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On Humility and Doing Church in a Pub

For my money, the most important thing about doing church in post-modernity is this: you don’t know what you are doing. Not only that, you don’t know anything at all. You don’t know where you are going, and so you don’t know how to get there either. Don’t feel bad, neither does anyone else, least of all me. In fact, the longer you do it, the less you think you know. If you call it docta ignorantia,  learned ignorance, then it feels a little less dispiriting.

I was on a course once, at the end of my MDiv called something like “Effective Christian Lleadership,” and anyone who encountered me at the time would be under no illusions about how I felt about it, though, because this is a family friendly blog, I won’t repeat the sentiments exactly. Suffice it to say, I was not especially impressed.

Not because of the material, which was extremely interesting (you absolutely need to read Finding God Again by John J Shea, who is both profoundly insightful and very brave, and you could do a lot worse than reading Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz, who is insightful.)

Nor because of the lecturer, who was insightful and interesting and everything that a good lecturer should be (plus she gave me a good mark, which always makes me feel warmly towards a lecturer 🙂 )

No, the reason I was so full of wrath was the other people in the course, or at least some of them. Looking back on it, I probably judged them more harshly than I should: one of the odd side effects of being involved in Cafechurch for so long is that you get very unused to church people, and being surrounded by them can be painful (except you, dear reader, whose company I’m sure I would very much enjoy!)

When I dug down into exactly what was getting on my nerves so very strongly it is this: the assumption that one person in particular – let’s call him Terry –  had that a church is basically a company, where known inputs are processed in a well defined way to get predictable outputs. Inputs of sinners and church people go in, a well oiled process of liturgical & devotional practices is applied to them in terms, and saved souls and worship come smoothly out on the conveyor belt at the end. Pleasant, well mannered little saved soul parcels who certainly don’t express themselves in the sort of language in which I was expressing myself after a semester’s worth of this sort of thing.

There was one conversation in particular which particularly summed this up for me where I admitted that I didn’t really know what to do in Cafechurch, that I was just sort of feeling my way (or “discerning” as I like to call it in public), but really I didn’t have a plan particularly. Terry then announced that given that leadership was deploying appropriate resources to achieve defined outcomes, that I was in no sense a leader at all! I saw red, but managed not to shout at him, but said: it’s worse than that – not only do I not know what to do, I absolutely don’t know where I want to get to either. He threw up his hands in disgust: that’s not at all what he wanted to hear. In his eyes, I’m a failure, an inadequate manager.

I could cheerfully have beaten him to death with a copy of his reflective essay.

So, paradoxically, this means that it really must have been a good course, because it really made me think beyond the questions of technique which usually preoccupy not just me, but our entire culture. Is the malaise of the church really going to be solved by some clever technical fix or other? It seems quite unlikely.

If I was to have that conversation again, I would say this: Firstly, church is not a widget factory. It does not take inputs, apply processes, and get measurable outcomes. There are churches which do seem to treat people like that: they make me want to throw up. Sure, churches need to pay bills, employ people, have processes; I don’t dispute that. But if that technical management thing is at the heart of what you do, then you are definitely not a church. Church is a place for spiritual transformation, not a gospel preaching factory, not a network sales system for building bigger churches.  You have the cure of souls, not a shop. Did Jesus treat people as being in need of a technical fix? No he did not: he loved them, he taught them, and he ultimately died for them. Does that sound like how you are doing church? It should.

Secondly, how could I possibly have any idea of what that process is going to look like? I don’t think anyone really knows how to do church in our post-modern, post-Christian culture. The point of the exercise is that we have to do something new, something which hasn’t existed before because we are in an entirely new situation. All we have is four things: One, the people in our community, their needs and questions and issues. Two: we have a few tiny little fragments of knowledge about how society is changing. Three: we have the deep traditions of our faith. Four: we have the Holy Spirit. Without those things, especially the fourth, we don’t have anything at all.

So that means that of course I have no idea where we are going, not really. I have a few intimations, around the power of personal encounter, the importance (and difficulty) of worship, and the centrality of personal transformation which needs to be distinguished from telling people yet more facts. Together, we are building something which is both old and new at the same time. Not new for the sake of being new, but new because trying to apply our traditions to this new context is inevitably going to be new.

And this is why the first thing you learn doing church in post-modernity is that you know absolutely nothing at all. And the second thing is that perhaps that isn’t the end of the world after all because, as I often remind myself: there is a God; it isn’t you.

I’m interested in your thoughts, gentle reader. Do you think our situation is unprecedented? Should I have a better idea of where we are going? Does this all seem painfully wishy-washy to you?

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

One reply on “On Humility and Doing Church in a Pub”

Be of good, albeit humble courage, friend. One of the great deceptions of Modernity (ecclesial and otherwise) is that it knew/knows what it’s doing.
In the realm of science and technology it turns out that we didn’t know so much what we were doing with the industrial revolution and we have damaged a great deal, ecologically, economically, ethically and socially.
My roles in church consultancy have placed me in many conversations in which churches have had to admit that their plugin apparatus also don’t provide what they thought they would. We have banged away at sermons, and passivity, and sunday schools, and mothers groups and missionaries etc….and they have been no more predictable or certain than the odd cup of coffee.
More than this, it has been under the governance of modernist self-assuredness that the church has declined. I don’t think this was ever “the plan” – but it has been the output.
The idea that you don’t know where you are going actually augurs well for not simply repeating the trenchant mistakes of the past.
One man’s wishy washy is another woman’s opportunity, hope, openness, invitation and faith.

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