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.
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.
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.
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.