Amongst some decrepit tables in a theological college near you, two young and bristling thinkers sip hot drinks and attempt to ward off the cold by roasting one side of themselves in front of a friendly brown gas heater, while their other side slowly freezes. The coffee tastes both instant and stale, the carpet stained, the walls threatening to sigh and give up and the room is illuminated by a rather stoic if lonely vending machine and some naked and harsh fluorescent bulbs. Within this room a peculiar and rare phenomenon is taking place, something which defies physics, logic, causality and chance.
Christians from different traditions are disagreeing with each other in love.
Let us leave temporarily the questionable carpet stains of our postmodern semi-monastic surroundings and think about why we understand the above point to be somewhat ironic.
All of humanity displays observable trends. The study of sociology and anthropology, culture, psychology, behavioural science etc is made possible because of reoccurring patterns. Human beings are in many ways predictable. We have biases, we have personalities, tastes, proclivities, favourites, comfort zones, routines, customisable play-lists for our music etc. It is therefore somewhat obvious that the core personality of the person (their ontology), whether conservative or avant-garde, filters into and affects everything about the person. My particularly conservative streak affects the way I vote, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the media I choose to interact with etc. Alternately my avant-garde nature also influences the way I structure my life, my budgeting, the contents of my house, the way I engage with the world etc. Who I am in terms of ‘content of character’ (to accidentally borrow from Martin Luther King) exhibits its flow-on effect in every facet of my daily life. In short, who I am influences ‘how I do’.
Including Church life. My preferred size for a congregation. The style of liturgy or worship. The dress code. Gender roles. Decor. Candles or no candles. Pews or beanbags. Raise hands or no raising hands. Wine or grape juice. One chalice or many tiny cups. Kneeling or no kneeling. Calling out amen or nodding thoughtfully in silence whilst rubbing the chin... and the list goes on.
Again I suggest that this is the first and obvious step. The second is more difficult.
The second step is trying to get along with the people who aren’t like me... perhaps it would be more accurate to say – the people who are radically different to me.
This is where congregational marketing sort of dies.
No one wants to use the slogan “Our Church is full of people who will frustrate you”, or perhaps the more subtle “discomfort in Jesus every Sunday”. People want to feel accepted, a sense of belonging, as though they fit in etc. This is certainly easier to arrange if a congregation is geared towards a specific demographic. Maybe it’s a particularly conservative demographic, maybe it’s a particularly avant-garde one, but church becomes easier in a way because the corporate personality of the congregation operates with less tension. There are fewer fights over ecclesiological structure, there are fewer disputes about what things should take priority and there are common values. The ‘doing’ of Church is easier because unity is only natural when you have a certain degree of voluntary conformity.
This type of congregation is easy to advertise and easy to please. You know who and what you are dealing with and it is easy to speak on behalf of the general opinion. If they’re swimming at the conservative end of the pool or if they are particularly avant-garde it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know many of the things which will score high on the values and priorities list and what will score low. This sort of simple analysis is at work every time you see an ad on a webpage suggesting things which might also appeal to you – it’s a numbers game, it is statistically simple. Most people who clicked on this link also clicked on this one, or read this book, or liked this article, or voted in this way, or found this funny. This is what market research is based on – how can things be geared to appeal in a more global sense to our target demographic.
Church marketing dies here because the target demographic of the Kingdom of God is the whole spectrum of humanity, not just my comfort zone. God does not call all people to become like me. God does not call all people to become like you. God does not call all people to become conservative. God does not call all people to become avant-garde. God calls all people to become who He made them to be.
The mission of making disciples is, therefore, to be conducted in such a way as it both trains and equips people to be wholly themselves in light of who God made and is making them to be - as well as calling people to repent of their self-centredness and to forsake themselves to and for the glory and grace of Christ, through the Spirit. The process of discipleship is not aimed at moving people through a sausage machine in order to encourage conformity to anything other than the likeness and mind of Christ.
The Kingdom of God is filled with personalities from every strange and obscure corner. The earthing of the divine triune life in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – made possible by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ – further emphasises the nature of God’s love of diversity. To every person who receives Christ, the Spirit is given as the parakletos. The Spirit is the comforter, the one who comes alongside, the one who guides into all truth, the one who makes known the Father and draws all further unto Christ. And this Spirit, this interpersonal seal of our salvation, is not just given to the avant-garde. This Spirit is not just given to the conservative. This Spirit is given freely, regardless of personality.
I am convinced that so often our defining of that maturity to which we are being encouraged by the Spirit is a definition which stresses conformity not diversity. Our definition of what it is to be a mature follower of Christ is so often limited and inhibited by the bias of the general congregational personality where we fellowship. To be mature is to conform to the likeness of the group, and sometimes at the expense of who we are released to be by the Spirit.
Imagine a spectrum. At one end let us place the archetypal conservative personality and at the other the avant-garde. We know that people feel comfortable congregating with others who are similarly positioned on the spectrum to themselves. It is not an extraordinarily odd thing to associate with like minded people. Sociologists are surely not surprised to find churches which are largely conservative or avant-garde in composition. The conservative finds comfort with the conservatives, the avant-garde with the avant-garde.
But we cannot move from an 'is' to an 'ought'.
Here is the point. For any congregation to gear its sociologically normal tendancy and use it to deliberately limit either actively or passively the fellowship of the saints on the basis of discomfort with a particular facet of the Holy Spirit’s expression and activity is to place the Spirit of God’s presence, activity and expression below and subject to their own comfort. Therefore the Spirit of God stands before the judgement seat of man and humbly asks permission to invite people to fellowship who have personalities, gifts, graces or expressions other than the social norm. The maintenance of the status quo overbears the fellowship of the saints, the very courtship of humanity by the Spirit and the Father and the Son.
For example, I grew up in a congregation which was particularly avant-garde. There were many interesting terms which were used to describe that church and most were used in a derogatory way. Hype. Emotional. Fundamentalist. Anti-intellectual. Disorganised. Childish. Ecstatic. Frenzied etc. That congregation would on occasion use equally loaded words to refer to those residing at the other end of the spectrum. Dead. Anti-Holy Spirit. Stagnant. Intellectualist. Hollow. Trapped etc.
The difficulty which I was faced with the most was that I was increasingly aware of the Spirit of God being present in ‘dead’ things. Like a prayer which was written down and read out rather than spontaneous. Like the words of a preacher or theologian long gone which would move from the page through my mind to pierce my heart with the glory and majesty of God. I was increasingly aware that my personality - if I was to be true to who God made me to be and was calling me to mature into – was very much geared for the conservative end of the spectrum and I was in a congregation which was at the other, though I could hardly articulate it at the time.
By the same token I have stood in more recent years and sung praises to God alongside others who have openly detracted such activities as that little church’s as ‘hype’. I have had more than one conversation with people suggesting that ecumenism will take a significant step forward when avant-garde congregations grow up or mature or settle down or ‘get over themselves’. Just as the tendency from one end of the spectrum questions the supposed validity of any activity of the Holy Spirit so removed from their own – so does the other.
At its extreme, each supposes on the basis of the corporate ‘norm’ of expression that the other is operating in an absence of the Spirit.
The conservative points the finger and says ‘hype’, the avant-garde points the finger and says ‘dead’. The Spirit of God points and says ‘diversity’, ‘creativity’, ‘genuine-ness’.
"1Co 12:18-27 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."
The body of Christ needs people to be way out there at the avant-garde end of the spectrum because not only Has God created them that way and released them to be there, but there are people in this world that God desires as His own who can only be ministered to by the avant-garde of the Kingdom of God. The body of Christ also needs people who are equally conservative – people whose personalities are equally formed and released by the Spirit into being operating in the most conservative of social spheres.
Christian maturity cannot therefore be measured by either the effervescence or the quiescence of a personality. Treading out the narrow path is not so parochial.
Think with me for a minute about the Christian you know who frustrates you the most.
(you know who they are)
If you were to sit and drink stale instant coffee with them, having stained carpet and a friendly gas heater for company – and to disagree about what expression of congregational gathering would be ‘nicest’ or ‘best’ or ‘most effective’, would you love them?
Would you love them in Christ’s name?
Would you love the ecstatic, gushing, emotional, seemingly spiritually bipolar servant of Christ?
Would you love the one who never seems to sing, or move, or pray in public? The one who only carries a KJV, dislikes loud music and wears a cardigan? Would you love them because Christ loves them?
Would you welcome them with open arms the way He does?
Would you thank God that these people have received the same grace and forgiveness that you have?
Would you thank God that they are not like you?
Will I thank God that they are not like me? Will I rejoice with them when they rejoice – no matter how ecstatic or boring their expression is?
Will we begin to act like the body of Christ.