention was very much there.
This phrase captured for me what I’d always understood church to be: messy and chaotic, but also radically loving and inclusive of people from all walks of life. Sadly, sometimes our theology gets in the way of that. If you are ragged at the edges, that doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t have a solid gospel-shaped, Christ-centred core towards which people are invited to journey. It simply means that the church loses its walls – in fact, it means that the walls have been attacked with a great big sledge hammer.
I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time in prayer out on our local community of Hertford recently. This has been, as always, so valuable. To watch, to see, to listen to local people going about their daily business gives a real sense of who is out there and what is going on for them. It is also an interesting exercise to contrast the kind of folks ‘out there’ with the folks who most significantly populate the church fellowship. Quite a contrast in many ways.
Here’s how I think a church can learn to be ragged:
- recognise that everyone journeys towards Christ at a different pace, in response to the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Hardly anyone has ‘arrived’ in the Christian life, and some folks journey slower. We seek to make space for that and dispense grace and understanding
- recognise that coming to Christ is not the same as converting to a particular culture. You don’t have to be or become white middle class to be a Christian, and yet that often happens in our country. What does an authentic expression of Christian faith in Hertford (or insert your own preferred town) really look like?
- recognise that we need to put away our ideas of perfection. As the great Leonard Cohen used to say, ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.’ Bonhoeffer, in his book ‘Life Together’, says that it is our lofty ideals about what Christian community should be that often prevents that community from ever realising any sort of fullness. The followers of Jesus were a real shocker of a bunch – broken lives becoming whole
- recognise the need to be real – because people can see through falseness, fakery and flakery. Most people I’ve encountered ‘outside’ the church would consider belonging to something that wasn’t deluded with its own sense of importance, or in keeping up appearances.
- recognise the thirst for community, not entertainment. The world is so much better at putting on a ‘good show’ than the church, and so, these days, the largely ‘attractional model’ which expresses itself in simply being fancy isn’t really going to cut it, especially with the emerging millenial generation. People want to know that people have their back. Authenticity trumps any ideas we have about ‘relevance’ every time.
- recognise that, sometimes, your theology will never fully reconcile with the reality of life. We certainly don’t give up on seeking to be fully true to Christ, but in the process, things, health, communities, people and their lives can break down. That’s where it’s important to be radically loving. Most churches have a lot to learn here.
- recognise the need to create ‘altars in the world’, or to ‘sanctify the ordinary’. What I mean by that is that God is far from restricted to the Sanctuary. He’s as present in the coffee shop, front room, football pitch, commuter train, school and street than he is anywhere else. God can, and must, be encountered all-times and every-where. This is a challenge to any church who is only available/visible for one hour on a Sunday.
My colleague had another phrase: we’re a 7 day-a-week community. Our building was a community hub, always open and acceptable. The possibility of Christian friendship, company and community were pretty much always available at least at some time each day. People knew there was somewhere to come!
All this aspirational stuff – we may fall shorter than we’d like, but I think they’re really good intentions to hold and work towards.
*Pastor David Bedford is a URC minister currently in Dorking, but who I worked with at Trinity Gosforth Methodist/URC local ecumenical partnership in Newcastle upon Tyne.