Let me share my vision of church as ‘sanctified conversation’ — where our apparently unspectacular and oh-so-human activities are touched and lifted up by the God of the universe:
The people gather together eagerly and frequently to attend to God’s word humbly and gratefully — even when its message stings. Their joyful response — in prayer, singing and the rest of life — to God’s gracious work for and among them is heartfelt, honest and hopeful.
Real life concerns and experiences are acknowledged and charitably addressed — from the front and in interpersonal conversation. Everyone feels safe and able to ask their questions and share their feedback (positive or negative) because this is openly welcomed and encouraged.
No one is mocked, ridiculed or diminished. Conflict, when it inevitably happens, is handled with care and charity. And no one feels like they have to put on their ‘church face’.
Well, yes. But, I’m not sure it has to be. In a sense, it merely follows the golden rule of communication: people are more likely to listen to you when they feel listened to.
Here are a handful of things I’ve witnessed that have helped foster a culture like this:
- Showcasing your diversity — ie. try to make sure it’s not just middle-aged white blokes up the front (especially if you’re theologically complementarian).
- Advertising who you are and highlighting your local connections.
- Not using a Bible translation for public reading that may alienate half your congregation.
- Ensuring the service bubbles with honesty and human reality (as well as spiritual reality) — I’m all for slick and well-produced; but let’s be careful of crossing the line to soulless and over-produced.
- Ensuring the preaching puts into words people’s possible reactions and deals charitably with any objections.
- Establishing clear channels for feedback and questions (asking, ‘Are there any questions anyone wants to ask or thoughts you want to share?’ at the end of a sermon is good start but falls well short of what I envisage).
- Taking care neither to bury conflict — giving the impression that no ‘real Christians’ ever experience it — nor to air people’s dirty laundry.
- Having the pastor and/or service leader actively involved in welcoming people as they walk in the door (and not wrapped up in ‘organising the show’ with musicians, etc) — this is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen done.
- Welcoming newcomers and inviting them to participate without being pushy.
In my experience, things like this can dramatically reduce ‘sharing friction’. They give people the freedom to participate (without demanding it), and work towards helping everyone feel safe and comfortable enough to engage with what’s going on.
Of course, this is all ultimately futile if it remains at the merely human level — even if it’s delightfully inclusive and facilitates genuineness and honesty in relationship.
Christian community falls short of being the venue for sanctified conversation if it makes no room for an encounter with the living God.
We can reduce the conversational friction all we like. It’s pointless if Jesus isn’t present by the power of his Spirit to build (and rule and judge) his church — if, that is, we’re not hearing from our Lord and responding to him in adoration and action.