Hint: It’s not because of the worship music.
With all the hand-wringing going on about how bad the church is (and that’s just from Christians), it’s time to remind ourselves that so much of what church is, is so good that people envy it.
Yes that’s right, “envy”.
Here we are in a cottage industry of anger over church – and that’s just from within the church – and yet so many people are looking on wistfully – enviously – and wishing they had some of that.
In fact the “envy” word – a terrible deadly sin in so many other contexts, came up not once, not twice, but three times last week in conversations around church, and all from the mouths of non-church people. I;m not putting that word in other peoples’ mouths.
Two of those conversations were relayed to me from Christian friends, and one of those conversations was directly with me. And that word “envy” came up each time.
Now you might think that perhaps, in my instance at least, the word was on the lips of a God-fearer who had slipped off the church radar.
Wrong. It was from an Irish friend of mine, brought up anti-church by her lasped Catholic parents in the Republic of Ireland. Dunno about you, but there are few people more hostile towards the church, indeed the very idea of it, than lapsed Irish Catholics. Go test that theory out, you won’t have to probe too far.
But my friend, struggling as she is being in away from “home”, overseas from her struggling mum, and with a hubby and young child here in Perth, told me she envied the church communities to which people such as I, and other mutual friends of ours belong.
“I just don’t have anything like church myself, and I envy it.”
Not generally the word we think of when we think about what non-Christians think of church. And indeed we’re often too busy constructing the arguments against church for them to even realise what treasure we have! Even recently I saw yet another angry broadside from a continuously angry man, always angry about church, but funnily enough not angry enough not to draw a wage from ministry roles, declaring that modern young people avoid the church because of its stances of climate change, its views on women etc, etc.
And perhaps there is something in that – in the Twittersphere that this person inhabits at least, in which all of his conversations are salted with anger from those who are hostile to church no matter what stance you take on anything, ever.
But the average non-Twitter person who expresses their feelings to a friend? Not so much. For all its warts, my friend recognised in church communities – especially in these COVID times – a place of friendship and acceptance and serving of others, that she desperately doesn’t have anywhere else.
Now my friend is, not surprisingly, a runner, and is involved in the local running scene. And the running scene in my city is a friendly scene – I love it! But there’s something not quite the same in going to parkrun every Saturday morning with a couple of hundred other people as there is in going to church.
Park-runners can become friends around the common goal of running for sure, but parkrun is like church without Jesus. And church without Jesus? Well that would just be a club that can’t do the really deep stuff that Jesus gets to in our lives: like teaching us to forgive one another. Commanding us to love and serve others when we don’t want to. Calling us to put self-interest aside for the sake of the body for which He died.
Parkrun is kinda like church without Jesus. It’s friendly. But it’s not at a friendship level to envy. So let’s not make church church without Jesus, because there’d be nothing there for my friend to envy. Nothing there for her to see as palpably different, obviously superior in the tough times, than what parkrun is.
So what makes my friend not just rock up to church? Perhaps this is the chink in our armour. She envies church and its community alright, but the other word she used was “imposter”. She would feel like an imposter going to church. She doesn’t have the right to come into that setting where Jesus is at the centre.
To which I replied that this makes her the prime candidate for actually coming to Jesus! Jesus made a habit of coming close to those who felt unworthy, while distancing himself from those who felt a sense of self-entitlement. You can see why a church that primarily sees itself as a community of those who, while yet unworthy, have been drawn into the presence of God by Jesus, will be a welcoming place, a place to envy.
Now there is no doubt that church toxicity has done a lot of damage to a lot of people, and if you know me, I’m clearly very aware of that and have had to face those issues down myself. And I don’t want to diminish that toxicity.
But it’s only so shocking, so dreadful, so awful, because it’s not meant to be that, and by and large across Christian communities, it isn’t that way! I’ve been part of plenty of church communities that were amazing and healing and gracious and open to all – imposter or otherwise.
From the Baptist church I belonged to in which the older men in the church rallied round the young men in my family when it was going through difficulty, and guided us through it; to the Pentecostal church in the working class port city of Fremantle in the mid 1980s, in which curious and amazing things happened which I can’t explain, yet whose primary demeanour was an open hand to the waifs, strays, weirdos, hippies, single mums, pregnant teens.
And then there was the big charismatic church in the UK I went to, where not one Sunday went by in which this single, slightly unsure of himself early twenties something who hadn’t figure out life at all, was left wondering where he might have lunch and with who.
And the Brethren Assembly where I first got to preach (they were very gracious), and the Baptist church where I worked for six years, in which the generosity of the average congregation member, both in terms of time and understanding, was huge. Even after a burn out, they looked after us.
And watching as my church plant and the network it belonged to made costly decisions to love and serve the outsider. And how people put aside the comfortable lifestyles of so many of their suburban peers and just did hospitality to the stranger at a level that no upper middle class urban professional in any other life circumstance outside of Jesus would dare consider.
And then there’s my friend who was recently named citizen of the year for his local government shire, whose tireless work and creative brain has seen thousands of local families on struggle street, who would never previously darken the door of a church, receive tonnes of free food, friendship and invitations for barbecues and lunches. Not for any other motive than to share the love of Jesus – to share the food that will lead to eternal Life.
I’ve heard some horror stories about churches (mainly about church leaders) in the past few years, and written a few of those stories myself. But what makes those stories so horrible is just how much they contrast with think the norm should be for God’s community. If it were all horror story it would no longer be news!
So yes, there are things to repair in church, and so we must play our part in repairing these things and never excuse them. (and with that in mind, what seems to be happening in the light of some of the abuse stories of the past few years, is a returning tide of excuses from those who were perhaps complicit or turned a blind eye).
But we must also celebrate the most uncelebrated small (and sometimes large!) expressions of church that never make the headlines, churches whose pastoral teams never speak at the conferences; whose people are not corporate high flyers, and whose vision is not “to take this city/nation for Jesus”, but rather to aspire to live quiet, godly lives, and who, let’s be frank, would struggle often to aspire to anything beyond that in this harsh culture anyway.
These are churches that aspire to showcase the goodness of Jesus to their neighbours in such a way that, in these uncertain and unforgiving times, they become the envy of their neighbours.
That’s the type of envy we can work with.