The Awkward Christians Club would include in its liturgy a prayer like this.
O Lord, please give us grace to forgive Lee De Forest, inventor of the vacuum tube, as well as Jensen and Pridham, inventors of the first moving-coil loudspeaker, and Kellogg and Rice, inventors also of the first moving-coil loudspeaker, Wikipedia being, O Lord, somewhat unclear on this point to the eye of ignorance. Please bless the sound engineers in our midst, and protect the eardrums of your servants, especially of the children, and ensure that the roof will not give way, nor the walls crumble, because of the great volume of electrically amplified hallelujahs…
Not really. Well, maybe. The Awkward Christians Club would be nothing if not inclusive, with members who couldn’t* care less about the sound reinforcement system, since their awkward and momentary troubles lie elsewhere, and others who really prefer to be deafened a bit, and others who pragmatically argue that the whole question would be better delegated to the Awkward Christians’ Earplug Provision Committee.
But others of us again have reason to suspect that earplugs would only increase our sense of alienation, of being apparently the only idiot in the whole dark flashy auditorium not enjoying the proceedings. Specimen 1, for example: approves of almost everything the church does and says, but it’s hard not to feel personally under attack from the beating around one’s head. Specimen 2: upstanding conservative Christian Union type, hands firmly in front pockets, Bible in back pocket, never feels the urge to hop about during any sort of worship time. Specimen 3: atheist, came in with prospective boy-/girlfriend, as yet unclear what’s so great about God that we should be making all this racket about him anyway. Specimen 4: more accustomed to organs. Specimen 5: given to pedantry, and annoyed with the lyrics don’t mean anything very much. Specimen 6: fond of quiet moments and the silences of empty cathedrals, and totally at a loss as to why there are two big smoke machines on stage. Specimen 7: not so comfortable in the knees and hips as in previous years, and unimpressed by all this about being Young and Free. Specimen 8: too drained of energy by illness or tiredness or circumstances. Specimen 9: none of these problems, but knows people who would have them if they were there, and wasn’t this church supposed to be seeker-friendly?
Unluckily such a list of Specimens is ear-deep in exactly what it wants to take exception to: the habit of acting as if people’s worship, their experience of God, their reactions to church, will follow a certain pattern or patterns. “Come as you are” is an invitation which sometimes finds its way over the microphone in the midst of a great number of very loud assumptions that, although you’re to come as you are, once you’ve arrived you will certainly want to give glory to God using this terminology, this general narrative and this music. But the idea that someone might be summed up even approximately with the words ‘more accustomed to organs’ is the same kind of assumption less well amplified, as if we could send the organ people to organ church, and the quiet people to quiet church, and the pedants to pedant church, and everything would be fine (but excessively compartmentalized).
Deeper than the practical question of accommodating tastes is a question about how we see church: like a snowball, the accumulating shared life of a community, and like a hedgehog, prickly all over with individuality. ‘And’, as opposed to ‘or’.
It seems probably inevitable that any organisation large enough for a microphone and an Instagram account (or even before these milestones) will want to tell coherent stories about itself; it also seems right, if the church is a family, or a body, or a building with Christ as the chief cornerstone, that any given church will have a history, a collective sense of identity, joint memories, some common goals for the future. That’s the snowball. But the church’s unity must never come from smoothing out or pretending away the quirks and oddities of its congregants. No-one can say, “Because I am not a hipster, therefore I do not belong to the body” or “Because I am not comfortable in social situations” or “Because I am not one of the beautiful people”. The well-known travelling preacher cannot say “I don’t need you!” to the church receptionist, and the electric guitarist cannot say it to the ethnomusicologist, and the multimedia team cannot say it to the accountants, and the senior business executive cannot say it to the full time mum, and the tax-paying citizen cannot say it to the unemployed person, who cannot say it to the refugee, who cannot say it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. And not because we need a token representative under every category anyone can think of, but because, putting categories aside, we need just everyone.
In my university Christian Union we used to say that we were the only university society to exist for the benefit of its non-members, an observation which might perhaps have occasioned dry laughter among the non-members in question…
…but there is a difference between a gracious welcome offered to guests, and an acknowledgement by a family that it has as many missing family members as there are people in the world. ‘The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them’: the existing Christians form Christ’s body among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of a new work of Christ among them; the necessity that he shall conform, shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works which preceded it.
What does this look like in practice? We are to accept everyone as they are, as a gift from God, but we are also supposed to make disciples; we believe in a gospel of change, of new life, but without picking at the motes of dust in other people’s eyes. Apparently we love the sinner and hate the sin, but we sometimes disagree about what counts as sin anyway, and we would find it difficult, even if we had the right, to draw a line between sin and sinner, between sinner and sinned-against, between right intentions and wrong actions, between pure integrity and poor theology, between the ungodly and the simply unconventional. Considering these minefields from a safe distance, one stands in awe of the gifted pastors who navigate them successfully, and to whom we could perhaps here offer громкие аплодисменты.
For the rest of us, such general questions serve probably as a grandiose way of avoiding the specific questions, varying between each of us, of what to do about the difficult people, the people we tend to judge or feel judged by, the weird people, the horrifyingly normal people, the people just very different to oneself. I’d like to make a sweeping assertion here, which came to me this morning with the force of some great insight on the light-blue metro line between Studencheskaya and Kutuzovskaya and which to the rest of the world will probably sound like stating the obvious: that trying to love each other — trying, even without managing it, to get on, to muddle through somehow — is church — is real and vital Christianity, not just an inconvenient bit of red tape one has to get past before the real business of looking good on God’s great dance floor begins.
It’s a pity. Sung worship is one of my Favourite Things, at the right moment and with the right words and not too much of that dancefloor stuff. But perhaps the feeling of enjoying a time of worship is more for one’s own benefit than God’s, and it might, in all seriousness, be equally honouring to Him to stand there for twenty-five minutes strenuously forgiving the inventors of the loudspeaker. To get started with the messy and mysterious business of showing more grace. Or to ask for grace. To ask for His eyes to see what He sees, His ears to hear what He hears, His hands and feet to —
Well. One can ask, running the risk of hypocrisy; perhaps really, such spiritual heights (or depths?), even of asking, are a long way off, and the time will be spent policing one’s feelings of resentment and embarrassment, knapping them o’ the coxcombs with a stick and crying ‘Down, wantons, down’. Because actually I still wish the church would pipe down occasionally, turn the lights up, look around and listen. Partly, yes, so that the Awkward Christians on the back row could wave sheepishly and say, We’re here; we aren’t sure what it is exactly, but we’ve been told we have something to offer. Partly that. But also so that we could see what God might do if we stopped doing stuff and just waited.