Community is like swimming fully clothed

Black and white breakfast clubCommunity is one of those words that floats around. It fades in and out, it is always something that we seem to want more of and always something we perhaps take a little for granted. It is there when we don’t need it and not enough when we do.

It is not the fluffy comfortable stuff made up of laughs and inconsequential conversation, but nor is it just those chats that fall into the accountability category when we talk about our sin and where we’ve got it all wrong, and where we pledge to do better next time. I’ve been turning this one over for a while, several years kind of a while.

Last week I sent out an email, I invited some friends around for dinner. And the problematic word in that sentence is some. On Saturday we ate food, we threw popcorn at each other and we played Jungle Speed. But I was wrestling with an awkwardness and was ill at ease. I’m not very good at curating social space, it doesn’t come naturally it causes me to fret and fear, it encourages the anxieties of social isolation and the vulnerable liminality between the invite and the acceptance.

I’d not invited all of my friends, and there was some ad hoc rationality constructed. Mostly I’d set a number in my head and stuck to that. There was no exclusion intended, but I think it was felt. And the irony was that this vague idea of community was what prompted my rare foray into social organisation.

I have a hunch that we’re not always very good at finding that line between the organised spiritual and the casual friendship, the space where the hard questions get asked. I want to be known by people who do not shy away from saying the difficult things. I want to be known by people who can ask why I didn’t invite certain people, who can kindly, carefully, question my actions.

Church makes a grand play for providing community, where else are the young and the elderly, the rich and the poor, the South American, South African and South Korean stood side by side? It makes the play but doesn’t always follow through, it has the potential, but not always the result. Sometimes I am at my most lonely when I am in the biggest crowds. And it concerns me how frequently those large crowds are in church.

Community is something I long after. Maybe it is the absence of more permanent relationships that prompt the searching, maybe if I had what I thought would fulfil me I would not be frustrated that nothing else quite made do.

And then are the times when I need a smack round the head, when I need grabbing by my ankles and some sense shaken into me and my maudlin mood shaken off. Tonight Lauren Dubinsky did that for me:

Community is not accountability to sinless-ness. Jesus has already given us that.

Community is the people who surround you that ease your burdens.

Community is the people who fight the same battles that you do; laugh when you laugh, cry when you cry.

Community is the people who are in the exact same predicament you are in. All the same struggles, all the same questions.

Community is the group of people where, when you enter the room, you can collapse on the sofa and not care if the way you’re sitting makes you look like you have a double chin.

A beautiful story follows, if you didn’t before, pause now to read it all, but it draws to an end with this: Community is just… life. Willing to give, willing to receive. Willing to believe that we are all equal, and no one moves forward without the other.

It threw me over the edge and forced some perspective into my myopic vision. I’d been fretting over social gatherings and awkward subsets and limited invites, all of my own creation. I’d been frustrated that the community I wanted to be a part of was not forming in the ways that I would like. I got a little angry when things didn’t go my way.

I was worrying about whether I stood a chance at building the relationships I wanted, relationships I imagine I need.

All I was doing was trying to turn the community that I have into the community that I want.

Last year I wrote that: “Community is the gradual unravelling of the layers that we shroud our innermost being with. It’s the place where we find the courage to bare our souls. It’s the people with whom we can share the things that hurt more than the words we muster can convey.”

And yes, I suppose it is, but I think it is also where the layers of clothes stick together like swimming in the river fully clothed. Community is not only where the good stuff happens, where the spiritual impartation, the rebuking and correcting, the admonishing and training in righteousness, community is where we sometimes don’t manage to do so much of that.

We are in community, we are swimming together, but frequently we are swimming fully clothed.

Quarter life crisis – finding church

Straight out of university I moved to London, I had a year placement all set up and I was ready to start my life. I registered a new email address with pretensions to drop the Danny and become Daniel. I was ready to be a grown up.

I’d moved away from home to go to university, I’d settled swiftly and part of that was finding a church. I’d grown up in Southampton, lived in the same house my first eighteen years and been a part of the church from the day I was born. Church was a place I knew people and where I was known. It was not a small church, but by virtue of a countless Sunday, fundays and games of hide and seek I had a place I belonged.

Moving to university created a rift, suddenly the known nature of church was replaced with a void of choice and novelty. But when you have organised tours of churches in your new home town, life is made a whole lot easier. There were some churches which with the greatest respect to them and friends who were and are part of them were simply never going to be the place I called home. And when I settled upon where a place to be a part off, integration was facilitated by special events, teams and a group of people in the same situation as I was.

All of this is a way of very briefly sketching the ease with which I transitioned from a church that I loved and felt a part of to another where I felt the same. When it came to searching for a church in London there was no such custom built process or teams prepped over the summer for my arrival. I was on my own. One Sunday before I moved I travelled up to London, with my sister for company, and went to a couple of churches, it was a surreal experience. You are on your own in the mist of people who know each other. When I moved I tried out a few more and chose a church to make my own. And for a year I went fairly diligently, went to a small group slightly less diligently, and when my year was up and I moved back to Southampton I faded out of the church without effort or notice. The last Sunday I went was like the very first.

Movement is a defining fact of life for many people in their twenties. Something happens, and then the next, life moves on, priorities change, home is a moveable concept, and church becomes a convenience store. It becomes something static while we are mobile so we drop in and out and our relationship with it becomes more like a consumer and a provider than a church made up of people.

And the problem only gets worse when the church responds to this attitude. It’s sees people wanting church for what they can get out of it and they seek to provide that. Now I don’t go in for all this self-flagellation nonsense, I’m not saying we should make church boring and hard work and painful just so we are not appease our more sensual appetites, but we shouldn’t change just because we think it will make people like us more.

Four years go I returned to London and aside from visiting other churches for baptisms, christenings and the like I’ve stayed with the church I went to the week I arrived. And now is the place for very carefully crafted confession: I don’t agree with everything, and I don’t like everything. Just step back and imagine what a church would look like if you did agree and like everything. You would be preacher, worship leader and serving the tea, and doing it all to yourself.

There’s a crisis with people in their twenties leaving church, but I don’t think the answer is to serve them the church that they want on a plate. I think that church needs to challenge the presumptions and attitudes that we hold and ask why it is we hold them. Maybe when the church is clear about what it is and what it is for it will find the authenticity so sought after.

Singleness and the church

This is not another post with tangential references to a Leonard Cohen song, I was going to title it ‘A bunch of lonesome heroes‘, but in the end went for something more self-explanatory. It’s about singleness in the church, and in particular in the church in London.

London is a peculiar place. And the church in London is somewhat of a outlier as well. The church is younger than in the rest of the country, even taking into account differences in the overall population it is still astonishing that 57% of people in their 20s who attend church do so in London. This creates one problem for the church outside of London – the lack of young adults, but it also creates problems for the church in London that are not as often recognised.

For churches in the centre of London there is frequently a distinct lack of older people, families and even married couples. That’s not to say they’re absent altogether, just that young single people make up a disproportionately large block. A while back a theory of church growth was in vogue, it was know as the homogeneous unit principle, and it came with its very own acronym: HUP. The idea was that people felt at home around people like them so it made sense for churches to reach out to people who were like them.

This isn’t a post about church growth, but I’ll say this: sometimes it works, we like things to be comfortable and therefore are inclined to go where the path is smoothest and when the congregation is like us there are less obstacles to us feeling at home. The problem is that this could descend down a road of ever intensifying stratification and the end point of that would be an infinite number of churches with a single preacher/worship leader/pew filler: me, or you. But not both of us. At its more practical it means that churches develop that are mono generational or mono cultural. This comes to the fore in London with churches that are young and hip. That means the church family becomes slightly dysfunctional.

It means that churches in central London have a high proportion of single people. For my church the natural affect of being based in the centre of the city is aided and abetted because it was planted only eight years ago, so most of the newcomers are students or young professionals moving into London.

This does two things, firstly it means that the members of the church suffer from not having the full range of people to interact with and learn from. In particular there is a gulf where father and mother figures should exist to provide wisdom and guidance to the younger generation. Secondly, it means that a culture of singleness is fostered as normality.

And this becomes enshrined in all sorts of aspects of church life, whether it is the make up of small groups or the type of social activities that build community around the more formal parts of church life. Added to this is the occasional fallout of relationships that do occur: how friendship groups are rent by couples splitting up. This all makes life a lot easier when a comfortable culture of friendship between groups of guys and girls is the norm.

Into this climate we import a further demographic trouble maker: the disparity between men and women. This isn’t as bad as sometimes it is presented to be, it’s roughly 60-40 in favour of the ladies, or the guys if you’re thinking of prospective dates. While the norm for relational dynamics is the friendship group and the limited dating activity is partly attributable to not wanting to disrupt this, beneath the surface many people remain discontent with the status quo.

It goes something like this: the girls look at the guys and think they need to sort themselves out and ask girls out, in the back of their mind lingers the fear that if the odds stay the same a chunk of them will stay on the shelf. And the guys return the looks, slightly paralysed by the pressure to make a choice and make the most of the favourable proportions. Guys know they ought to do something but don’t want to get it wrong, girls want the guys to ask them out but think it’s too forward to make this desire clear.

Without the wisdom of elders and the frank conversations between people at various stages of romantic liaisons, this becomes a secret minefield out of which the culture of singleness thrives.

This is all a bit detached and technical but I wanted to try and tease out some of the reason singleness has became an issue in the church, and identify the particular form that it takes in churches in London.

I’ll write more later in the week about my own personal experience of singleness. Of all the issues I write about it is perhaps the one which I have the greatest personal experience to draw on, but perhaps something I have dwelt on the least.

What do you think: is singleness an issue in the church? If so, why, and what can be done about it? Do we really believe that single people are equal with those who are married?

Women in leadership: gender generosity

Theology is probably not my strongest point, I get impatient with it, I want to move on, I want the answers with everything resolved and neatly organised into custom made boxes. But that’s not how theology works. Maybe by its very nature it has an unresolved tension that runs right through it: a complexity that permanently remains just out of grasp.

It can’t be ignored altogether, but nor can it be rushed. And the legacy of two millennia of deliberation enforce a hesitancy against jumping to conclusions and the risk of hubris of thinking that you know for certain what others have wrestled for generations over.

So I step with some trepidation into the theological terrain of gender. And I do so knowing that behind me sit not only theology but also tradition and reason and culture, all things that flavour and colour the debate. A tradition that has seen men take the primary roles in public and church life, a tradition that suggests a woman’s role is with her family. A culture that tells me men and women are equal and all discrepancies must be removed. And reason that struggles between the two, trying to use the witness of scripture to arbitrate between what is and what should be.

The fact that for pretty much all of the visible history of the church men have held all the leadership roles does not tell us very much. It could either mean that it’s been right all along, and we should carry on as we are. Or that we’ve got it colossally wrong and history just anaesthetises us from this.

I think that the New Testament tells us two broad messages about the role of women within the church and a third that relates more broadly to gender, and maybe specifically to marriage. Here I will deal with the first two and leave the third to a later post.

The first message I pick up is that women were clearly active and present in many, and probably all areas of the early life of the church. Men are clearly the dominant force in the early church and they are the witnesses that we look to in the letters of Paul, the ministry of Peter and the training of Timothy. But women had a role too and from the hints we pick up about Phoebe, Junia and Priscilla their role was significant. Junia was described as highly regarded among the apostles. Scott McKnight has investigated this particular lady’s history and how through many centuries she was exorcised from the text and turned into a man. Women read scripture in public, helped instruct apostles, they hosted churches, they financed ministries, and as an apostle, which Junia was, would have planted churches. The churches we know now cannot easily be compared to those of the first century so working out which roles in our present churches they would occupy if they lived now, or if our churches existed then is a tricky exercise. So instead, I’ll satisfy myself with a broad description that women were significantly involved in the life and leadership of the early church.

The second message is that there are clear prohibitions on the activity of women in the early church. Mostly this involves women not being permitted to speak in church and have authority over men, but it also addresses head-wear and make-up. These, as the most explicit commands relating to gender and the church, have traditionally won the day, and are certainly hard to ignore.

Other arguments are also marshalled against allowing women to occupy positions of leadership which I believe to be spurious and distracting, for example citing the male only membership of Jesus’ twelve disciples. While true as fact it means nothing, absence does not confer endorsement. I would take the issue of slavery as a parallel, Jesus did not speak out against slavery, that does not mean he condones the practice.

Another that I find hard to give credence to is the use of the masculine pronoun when referring to apostles and teachers, and the command that they should be the husband of one wife. Firstly, I see very few churches refusing to permit single men in positions of leadership, even if they would not allow women to occupy them. Secondly, lets play a little game of futurism. In a few centuries time records of the Conservative Party in the early twenty-first century come to light. Historians debate whether or not the party allowed women to hold the post of chairman, after all, the title suggests it refers explicitly to a man. The problem comes with the records of Sayeeda Warsi, otherwise recognisable as a woman, but described as a chairman. What are we to think, that this was in fact a man?

As I summarise very briefly the theological landscape surrounding gender and the church I think we have to hold two apparently contradictory messages and decide where that leaves us. One, women were in positions of responsibility and leadership in the early church, secondly that women are instructed not to teach.

The problems that I have with drawing too heavily from the passages that tell of women not speaking in church is that our adherence to them, even in churches that place strict confines on the roles a woman can take, is patchy. For example, very few churches operate a mandatory policy of head-scarves for women. Nor do churches insist women must be completely silent in church as passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 suggest. The point I am making is that even in conservative churches these passages are parsed and interpreted before application.

It seems to me that one of these themes must be wrong, or at least wrongly applied if interpreted as a universal command. And I think that’s where we start to get towards some sort of resolution, for me it is easier to see how the commands requiring women to be silent and not teach men are reflective of specific situations in the early church. It is hard to write off the practice and ministry of women who are commended as highly regarded. Quite where this leaves us I am not certain, but it does show the direction in which I am travelling.

Is singleness an issue in the church?

Should the church do anything about the single people in its midst?

I threw this out on twitter and got more feedback than on anything I’ve ever tweeted before. So one thinks there might be a few things to ponder here.

The responses fitted into two broad groups, those who thought it wasn’t really an issue, and those who wanted the church to stop being so sympathetic and patronising.

But maybe we conflate the church with the church leadership, or the church staff, or the officially organised and sanctioned programmes of the church.

Because the church doing something about it is you and me deciding to help people get together. Or encourage people struggling with relationships. Or discipling people to help them not find their identity in being someone’s girlfriend – or having that girl on your arm. The girls blame it on there being too few guys, and the guys say there’s too many girls. (seriously, they do.)

And I’ve heard enough sermons with the intentional brief asides that challenge guys to man up and ask girls out. And I’ve had enough conversations with girls frustrated with guys not asking them out, and with guys daunted by the prospect, or dizzied by indecision.

The core criticism seems to be that the church treats married people as the norm, and single people as those who are waiting for the right person to come along. Thrown into this mix are those with the specific calling to be single, which we are told to remember to affirm as a gift from God andSt Pauland John Stott are cited as our exemplars.

This description lets two groups of people off the hook and leaves the people out side these mutually exclusive groups rather stranded. If you’re married then you’re ok, if you want to be single, you’re affirmed. If you are single and pretty desperate not to be you’re kind of in trouble.

You are in trouble because the church doesn’t know what to tell you. Should they tell you that marriage is an ideal that you strive for? Of counsel that singleness is a wonderful calling?

We’re not very good at living in a place where things don’t add up. We’re unable to handle the ideal of one thing, the gift of another, and the role of God in redeeming humankind and working in each of our lives at all times.

We want it simple. We want someone else to do something about it. But we also want our independence. So we like the idea of speed dating in the church. Of semi arranged marriages avoiding the social awkwardness of dating, and well, removing the risk element from it all.

But that’s the fastest post I’ve ever written, so I haven’t really thought this through. What are your thoughts? Is there such a thing as a singleness problem, and if so, is it in the number of single people or the way in which they’re treated?

Please tell me.