Thursday, September 01, 2005

Surviving beyond the church

As I said, a highlight of Greenbelt for me was meeting Jenny McIntosh from Spirited Exchanges. This is the network that grew out Alan Jamieson's research published in A Churchless Faith. It was fascinating to hear her approach and meet Sally, one of the church leavers who has been involved over recent months.

Since writing Why Bother with Church, I've been aware of the need for such a network in the UK and have been talking about it with a number of mates. It seems likely that Greenbelt will take the lead in this - which is fine with me.

I had coffee yesterday with a young woman who has struggled with church over recent years because of a breakdown in relationships and a chasm between what churches focus on and her ordinary, everyday life. Church ought to be a place of healing, somewhere the walking wounded can find acceptance and support. All too often it isn't.

On Monday at Greenbelt I went to a panel discussion where people shared their struggles with church. As a pastor, it was sobering to hear story after story of how church has made believing harder. As I listened, I was reminded that in my first discussions with the church I now serve - some two and a half years ago - I had spoken of the need for lean-to groups that would help those who feel little connection with church as we currently do it to connect with Jesus and see how a life of faith could be a path to wholeness for them.

This week, I presented a paper to my eldership proposing that we establish such a group for those struggling with church (such a group is different from lean-to groups established with the purpose of introducing people to faith in Jesus - somethin g I'd also like to do). So watch this space...

I propose this with some reservations, however. Many post-church groups are a forum for the big whinge, people gathered to tell their stories of how they've been misunderstood, abused, let down and failed by the church. If that's all that happens they can be quite toxic places.

In our conversation about Spirited Exchanges, we reflected on its role in helping people to put their lives back together. Sally spoke of the group's role as a kind of detox. I asked her to identify the toxin - was it the church and her experience of it or the gospel, the faith that the church rather imperfectly embodies?

It strikes me that this is the crunch issue. The kind of post-church group that I'm interested in is for those who still feel that they want to take Jesus seriously but who can't find him in church for all kinds of reasons. I appreciate that for some disentangling Jesus from church is difficult, that their struggles have been caused by the fact that the church has in some way obscured or distorted Jesus in the way they have taught the faith and behaved towards one another.

For this reason, it seems to me that post-church groups ought to be avowedly Trinitarian and open to links with other Christian groups (including churches). As a pastor, I think my role is to present everyone complete, whole in Jesus (Colossians 1:28). So any post-church group I'm involved in must have as its goal helping people to reconnect with Jesus and continue growing in him, being transformed by him from one degree of glory into another.

We'll see what happens. I'm interested in hearing from anyone - especially those in South East London - who'd find such a group (either physical or virtual) helpful.

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