The church is its people, not its religion. I think we’ve forgotten this.
Coffee with my yoga group is one of my more enjoyable moments of the week. Our conversations cover a wide range of topics – from the day-to-day routine of our lives, to the more complex issues around love and relationships. Sometimes conversation takes place as we traverse the hills of Papamoa, other times they are a quick one-on-one after class, but mostly they take place at our favourite cafe. Our banter is always lively, and everyone contributes from their perspective on life. I feel safe with this group. Safe to download, upload and explode. A couple of weeks ago I did just that, last week it was someone else’s turn. These conversations, this group of people, are precious to me.
Likewise, so is my conversation with my terminally ill friend. With Kirsty there is a piece of treasure in every conversation. We discuss, rant and rave about this God we love and seek to know better. Again, I feel safe having these conversations with Kirsty. Secure to voice my often-wavering and questioning faith. Safe to be who I am. And again, these conversations are incredibly precious to me.
Then there is my elderly neighbour. Our weekly coffee morning chats are most enjoyable. Her perspective on life is intelligent and interesting and I always leave with a sense of well-being from having had a good healthy, robust conversation with someone who knows their topic.
Although these conversations vary in subject and participants, one connecting strand links them; I am having conversations with people I feel safe with. Friends I can openly share how I’m feeling about my life at that moment. I trust these people with the ups, downs and anguishes of my story, and they trust me with theirs. You cannot intellectualise that feeling of ‘feeling safe’ it is something you just know. When I leave these people, I leave with all of me intact. My heart and soul unjudged and undamaged. I feel loved. And I’ve been thinking about this – wouldn’t it be great if the church was like this. A place for everyone to engage in robust, hearty discussion about God, life and love, and feel safe doing so. The church, becoming THE place for conversation.
For most people their first introduction to God is by going to church. I have always felt a bit like ‘a square peg in a round hole’ in church settings. And for years I have blamed myself. I have had such amazing experiences of God’s love so going to church should be a breeze. But it’s not. Dread and anxiety accompany me and euphoria escorts me out; a relief that I made it. When I attend church, I feel like a lion being tamed for a circus. My experiences of God and love become masked by religion and religiosity and I sense life being sucked from me, as a woman and as a person. My joy. My weirdness and humour, my creativity and energy, all that my wonderful God created me to be, feels silenced.
God is becoming irrelevant the media are telling us, and statistics show declining church attendances across several denominations. We can blame this on external influences all we like, but the truth is, the church is doing a pretty good job of adding to the problem. As my friend Kirsty so accurately describes, love has been ‘trodden down under religious mores’. Yes, God and religion are difficult to untangle. When we merge God with religion, we are in danger of extinguishing the real message of God – the message of love. I think it’s time for the church to wake up. Love is the by-product of God, not religion. There is nothing, we need to do, or be, to experience God’s love. God’s pure unadulterated, unfettered, untamed love is free for everyone.
Thankfully, the Bible presents us with a list of characteristics, a bit like a recipe, of what this love should look like.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy; it does not boast. It is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8a, NIV)
There’s a lifetime of living in those 15 ingredients. The aching for love and acceptance is a strand of yearning that links all people. Thankfully there’s no time limit on love. It is the greatest weapon we have, but it cannot be forced or imposed on anyone. We must be the love. The church is its people, not its religion. I think we’ve forgotten this.
Let’s bring back the people. Revitalise love, using Corinthians 13 as a guideline. Make church a place for both believers and non-believers. A place to interact with people who are different than us in some way, whether it be culture, language, identity, or something else. A place for people to be listened to and heard. People everywhere having conversations, sharing their lives, making sense of their lives. Feeling accepted. Feeling safe. Feeling loved for who they are, where they are.
What an opportunity! What would the Church look like for you if love was present?