What 1000 Foo Fighters’ fans can teach the church

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In a field in Italy 1000 rockers struck a chord. A man had a vision, he wanted the Foo Fighters to come and play in his town. So he raised some money, appealed for fellow fans and got them together. Singers, guitarists, bassists, and drummers gathered to sing Learn to Fly together.#

There’s one line, in the bridge if I’ve got my musical lingo correct, that goes: “Fly along with me, I can’t quite make it alone”. Sung by a thousand people who have come together for the very reason of not wanting to sing it alone, it has a certain unrestrained resonance.

At the end the guy behind it all stood in the middle of the throng of musicians to say:

“I guess that this video is going to be seen by a huge, a huge amount of people all over the world, but to be true it has been conceived to be addressed to just five people: Chris, Pat, Nate, Taylor and Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters. You know, Italy is a country when dreams cannot easily come true, but it’s a land of passion and of creativity, so what we did, and here is just a huge miracle, I’ve been working on this project for more than one year, waking up every morning thinking about how to make it real and this is all that we’ve got. 1000 people, 1000 rockers, that came from all over the nation at their own expense and they did it for one song, your song. So our call is to ask you, the Foo Fighters, to come and play for us, to come and play and give a concert to all of us in Cesena, what I’m asking right now is to make some noise for the Foo Fighters, come on!”

There are old rockers, young kids, there are men and women, those whose hair makes them stand out as it stands on end, others that are a little larger than life. There’s a crazy man who looks a bit like Steve Coogan conducting the whole thing.

There are 1000 people with one thing in mind, one thing which has brought together an eclectic bunch to sing with passion. They may have only been singing to five men in America, but after a few days over 18 million have viewed the official video. The world has watched a bunch of people singing like crazy to get the attention of their favourite band.

And this got me thinking about the big Christian summer festivals. There’s an element of rock concert about them sometimes, but I think this kind of event is a more like what we should be aiming for. Three reasons why:

1. It’s not about the band on the stage

Okay, so the point of their singing is that they want a band on stage, but the marvel of the video is that 1000 people like you and me got together to sing and play together: the audience became the band. There are probably a lot of videos of the Foo Fighters singing Learn to Fly but I doubt any of them has as many views as this one. What’s special is that this is about each and every one of the 1000. I doubt whether many, if any, of the bands playing at big festivals want to make it about themselves, but sometimes it can feel like the focal point of our worship are the men and women on stage. Our singing can be more like fans at a rock concert.

2. They’re singing with a purpose

There is a reason behind their singing, it’s not just for fun, nor is it for their own fame, their singing has a purpose. When we come together to worship we sing with a purpose. When we sing it places passion in the words which might otherwise be dry phrases or truths we know and accept but don’t always fully own. When we sing, something about them comes alive.

But singing is not about just reciting words to music, especially not when we are worshipping God. Our worship is a speech act, our songs do something more than repeat truths or create a positive atmosphere. When we call on God to act, he does. When we cry out for God’s kingdom to come a little more of it does. Without wanting to get too eschatological, I believe that God’s kingdom has come, is coming, and will come. When we follow in Jesus’ words, praying or singing ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’, we are calling out for a little more of God’s rule and reign to be evident in the world around us. 1000 rockers wanted the Foo Fighters to come to their town in Italy, when we worship we call out for God to come to our world in our day.

3. They’re bringing our own gifts and talents and using them for that cause

The music from 1000 singers, guitarists, bassists and drummers sounded pretty good to me. I don’t possess many musical abilities – perhaps the sole one being a willingness to sing quite loudly (which, on reflection, is perhaps not a gift to those stood next to me in church). The 1000 men, women and children in a field in Italy brought their talents, they brought their instruments, they paid their fare and plugged what they had into what I can only imagine is a monumental PA system.

When we join together with thousands of others singing in worship to God are we reliant on the talents and abilities of the people on stage, or are we offering what we have?

Last week @God_loves_women wrote a blog on supermarket Christianity, and I think if we’re not careful big conferences and festivals can play into this tendency, that we go for an annual top up and we become dependent on what other people provide. At the other end of the spectrum is the danger of detaching ourselves from other believers, and becoming too focused on nurturing our own faith that we become isolated and the very faith we hoped to build ends up atrophying. Other people are essential to the development, sustenance and overflow of our faith.

I’m not going to any conferences this summer – it’s the first time in quite a few years. From people who have been at New Wine and Focus I’ve heard good things, to those who are going to others, I hope you learn, worship and grow. I have found that as I’ve gone to more events it’s become more about the people I’m with and the time in between the meetings than what’s said and done in the big tent – as valuable as that may be.

Having organised a very small conference a few weeks ago, the same was true. We organised content for the people taking part, but hearing the feedback from those who came reminded me that the programme may be what brings people together but it’s frequently not the most important thing.

I probably remember a handful of talks each year and over time maybe half a dozen that are really important to my ongoing walk of faith. There is a place for consuming. There are times when we need to receive. But we receive in order to go out, we take in in order to give out.

The irony of the Foo Fighers’ fans endeavour is that it wasn’t by accident that 1000 fans came together. This isn’t Field Of Dreams. It took someone’s vision and passion and incredibly hard work to make it happen. The things that bring us together and encourage us to act together are usually especially challenging, and there’s a significant lesson of leadership there. But that’s probably a topic for another day.

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Knowing when it’s time to leave

Heart of Tuscany July 2013 089 - Copy

I’ve been part of four churches in my life. I’ve visited many more but I’ve only ever changed church when I moved city.

From birth to 18 I went first at my parent’s bequest and then under my own intent to the same church, it moved venue, morphed form, but it was the same church. It never crossed my mind that I would leave it but for the reason I did. I moved nearly 200 miles north and very quickly found the next church which would be my home while I studied. There was a year in London which I’ll come to soon, then back to Southampton for a couple of years at the church I grew up in, and back to London with over five years in the bank at my present church.

And in only one phase of my life have I thought seriously about leaving church because of something to do with it rather than my circumstances.

Recently I’ve had quite a few conversations about leaving church. It’ll crop up in different environments, some who I know well, others I don’t. Some go to my church, others might end up coming there. I also remember several in the past with people who had left my church and were going elsewhere or not really going at all.

After I graduated I moved to London. Having grown up in a church there was always an element of familiarity about the congregation, and at university there was the safety of crowds as we visited churches and decided which we would be a part of. There were special activities for students, special groups, courses, socials, buses laid on to get to campus and back. There were lunches and bouncy castles, worship nights and designated pastors. I was catered for.

And then came the prospect of walking into church alone, searching for a place of worship I would fit into, a place I would be known and know others. I went to a service I liked, a location that worked, one with friends and they were three different places. I opted for the first, a place a little distance from home but most familiar in style and substance. On paper it was a good fit. And yet, a year later I left London and my exit from church required no send off, there was no point of departure, I had already drifted far from the church, my attendance on Sundays required only the vaguest excuse to slip, and small group was a tyranny of small talk among people I never got to know.

It was a church I should have left earlier. Back in Southampton I felt at home, I felt like I belonged and I feared returning to London. When I returned to the capital in the summer of 2008 finding a church where I could settle was the most pressing of my anxieties. I had the same dilemma, the same lonely sense of walking into a crowd. For the first year, even as I took on responsibilities and leadership, I walked in and walked out, I connected occasionally with individuals but church was a difficult place. It was not home.

I don’t know when it changed but I know what happened. I turned around and realised that the people I worship with on a Sunday, the leaders who’s authority I respect and the friends I spend time with, times of prayer and times of pranks. I realised these people were the ones I wanted to be walking this road with.

Leaving church is not a question of doctrine or principle. It is at root a pastoral concern. There are good and bad reasons to leave church, and behind each good reason can be bad motives, and behind each bad reason a strand of good.

I first heard about “5 really bad reasons to leave church” when Hannah Mudge responded to it. Her substantive point is one I agree with, this has to be about responsibility on both sides, that of the pastor looking after their congregation and those attending looking for something more than the next thing to consume to make them feel better. Relevant reposted it and even more people were talking about it. 

Of his points, on not agreeing with everything taught, I have little to add, although it does pose the question of where does this end? Should we accept any amount of disagreement with what is taught? Sarah Bessey poses the question whether egalitarians should attend complementarian churches and presumably a similar question would work in the opposite direction.

His point about size is lacking in any nuance, big is not always beautiful, and nor is it always preferable to small. I don’t think it’s good for churches to despise growth, or go out of their way to avoid getting bigger, and I like big churches (by UK standards), but there are many valuable things about smaller congregations his comment ignores.

On conflict, again this is a point that requires nuance and we get a little bit. Conflict is a fact of life but there comes a point when it is detrimental to the life and ministry of the church and its members. If and where it can be resolved that is to be welcomed but it shouldn’t be held out as an an elixir that will one day come.

His other two points are basically the same, congregations are too consumerist and leave when they don’t get what they want. This is a problem that is legion across out culture and he is right to point it out. At the RZIM training day on Saturday Michael Ramsden addressed this point, when we treat church and its component parts as something we can use we devalue it. When we are only in it for what we get out of it we deprive the relationship of the very thing that makes it a relationship. When we do not connect, with God and others, when we do not commune, we use. And when a relationship becomes about use and what we can get out of it we start to question the purpose of the relationship in the first place. It’s an important point he makes and a challenge the church has to address.

But he overstates his point and misses the other side of the story. For each of his reasons there could be good motives behind them and bad motives. Leaving church is a pastoral issue and one not best dealt with by criticising people for consuming church. Otherwise the congregation becomes an object of use for the pastor and not a people with whom to connect. It can sound, as Hannah Mudge noted, rather like asking someone to stay in an abusive relationship.

Leaders of churches have a responsibility to listen to their congregation, if people are leaving, then maybe something needs to change. There is a responsibility on leaders to do more than tell their congregation to suck it up and stop complaining. Telling the congregation they can listen to podcasts if they’re not getting enough teaching suggests maybe teaching in a church service doesn’t matter that much. We should seek to serve the church and not just be served, but we should aim for more than that. We should search for a church where it is home. Where we treat one another as family. Where we grieve when one another leaves. When while we may give to the child who only comes to visit when they need bailing out of debt, we long for so much more.

Church cannot be about people stifling their criticisms or using the internet as a permanent addendum to the Sunday service. It must be about where frailty is welcome, from the pews and from the pulpit. When the teaching can be improved and the service strengthened. When size and shape are methods and modes and not metrics of success.

Church should be a home with all the honesty and the struggles and the tensions that any family has.

I never really criticised the church I was part of for a year when I first lived in London. I didn’t care enough about it. I wasn’t in relationship with it. I was consuming but not connecting. When we connect we care, and when we care we want to see things grow closer to how they ought to be.

UPDATE

It’s been pointed out that I don’t answer the question I pose, when is the right time, or the right reason to leave church? I think that’s because I don’t know, for me I know in hindsight I should have left one church earlier, not because there was anything particularly wrong with it, but because I wasn’t connected to it. But I can’t give you 5 reasons why you should leave a church. I think leaving a church is a hard thing to do, and often involves letting go of relationships. Ultimately, I think churches should be positive about their members going elsewhere if that will enable them to grow closer to God and into greater likeness to him. There’s a tension between listening to concerns, being committed to the mission of the church, and being willing to let people go. Also, there is departure that is about going onto something new, and departure that is about getting away from something. Both in their time have their place but are two quite different situations to address.