A friend, who has recently begun a new job working in a university context, wrote to me about the idea of the church with fuzzy edges.
Here are some of her comments:
"In my new job, I have been asked much about my association with the church.
People automatically feel anxious about it. I feel that much more than
actually wanting to know about my church background or my operating faith
framework, the real question behind their questions is, "In what way will
your idea of the church exclude me?" So far, that question has been behind
at least three of my five staff member’s questions of my church affiliation."
She went on to remark that to people who are ‘outside’ the church, it all looks very divided, and divisive: "so do the Baptists hate gay people?" or worse, "so Baptists don’t really like any of the other churches, huh?"
There are a lot of important things here, to comment upon. I hope others will engage with this too.
First, to say something about my own experience of ‘exclusion’, as a card-carrying Baptist:
One of the biggest problems Baptists have is our persistent habit of defining our identity through what we are against, what we oppose, and therefore implicitly whom we exclude.
The very idea of doctrinal formulation has almost always been in order to outline who is ‘out’.
We have it in a really bad dose.
Recently I have been involved with a small group in a ministry team, trying to re-write the content pages for a Baptist website.
There was one on ‘Baptist beliefs’. A draft I saw last week, in most ways really excellent, had this character: in almost all the ten or so paragraphs, each one began with a statement of what we don’t agree with, then went on to something we do affirm.
The classic is our position on baptism: almost all Baptists can tell you what we don’t agree with (sprinkling infants). But why we do what we do, and what it means—well, our people mostly have no idea.
Another basic issue has to do with our preoccupation with constitutions, as if this defines the church.
The church is a spiritual community—a community of the Spirit. You wouldn’t have thought so. Most churches are defined by their rule books. I have many times raised the idea of having a church without a constitution. The fear this idea evokes is palpable.
It is hard to trust the Spirit. But if not that, what do we have? A rule book?
The idea of the church as a community of faith, that is people trying to live together in faith, attending to God’s Word and to what the Spirit is calling them to be and do: this is the church. It ought to be enough.
Then we come to what is called the ‘form’ of the church. My conviction is that in this era we are finally moving away from the village church model, only 300 years after most people moved from villages.
People no longer live near the church, walk past it every day, pop in on the way to work or the way home (Morning Prayer, Evensong …) — and in reality of course we only ‘gather’ as church once a week, if that, for an hour or so.
Yet we persist with the idea that this gathering creates ‘church’. We try to crank it up, week by week, to ‘create’ community.
Somehow, an utterly new paradigm has to emerge: and this means it will take more than a year, or a decade, or a life-time even … to replace a model that has lasted for 15 centuries or so.
There will be lots of experimentation, and much of it will fail. Many will lose any sense of ‘church’, I suspect.
But the Spirit will persist.
It will be interesting to see what happens—if we have the courage to let it happen.
The church with fuzzy edges is not just about who is in and who is out. In the end it is about being the church: and that ultimately is about whether we define and determine this to which we belong, or do we join with the One who is already community, and is always and everywhere evoking new community.
So the next big thing to think about is: How do we discern what God is doing, and join with that?
What do you reckon?