I have been wondering about this. About a year ago, we left a large Anglican Charismatic city centre church where we had been for six and a half years, and after a couple of months of checking out Oxford churches and Christian communities (oh, the tedium of it!!) settled on a very nice North Oxford evangelical church.
Now, geographically, it’s just a couple of miles away, but in human geography, it’s an exploration of England’s famous class system as one moves from a city centre church to North Oxford (which, for my non-Oxford readers, is distinguished by massive, hideously expensive houses occupied by successful academics, writers, journalists, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, venture capitalists and hedge fund traders who retreat here after a day in the City, and of course, many wannabes, mortgaged to the eyeballs, one pay cut away from financial disaster). I know the terrain well, because my girls have gone to private school in the centre of North Oxford for 7 years.
But, it’s not just geography; it’s style. The Charismatic Church was a bit of circus; well, think of it as Crufts. Bounding golden retrievers, prancing poodles, adorable labradoodles, the odd pit bull terrier or rottweiler thrown in. The worship is loud. The word people use to describe it is “American.”
And the worship leaders, “Look-at-me, yeah-Aren’t-I-cool?” performers, with American names like Martyn or Lauryne scream the lyrics. Flashy videos and slick audio-visuals give you the church news. All very slick, hip. When I was new, an older lady and a younger one, gave me the same tip. Bow your head, press your fingers against your earlobes, and then the noise, oh sorry, music, subsides to quite a pleasant level. You see that gesture rather a lot.
But then, but then, and here’s why I stayed for six and a half years. Suddenly, the spirit descends. And Martyn and Lauryne belting out vacuous, vapid lyrics they’ve penned two days ago, somehow fade away, and the Rector and Parish Vicar and their wives, who, it’s rumoured, bitterly scheme and intrigue against each other like Medici church politicians or characters in Downton Abbey, and bound onto the stage with competing visions and revelations from the Lord, the vision du jour, all that blessedly fades away too, and the music fades, and suddenly, you see Him seated on the throne,
And the circus, the zoo atmosphere melds into the eternal menagerie
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
And you feel the spirit descend, and wash through you, and you are temporarily purified of all your snarkiness, and you are filled and you feel ecstatic.
Worship is the most selfless act there is. It’s not about us; we are totally lost in someone else. We reach the deepest peace in which the self sloughs off and flies away.
* * *
Well, then I started worshiping in North Oxford. Church here is sedate, refined and sophisticated. It does not feel like a cross between the circus and Crufts. It feels like… like… well, North Oxford!!
The worship leaders are low key, more about the music than themselves. They have normal English names like Phil and Pete. They don’t play repetitive, anemic lyrics they’ve written that week. They draw from old wells, as well as new. It’s quiet, restrained, and, a word, many refugees from the Charismatic church to this solid evangelical church use “has integrity.”
But though both churches are Evangelical Anglican, one wildly charismatic, one mildly charismatic, the differences in style are significant.
Whereas the charismatic church used minimal liturgy, this is liturgical. Having grown up Catholic and been bored in church, a thousand times too often, I hate liturgy. In the charismatic church, the rector’s wife, who rather liked the sound of her own voice, would rush and gush over unending prayers, prophecies, proclamation, declaration, while the congregation grew restive. Here they were prewritten out and read out. How do you pray along with a prayer someone else has written? By the time, you’ve tuned your consciousness to pray for the Queen, they’ve gone through Cameron, Oxford and Missions.
* * *
Worship has rhythms much as making love does. Detaching from the world, entering into the presence of God, worshipping him. Changing from a bouncy, golden retriever style of worship to a more formal, stately style is proving harder than I imagined.
I am finding it surprisingly hard to sink into worship on Sundays. My most vivid church experience happens in small groups; I like and respect the people in my small groups, one a women’s group, one a couple’s, many of whom have quickly become my friends. That’s where iron sharpens iron for me,
When I first became a Christian, and was church-shopping, an older Christian magisterially told me, “Find a church at which you can best worship God. Everything else is a fringe benefit.” I have up, till now, followed that advice.
But I now believe he was wrong. A Church is people. A community of people to love, invest in, grow with, grow into friendships with.
If you have been in a church for a while, and given of yourself, and served, and made no or few real friends, should you change churches? It’s a difficult question. I have twice changed churches for this very reason, that I wasn’t real friends with anyone (and, this is an indictment of me: there was no one whom I particularly wanted to be close, deep friends with!)
If you have little with common with the church community, community is harder to find. It may be time to try a fresh church. There is no sense in accepting mediocre, boring or bad situations. Odds are, it will be better. If not, you could always return!!
And so I have chosen my new church for the community, the people, rather than the worship services.
* * *
We switch to the evening service, and I realize that more Sundays than not, I am skipping church. Sunday is a non-work, non-adrenaline day, when I suddenly realize that I have been running tired for a while. By 6 o‘clock, I am too tired, too sleepy, haven’t exercised, so feel the depression which exercise normally filters from my body. I wonder if exercise will make me feel happier that going to church. Or a nap. Or personal prayer.
I read and write intensely Monday to Friday. On Saturday, I read and write, but less intensely. And it’s so lovely then to truly, truly rest on Sunday, to not go anywhere, not even to church, which is 20 minutes away.
My husband and daughters go to church, but I stay home often, and pray and read scripture instead. For a few weeks, it works. I have amazing, refreshing, soul-shaking encounters with God, with clear guidance. I hear His voice. It’s praying where it itches, rather than listening to a sermon, hoping it connects with where you are. A targeted encounter like a one on one tutorial, rather than a lecture. It’s reading scripture and letting it speak to you, rather than listen to what Scripture said to someone else. Oh, and it’s perfect for an introvert!!
Blog posts flow on Sundays while the family is at church. And they are good.
* * *
But then, I began to feel restless and distracted on those Sunday evening. Ha, that’s what Lewis said what the value of church attendance in Mere Christianity. A single stick fallen out of the fire will blaze brightly for a while, and then burn out. But many sticks together will together blaze brightly!
I am not modelling the value of church attendance (which I do believe in!) for my daughters.
The thing about communal worship is that when you are bored, the music can lift you into a state of praise and worship far more effectively than you can lift yourself.
We all have poor spiritual peripheral vision. We focus on our current preoccupation, and the aspects of faith which have been most vivid and real to us that week. But there is always so much more about God which we haven’t realized or have forgotten. Going to church reminds us of them. The lyrics of hymns written by those who have experienced God more deeply, more lovingly, more devotedly, lift our tepid spirits.
Similarly, a good preacher can see amazing things which have evaded us in a text we have read dozens of times. Until I moved back to Oxford in my early forties, the preachers were always older than I. Increasingly, that is no longer the case. Sometimes, they were born, when I was in college. Ouch!! Just a little bit harder to take seriously. Just a little bit easier to get bored and restless during their sermons. And listening intently: ah, a good training in grace and humility. Might as well start practising for the decades when all the preachers will be younger than I am.
Another reason to go is other people. You both offer and receive social support, warmth and encouragement over coffee.
On Sunday, I feel that rest will be better than dragging my sluggish self to church, but then I land up writing often. On Monday, I am far more tired if I have not gone to church, and feel as I have cheated myself out of the day of rest I looked forward to. I do relax in church! In fact, it’s like going to the gym for me. I’d often rather not go, but then I feel so much better afterwards for having been. And in practice, I am less motivated and more tired on Mondays if I have written on Sundays, and end up taking a half day off.
I was getting a bit worried about how many Sundays I was blowing off church, when I was asked to co-lead my small group, from which I’ve been getting so many of the benefits of Christian community, love, encouragement, spurring on. I sighed with relief when I was asked to lead, as I knew it would solve my blowing off church struggles. I’d feel silly leading a group in a church whose Sunday services I don’t regularly attend.
So back to church. It’s still a bit sedate for me, compared to the bouncy Charismatic style I had got used to. Nobody belts out the lyrics, waves their hands in air, or dances! But, come on, if I truly believe prayer works, I could pray that it increases its bounciness quotient. I could even pray that on Sunday evening, in church!
* * *
Okay, to answer my question, is going to church on Sunday bread, Sunday roast, cake or icing to the Christian life.
To answer Anglicanly, it depends. For a new convert, bread or roast, I’d say. You only know as much of Christ as he has revealed to you. You need to go to church to absorb more of the concentrated theology in the liturgy (I don’t like liturgy, but that’s what its fans claim), to absorb concentrated theology in good hymns and worship songs, to learn scripture and its interpretations through the readings and sermons. Your faith seems less quixotic in a packed church.
But once you have been a Christian for a while, it’s a relationship. You will still love and rely on Jesus if you haven’t stepped into a church for a month. You will still need his strength and wisdom to get through the day. The church service is encouragement, refreshment, motivation, sweetness. A bit like Christmas cake with marzipan icing. You can do without it, but you and your life-blood are sweeter for the encounter with it.