|Not Church ... just a building|
In Caversham churches, at least, this seems to be very much a minority position. Most churchgoers here seem to have grown up going to church. Likewise, these days, most non-churchgoers have never regularly been to church, and have had little exposure to church culture.
It makes a difference. I’ve been actively involved in churches for more than 30 years now, but I still find a lot of what goes on there alien and alienating. The somewhat separatist culture, the fixation on rules, what John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, calls the ‘sacred-secular divide’ – the idea that what goes on inside church buildings and church structures is, somehow, more special to God than what goes on outside. Then there’s the weird time-warps: 19th-century, 17th-century, medieval – some of it can convey a rootedness in worshipping history, but most of it is little more than anachronistic escapism, it seems to me.
Not to mention the way many churches obsess about sex and about controlling people’s private lives (not so much at St John’s, where I now worship, to be fair, but definitely at other Caversham churches), very much contrary to Jesus’ own attitudes. In fact that’s an important issue: the rather obvious gap between the words, attitudes and actions of Jesus, on the one hand, and the words, attitudes and actions of those who claim to follow him, on the other.
So, when people say – as they do – that they are spiritual but not religious, I can see where they are coming from. When people say they admire and respect Jesus, but are not interested in institutional religion, I can relate to that. And when people say that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian, it is undeniably true – a basic knowledge of British church history covers that, albeit with a twist.
And yet ... and yet ... it is also true that from the beginning, following Jesus was something to be done in company, in a supportive community of fellow-followers. A mixture of very different people, sharing joys and sorrows. The blind supporting the lame, whilst the lame guides the blind. People who can bring God’s comfort when God Himself seems far off – he’s not, but when life gives us a kicking then He can seem that way. A hand, a kindly word, a listening ear ... in some US churches there is a tradition of taking food around to someone who is going through a rough time: practical, kindly and comforting. Also, the reality is that we are here to make a difference, and that is so much easier when we work together, rather than alone.
So, yes it is true that you don’t have to be part of a church to follow Jesus – I know people who do just that; but they are better, stronger men and women than I. But when it comes to Christian community, like it or not, institutional churches are the only show in town ... at least here in Caversham.