Why Going to Church makes you a Better Person

On Sunday I begin a series of sermons on the church and how it functions. These are some preliminary thoughts. They are not theological. They are observations. And I should say that although I cannot speak for any of them I am sure that almost all, perhaps all, of what I am saying here will be true of other faith communities as well.

My belief is that at its best church is a community in which serious transformational work takes place. Of course, at its worst it is simply a club which serves the immature and unchallenged needs of its members. In many ways therefore, the more people who are complaining in a church the better it is doing its job.

Going to church makes you a better person because it is in the challenge of living, working, worshipping, serving and sticking with a particular (faith) community that you begin to ask the difficult questions about yourself and the community begins to grind down your rough edges. Being a member of a church is like being in a bad marriage with a lot of very challenging people. It is painful. Those who walk away from that or think that it can be avoided have not actually engaged with church at all.

I’ll come, in a minute, to what I am not saying but what I am saying is that if you are part of a church and you stick with it when it becomes difficult then you will grow as a human being because of it.

I am not saying that churches are good or healthy groups of people. They about as healthy as the average waiting area in the average Medical Centre. On a bad day it is more like a Casualty Department on a Saturday night.

Whoever first observed that the church is full of hypocrites was correct. So, of course, was the person who replied that there is always room for one more. A place of healing will always be full of sick and complaining people.

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Churches are not healthy places but after a long time spent judging everyone else there is eventually a moment when you realise that you are probably not the odd one out. You realise with a sense of horror and relief that there is no odd one out. We are all equally but differently odd. And in the process of learning to live with that we find that we learn to live with each other and that does make us better people.

At that point in your development it will also dawn on you just how patient everyone else has been with you. You may find yourself acknowledging that to other people. That is Confession (not a sacrament in the Church of Scotland) at its very best, its most authentic and when it has the greatest capacity to heal. It is the realisation that, ‘as you are, so am I’ which is a step on the way to recognising that ‘you and I are one’. For ‘realisation’, read ‘enlightenment’, ‘salvation’.

Now, while I am arguing that going to church makes you a better person let me make very clear that I am not saying that going to church makes you a better person than anyone else or a better person than someone who does not go to church. My assertion is that going to church can make you a better person than you would have been had you not started to go to church. And the reason is not theological. Some of the people in whom I have seen the greatest transformation only begin to talk and reflect in theological terms long after the process of inner change has begun.

Church involvement moves us forward on the path of self-recognition. At its best, church is a place in which serious spiritual work is done. And in any congregation you will have everyone from the casual, passive, disengaged Sunday morning (perhaps not even every week) attender through to the person who has really understood what is going on and in whom there really is a difficult process of change unfolding.

This is in keeping with Jesus’ teaching which was all about changing what we do so that the change in how we think can be brought about.

I am also aware that you may well be able to get a similar effect and that transformation may occur if you were to engage in some types of therapy or social activity, join other kinds of community or spend your time working for the good of others in some kind of social project for example. You’ll lose the rough edges there and your self-centredness may well be challenged.

And all of this is impossible to measure anyway. There is no empirical data. What I can say is that, after a long time observing different people in a church setting, those who do actually engage at a level beyond mere Sunday morning attendance experience some kind of a transformation in the way in which they perceive themselves and others.

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A lot of it is to do with commitment. The first indication that the church is doing its work on you is when you are hurt, your feelings are hurt, you are offended. You feel that you have been rejected but you haven’t. Perhaps you have. Mistakes are often made. Signals are misread but it is more likely that it is a reality check for everyone concerned. A lot of people leave a church at that point or disengage from it. There are people who flit from one church to another, never persevering beyond the honeymoon phase. However, stick with it at this point because if you ever want to understand how Jesus’ teaching works then it is at this point that you will understand it if you dare to apply it. Jesus does not change the situation. Jesus changes the way you see it (see especially 21 June but also on into July). His teaching changes the way you see yourself too.

I always have alarm bells going when people speak of their own need to be needed. They seldom actually articulate it. Very few of us have the self-awareness to recognise it in ourselves but others around you will. The congregation will. There are those who wish to lead and those who wish to be led and people at either extreme can be difficult for the community to deal with and can have real difficulty with the community because they feel themselves to be apart, different.

There are many who confuse their own wish to be at the centre with an idea of some kind of divine calling. I don’t like the language of ‘call’. Call is sanctified common sense. Authentic church begins, ends and has its middle in foot washing. Foot washing is Jesus’ statement on the church and how we should be. If foot washing is the last word, then spiritual development is self-emptying. Work on the ego is what we should be engaging with all of the time.

I have just completed a series of addresses on what Jesus taught (23 August to 18 October 2015). That is not a novel theme for a series of sermons. However, the intention was to look at what Jesus actually taught as opposed to what we have been led to believe that he taught. A series like that can only scratch the surface but what came through very clearly is that Jesus encouraged people to change their behaviour. Good theology is good practice. Action changes what we think and believe. If we engage with what Jesus invited people to do then we will begin to see and think as he thought and saw.

A church which takes Jesus’ teaching seriously will engage with people on more than one front. Dumfries Northwest Church where I am minister is as difficult to pin down and define as any church or group of people but essentially it engages with, proclaims and explores Jesus’ message in three main ways.

These are presented  in no hierarchy of importance but on a Sunday (and every second Thursday evening) there is opportunity for exploration of Jesus’ teaching and that of the early church. The sermons are biblical. The conclusions we reach may be different from those of some others but the context is Jesus’ teaching as it is recorded in the Gospels. Then there is service to and in the community and this includes the Free Meals Project, the youth work through and with the YMCA, the partnership with the Scottish Prison Service, expanding and increasing work and ministry with the elderly. And finally there is an emphasis on meditation, silence, contemplative prayer, serious spiritual work.

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If someone were to come to me and ask what Dumfries Northwest Church is about then I would send them to the Free Meals Project where they would prepare food, share food, serve food, clean toilets and work with and among some tremendous people. If they asked me where to find the people who really understand what Dumfries Northwest Church is about, I’d introduce them to the people who come in mid-week and on Saturday mornings to clean the whole building. Most of the congregation doesn’t even know that these cleaning groups exist. That is critical to understanding Dumfries Northwest Church. If you don’t ‘get’ why all of that is important then none of the rest will make any sense at all. The meals we serve and the food we give out sanctifies the rest of what we do. That is where communion happens. There is nothing as sacramental in the life of this church as the meals which are prepared, shared and consumed seven days a week.  And the cleaning of toilets and all that goes with the seven day a week engagement with that project drives us back into the Bible, into exploration of what life is about, what it is to be human, who God can possibly be in all of this mess. It also leads us to look very hard at ourselves and when on a Sunday we realise that we have pretty much nothing at all to say then we find ourselves driven into silence. It is not an empty silence. It is the silence of people who are waiting without the right questions never mind the right answers and it is in that silence that we recognise that as you are, I am and that in the end we are all one.

Our church is a community. It is a community in which we who are sick recognise that healing comes when we learn to live with and help each other.

Going to church probably doesn’t make you a better person but it does open your eyes.

Rev Scott S. McKenna and Rev David Andrew Robertson – A Misjudged Conversation

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On Wednesday 30 September 2015 I made the journey to Edinburgh, to my home church, Mayfield Salisbury to listen to what was billed officially as a conversation between Scott McKenna and David Robertson. Scott is minister of Mayfield Salisbury and David is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland.

I should say at the outset that I knew both of these men before the conversation. Scott is someone with whom I have had a number of entertaining and informative as well as stimulating conversations. David and I were undergraduate students together in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We knew each other and were on friendly terms.

Scott’s ministry to my parents (who both died earlier this year) in their final years was exemplary and it is in this capacity and in that time that I really got to know him. I have heard him preach and have followed his sermons online. In terms of theological position, Scott and I are broadly in the same camp although there are issues and questions on which he and I disagree.

Dr Morrison, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had, we were told, ‘lost his voice’ and John Chalmers, former Moderator and Principal Clerk of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was the replacement chair. You can make of that last minute switch what you will. I know what I think.

Before the discussion began I asked whether the discussion was going to be recorded and made available online. John Chalmers told me that it would not. I spoke with David immediately after the discussion and he interrupted our brief conversation to ask one of his supporters if they had managed to record the proceedings. I have attached what I presume is the resulting audio file. It is not from the Church of Scotland but it is out there and I have made it available here so that you can listen and make up your own mind about the event. It was certainly online first thing the next day – possibly on the evening of 30 September.

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I arrived early and sat at the very front. I was surrounded by Robertson supporters a few of whom spent their time either saying ‘Amen’ to Robertson or making less than positive sounds in response to most of what McKenna had to say.

Scott McKenna came across as gentle, meticulously well prepared, gracious and willing to enter into conversation. David Robertson came across as arrogant and confrontational. He knew the will and purpose of God. Scott McKenna, as you will hear him state, he would excommunicate. Robertson is (according to Robertson) correct. Scott McKenna was more gracious.

In 1979 I would have been on the Robertson side. I found myself missing that certainty and yearning with a degree of nostalgia for the comradeship of knowing that one is in the ‘right camp’ and on the side of truth. I spent a lot of the hundred mile journey home reflecting on the length of my own journey which has stretched thus far from the fundamentalism of my 1979 self to the differently radical theological view of my second decade of the twenty first century self. It will, I am sure, continue as God calls and leads.

How different, dangerous and deluded the evangelical certainty of the likes of Robertson appears when viewed from the outside. It seems so, not because it is wrong. It is everyone’s right to be wrong. It is always wise to hold onto the truth that someone who appears to be wrong may in the end be right. Evangelical certainty of the kind we heard expounded on Wednesday is dangerous and deluded because it is expressed and used in a manner which is so unlike that of Jesus. Those who genuinely believe they are defending orthodoxy fail to appreciate that they are behaving, speaking and missing the point in the same way as do the Pharisees in the New Testament.

It is everyone’s right to be wrong but Jesus’ message is not about rights and it is never OK to be wilfully unkind. I think that David Andrew Robertson who repeatedly told the audience – as he had stated elsewhere before Wednesday evening – that he likes Scott McKenna, misses the point. Who cares if he likes Scott McKenna? What has that to do with anything? He would, he states, excommunicate him (neither Scott nor anyone else seemed to care about that either).

He has doubts about to whom Scott McKenna prays. There is, in Robertson’s mind more than one Christ (although one, I suspect, is prefaced with anti) and the whole of Robertson’s gospel seems to centre around a correct understanding and expression of what God did in Jesus on the cross. Robertson’s defence of scripture came from scripture. McKenna’s valid and correct question about the Old Testament canon and the date of its agreement was swept aside.

Two things in particular crossed my mind as I listened to these two men speak. Jesus told a story about a Samaritan who broke the rules and kept the commandment to love. And when John the Baptist’s disciples asked if Jesus was the one who was to come or not, Jesus’ reply was that they should report what was happening (pretty much that the excluded were being included). I was therefore left a little confused as to how Robertson can separate ‘talking about Jesus’ from caring for others.

He may still be a nice guy but whether I like him now or liked him thirty five years ago is not the question. None of it is for me to judge. And that is the point. Some fundamentalists may be impressed by a hardline, doctrine is everything, presentation of Jesus but it was the Priest and the Levite who kept to the Law and missed the point in Jesus’ parable.

Sadly, I came away with the impression that there are two Christs. There is the one in whom I believed more than half my lifetime ago and there is the loving, inclusive, Jesus who always invited and instructed people to do, to let go, to give away and tended to be mystified by the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. I suspect the Pharisees would have excommunicated Jesus but then they had got it wrong.

I think Wednesday evening was a mistake. It was not – and I cannot imagine that it was ever going to be – a conversation. Nobody’s mind was ever going to be changed. It had the potential to become a pitched battle or a theological and ecclesiastical freak show. It failed (just) to become either. What was achieved? Little, in my opinion, if anything. There was too much judging and too little judgement. Had it been judged less poorly it would never have taken place.

In the end the world will not judge the church on whether its doctrine is good or bad. The world will judge the church on whether it is a good neighbour. Interestingly, so will God, according to Jesus. The unequivocal statement by Jesus on the subject is there for all to read in Matthew 25*. Good doctrine doesn’t come into it and the so called ‘righteous’ come out of it badly.

Matthew 25:31-46*

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”