A presonal account:
I used to attend a church in one of the poorer areas of the inner city. The church was nestled in cheap accommodation that served two types of people. One of the groups were students who paid cheap rent and were barely seen as they spent most of their time in the city centre if they weren’t sleeping. The other residents were often unemployed since the heavy industry had collapsed some years ago. Some had found manual work or retrained but many remained long term unemployed. The women of the household had since gained employment but often in low paid jobs. I tend to use this as a yard stick – there were three working men’s clubs and one pub (for the students). Whilst the Church was situated here, the congregation mainly travelled by car to the church. The BMW would pull up and out would step a family with 2.4 immaculately dressed children. Worship was evangelical charismatic with a vast wealth of musicians and a number of bands. This seemed to attract a large number of students who would attend during two thirds of the year.
This church had a large youth group with several groups for different ages. After a few years there was a small group of local teenagers who started to wander into the services on a Sunday night. They didn’t know what was happening in the services. They didn’t know how to behave during the services. They would often shout out or hit each other. They weren’t particularly clean and tidy. They didn’t know to take their hat off at the door.
The church didn’t know what to do with them. Do you ignore them and carry on regardless? Do you stop what you are doing and tell them to be quiet and listen? Do you take them to a different room and do something with them there? How can we brush them under the carpet and pretend they don’t exist and this hasn’t happened?
At one point it was suggested that they would be better served with the youth group. Imagine that someone ran into a church meeting holding a hand grenade with the pin pulled. With the reaction given, you could be mistaken for thinking that this was the case. Phrases such as “my children can’t…”, ”they shouldn’t have to put up with…”, “Not fair on the…” and “over my…” became the order of the day. Needless to say, the people who inadvertently wandered into church over a few months were ‘given the message’. “You aren’t welcome here”, “God doesn’t like people like you”, “People like you aren’t welcome in church” and “We’re better than you”.
So why have I chosen to share this story with you? This may turn out to be a little long winded so please bear with me. This memory was dragged up by a meeting I went to last night where we discussed Bill Rogers. For those of you who are not familiar with the world of teaching in the UK, he is one of the leading educationalists on how we learn to behave. His aim is essentially to help teachers become more effective in the classroom by using more effective strategies to modify behaviour. I know it doesn’t look like it at the moment but I will get round to it.
I suppose for this to make any sense I better give a brief synopsis of what was said. The starting point of the presentation/discussion was that the social situations in which we learn how to deal with people have changed radically over the course of the last century. The guy in charge used a diagram of the circles of intimacy*:
These are the social situations in which we have learned our boundaries and rules. We learn in the centre and then progress to the next level out. We learn first the rules we must follow with our parents and siblings as toddlers and then in friendship groups and so on. In many cases the groupings in which we (in the UK) need to be able to behave have become blurred. The parent child relationship is often one where there is little distinction between the two – parents and children have the same interests and in many cases, the same social structures. The relationship negotiation on this level have become blurred as the boundaries merge with the friendship group. This in turn merges with authority figures and so on. This means that many younger people** no longer know how to behave in a situation. A programme on TV last night about cycle cops highlighted this quite well. A cycle courier in his mid twenties was pulled over for shooting a red light. Instead of saying “Sorry guv, I wont do it again”, he started shouting and swearing at the police until the situation escalated and the police had no option other than to arrest him. He didn’t seem to have developed the skills to deal with that situation.
We then went on to look at Bill Rogers and the principles he gives for teaching good behaviour. He starts with the basis that to teach others good behaviour we must model it. It makes sense that if you want someone to learn not to shout in a conversation you don’t shout at them about it! Instead of pointing out someone’s bad behaviour you request good behaviour instead. Whilst the rules remain the same people are enabled to own them and respond in an appropriate way to them. Instead of showing people that you deal with something by bellowing “WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT BOY!!” a simple “Dale, can you turn and face the front thanks” will suffice.
“So what has this to do with the church?” I hear you ask. In many congregations we see many well dressed, well educated, well behaved people who sit down, stand up, sing, eat and drink on demand throughout a service. This situation is one in which people have learned how to behave in that peculiar situation. As I’ve said, for some people it is difficult to learn how to act in different social settings. Some people don’t know what to do in a given situation until you have been taught it. If you haven’t been given the skills to cope with learning a new social situation it is going to be very hard for you. If we make Sunday attendance the only way of being seen as an accepted member of The Church then we are going to see large groups of our society permanently excluded and marginalised. Perhaps Sunday services aren’t the places where some of our society is going to be able to ‘get our head around it’. For the group I mentioned at the beginning who wandered into this strange place, perhaps a service isn’t the most appropriate place for them. Perhaps the youth group isn’t either – after all, why should they have to put up with all those middle class kids and their strange ways? Perhaps the best thing would have been something new, something different, something we haven’t thought about yet. The problem with this is that it requires some time, effort and though. It also requires stepping out in faith!
My last point is that following Jesus isn’t a no holds barred free for all of sex and drugs and rock and roll. There are certain expectations that He has when it comes to our behaviour. For example, you don’t kill people. It’s not the done thing really. It’s not cricket. I use the obvious example, but Jesus is also concerned about what we do with our forgiveness. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he didn’t say “you are forgiven, carry on” he said “go and sin no more”. 2000 year before Bill Rogers whilst he walked the Earth, Jesus was quietly talking to people whilst living out his life as the example to follow. He didn’t set up a pulpit of condemnation from which to challenge those he saw as ‘sinners’ within society shouting about brimstone – the trap that many of us fall into each Sunday morning. Instead, he lived his life as a model whilst he showed people the paths that they could take. Why did he do it? Because he loves us!
*those of you who are thinking “where have I seen this before” may have been involved in seeker-sensitive worship or www.purposedriven.com.
** I also see the irony of me using these words. There’s something about teaching which makes you feel like an elder statesman.