Another week, and another open letter addressed to ‘the Church’ on social media, about how they’re not being inclusive enough. This time it’s from parents of autistic children. Disapproving looks, problematic loud music, unhelpful service plans. It really sounds like this family are up against it, and I get a glimpse of their daily struggles.
And yet instead of rolling up my sleeves, I find myself slumping into my chair and emitting a long sigh.
Let me be really honest: I’m pretty much white bread. In our current culture of intersectionality and privilege, entirely and unquestioningly welcomed by many Christians on the understanding that Jesus stood for the marginalised, I bank no victim points. Male, white, middle class, married with a healthy child.
Like many, I have grown up in the Church, and have seen it at its best and close to its worst. I’ve certainly seen enough to know that two classic church clichés are true. The first is that the Church is the people, not the building. The second is the football match analogy; that all too often in the life of the Church, a small number of people are running around, with a lot of people standing and watching. The same people turn up to the prayer meetings, the sweep-ups, the pack-downs.
I have usually found myself amongst that small number of people, and though I have loved much of the time I’ve given serving others in the Church, it has lead on several occasions to exhaustion and burn-out, which can easily become disillusionment. It’s more recently that I’ve learned to better accept my limitations; that God can work with or without me, and that I’m not responsible for every congregant’s spiritual growth or church experience.
But nevertheless, the seemingly endless stream of supposedly constructive criticism towards ‘the Church’ is utterly draining…
Not welcoming enough. But also too welcoming; doesn’t allow people who just want to drift in and out at the back to do so. Not enough mystery or liturgy. But also inaccessible to those who find tradition intimidating. No time for silence. But not enough tolerance for screaming babies. Not specifically welcoming enough to the deaf/disabled/LGBT/neurodiverse/elderly/families/working class/ethnic minorities. Not enough community service. Too much social action, not enough Bible study. Too dated, too loud, too pop culture.
And it seems like the people making these criticisms and writing these open letters have not yet experienced the truth of that second maxim: that the Church is people. The Church is you, you are the Church! The minute you write “dear Church” at the top of your list of complaints you’re creating a false distinction; it should read “note to self”.
But equally, the Church is me. Those letters are inevitably pointed more towards those seen to be organising stuff. The movers and doers. And because those people might seem to be sorted, happy, confident, cis-gender and so on, there’s little reason to hold back. It’s open season on that group who surely can’t know what it is to feel unwelcome or excluded. Let me tell you, those comments find their mark, for better or for worse. Those of us who try to live in the reality that Christ gave us – that the Church is our family, warts and all – feel those withering comments as real as a slap to our cheeks.
It’s hard not to respond with anger, as unfortunately some do. To find time amidst work and family to meet, plan, pray and organise a meeting, only to be told by an opinion-leading blogger that this service is essentially worthless because you didn’t seek out someone from a particular group and ‘give them your platform’. Despite what Twitter may lead you to believe, Hillsong is not the Church. Away from the metropolis, many churches would love to have someone, anyone, volunteer to lead. Too many white bread applicants are the least of their worries.
Inevitably such critiques come with a short shopping list at the end; ways in which the Church could do things better. I don’t wish to belittle anyone’s experience of exclusion or prejudice, and there is a time for discussion, reflection, improvement. But when our growing understanding of God focuses more and more on His grace and His perfect love, it seems ironic that people can call for flexibility and change in others so uncompromisingly.
And so, I’m not going to end with yet more ‘be better’ demands. We’ve had two clichés, we can finish with a third: be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.