Sometimes – a lot of the time, actually – in my relationship with God, I feel like the man frantically scurrying around doing all sorts of stuff for his family, but never being present with them. He buys them things, takes them places, tells hilarious jokes round the dinner table, arranges elaborate birthday parties, he makes grand proclamations of his love for them in front of his friends – but he’s never available, he never talks to them, he’s never intimately there. I do a lot for God. I preach, I teach, I play music, I comment, debate, discuss, defend, encourage, celebrate. But I find it really, really difficult to be prayerfully present with God. Maybe I’m afraid of what I’ll find once I go to the inner sanctum. Maybe I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m the last person present in my own heart. Trying to hide, or trying to forget.
Looking back on the year that is almost over, I think joining a new church was my most significant decision in regards to my faith.
There’s nothing wrong with my old church. I grew up in my old church. It was there that I was taught the Gospel, through words from the pulpit and through the exemplary lives of many of its members. I have deep roots and strong emotional ties there. It will always have a special place in my heart.
I didn’t leave because I was angry, bitter or disappointed, and I didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. There had been some problems, sure, but those were mainly of my own making. I’ve made some statements in the past and have publicly supported some stuff (evolution, alcohol, gay marriage, whatever) that understandably worried both the leadership and some congregants. I submitted to the authority of the leadership in an effort to show that I was not a troublemaker. And when that process was over, we were all in the clear. I have no hard feelings whatsoever towards my old church. In fact, I really miss it even though I am confident I made the right decision leaving it.
But it just wasn’t the church for me. Again, not because it was bad or did something wrong. It just wasn’t right for me and I wasn’t right for it.
I read Tim Keller’s Center Church at the time when I was thinking about the switch and that really helped me a lot. In the last couple of chapters he speaks about ecclesial movement dynamics and the differences between newer churches and older, more established churches. Older churches provide the stability, dependability and familiarity of tradition, newer churches are the ones that can experiment and try new things. Whereas older increase and decrease in size by exchanging members amongst themselves, newer church are better at reaching those who have never gone to church on a regular basis. New churches can also invigorate older churches, with new ways of doing things, but also new members who grow tired of the relative instability of a new church.
It was almost providential to read these words. It provided a way for me to see my decision not as a choice between good and bad churches, but between two kinds of churches, both essentially good, but one more fitting to my personal spiritual gifting than the other.
Changing churches is difficult in the Faroe Islands. It’s much more costly socially than in the U.K. or the U.S. This is a small community and it’s still quite traditional. In the Brethren Church especially, which is my background, changing denominations is taboo. There’s a lot of trauma there in the past, from when people originally split with the Lutheran church in the late 19th and early 20th century. Doing so cost our grandparents and great-grandparents a lot. Leaving the Brethren community for one of the Pentecostal or Charismatic churches is frowned upon. Leaving it for the Lutheran church, even more. As a result, lots of Brethren, who might be frustrated with spiritual inertia or unaddressed needs in their churches, find it easier to stop going to church altogether, rather than finding a more fitting, non-Brethren church for them. This has further repercussions, with churches having little or no incentive to improve and innovate because there isn’t any competition between them for members.
Which is to say that the decision to leave one Brethren church for another non-Brethren church was not one I took lightly. But reading Keller made the decision easier for me. It allowed me to zoom out, as it were, and see a larger context where every church, regardless of denomination, structure and worship style, played a role. And it allowed me to place myself into that bigger context and ask which church fit me best. Or, in more precise terms, through which church I could serve the Kingdom best with my particular spiritual skill-set. Socially it has been awkward in the last couple of months. Certainly. But seeing the bigger picture as Keller helped me do has provided a solid basis for my decision which has made the awkwardness much easier to live with. I’m am 100% convinced that were I to serve God fully (or as close to fully as is possible) in my old church, I would have ruined it. I’m too creative, too iconoclastic, too impatient with traditions, too dismissive with accepted categories and too forward-thinking for a church that has had close to a century to develop habits and attract members who find those habits deeply conducive to their spiritual welfare. But these are precisely the skills needed in my new church. A small church trying to reach new people in a town with several older and relatively successful churches. In market terms (which are the worst terms), the challenge is to find a niche and through creative means reach those who find what works unworkable. There are a lot of those people around. More now than ever, it seems.
Over the last few months I’ve noticed a subtle change inside somewhere. I’ve noticed myself becoming more excited about church. Many more of the ideas for events or sermons or projects that I come up with survive my filter compared to before. I’m not as scared as I was. I don’t censor myself as I did. I feel a deeper coherence between what I think the church should be doing and what my new church is actually doing. There’s more intimate fellowship, more honest and immediately relevant preaching, more focus on social justice, less preoccupation with denomination and church/world border disputes.
And that makes me really happy. It makes me really hopeful. I feel like I’m good for something. I feel like I can deliver more than 10%. For the first time in many years I actually wouldn’t hesitate to invite someone along for church.