We came across a young Christian minister this week who runs what she calls ‘church-free church’. This woman hasn’t stopped praying. She didn’t have a row with the vicar – she’s actually a minister of the Church of England herself! She didn’t lose her faith. She didn’t stop believing. She just lost her sense of belonging.
She describes gradually feeling more and more disconnected with what was going on inside church buildings of whatever denomination or worship style. She says she feels she can worship God better in other ways, in nature, in connecting with others for conversation and discussion...just no formal church!
She and friends are building a ‘church free’ community! She says it’s informal, there’s no set pattern, they meet in person and online. They go for walks together. She describes the process as ‘messy’ and ‘individual’. They watch films and documentaries, they listen to podcasts – Christian and secular. They discuss different spiritualities and what it means to be human. They try to see the whole of life as a sacred space.
In the last eighteen months we and thousands of our fellow Christians have been not ‘church-free’ exactly but in a screen-based ‘churchless church’. Like millions of others, we are asking ourselves what physical church gathering really means to us. Not the denomination to which we belong – that’s another story! But this business of once a week getting together with other Christians within four walls. Has it come to the end of its shelf-life?
We can think of a couple of important advantages to a churchless church. First the group would easily include many people we know and love who have a strong sense of there being something important beyond the things we can touch, something mysterious and transcendent. Few of them would ever consider a regular visit to a church building. And churchless church may offer opportunity to concentrate more attention on the tricky everyday business of living together in this very fragile world. Just at the moment, for example, it might encourage us to think more about the concerns of COP 26 (of which more next week) than the average sermon would. Churchless church certainly has some advantages.
But – and this seems like the bottom line - to be a Christian is to believe in a God who became flesh, who became a body – a limited, particular, messy, smelly, unreliable piece of flesh. This is a God who came into the world through the violent physical process of birth. A God who expressed Godself in daily physical work and exercise, touching people and washing the smelly feet of proud, stubborn, short-sighted, irritating people. A God who came to experience physically dying and rising again – as a body who cooked breakfast and was touched by his followers. A God who said that face-to-face eating together was the best way to remember important things about who God is and what God offers.
We forget our physical selves at our peril. Bodies matter. The senses matter. Seeing, hearing and touching (and sometimes smelling!) people is central to being human. Eating together informally and sacramentally feed the spirit. Face to face talking and listening to scripture and singing and supporting each other and discussing without screens are all life-giving activities. We’re still hoping to find some of that!
Until then, ‘churchless but not church-free’ church keeps us going!