The following is a made up story. Fiction. Not real. Any similarity etc etc etc. I am a minister and do not write posts like this to not-so-subtly “out” my own church. I would not consider that good pastoral practice. But it could be about my church some day. Or yours.
John started coming to church because he needed help. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, bad decisions and unpleasant people he ended up with nowhere to live in a place he didn’t know anyone, in debt and unable to return to what he might once have called home. He met a nice Christian and he tried church. Someone from church found him somewhere to live, he attended a course about debt, and someone helped him deal with the people chasing him for money. He wanted to be “involved” in church – people kept using that word, and he wanted it to describe himself. He could only imagine how it would be to move from insider to outsider, alone to together, lone ranger to team player. It was this joining of a community that eventually pushed him over the line from sceptic to believer; hearing Jesus promise that even he could be a priest in God’s new kingdom. “How can I get involved?” he asked eagerly.
And so, to get involved, he joined a team. He didn’t play an instrument, his past meant a CRB disclosure would disqualify him from children’s work, and he didn’t know anything about electrical stuff. But making coffee he could do. And so he pitched up each week to mix the cheap instant coffee with water, dispense it out in plastic cups that burned his hands, and pass around pink wafer biscuits.
As he did that he began to notice something. All the people helping on this particular team were people just like him. They were the people who didn’t have a family, who seemed a bit peripheral to church life, who really wanted to be “involved.” It wasn’t a very social team because, frankly, the people there were all a bit like him, not much practiced at being social. Most of the work was done in near silence.
He noticed something else. There were a whole lot of people in church not like him. They were young and successful medical students, pretty girls who had boyfriends who weren’t Christians, successful executives, people who “didn’t have time” to make coffee for others or, in fact, to speak to the people who did, so full were their lives of work and relationship and, well, success. Full up with all the things he didn’t have and thought he’d been told wouldn’t count in the church. They were endlessly happily chatting to each other. Many of them seemed to know each other, but he couldn’t work out how, as they seemed to just turn up at church in families or groups of people that they already knew, wave their arms a bit, sit through the (in his opinion, rather long, sermons) and go home. It was as if, to him, church was the family he needed, but to everyone else it was an extra thing they did alongside some people they already cared about. And his very being in that first needy group made him the ideal person to make coffee as far as they were concerned, because he wasn’t part of any of the already-formed groups. He makes coffee, we chat, it all works rather well. So it seemed to him that it seemed to them.
In fact, the whole thing seemed to him to be much like his other job in life, working as a cleaner for a couple of rich families. He did the jobs they didn’t want to do in order for them to get on with their “busy” lives. But at least they paid. In church, there seemed to be whole group of people for whom turning up, using other people’s hard work for free and leaving again was the sum total. “Is this it?” he wondered.
In Jeremiah, one of the reasons God wants to get rid of the temple is because the people oppress the weak. Is it just possible that our church structures do the same? We, rightly, attract those who need a community, but many of us come with our community already fixed. The people who have time, who have a real desire to be involved, those who do not have a family or a demanding education, or a relatively high flying job, those people do the work for those who are too busy. And this, of course, mirrors the oppressive structures of the world, where the poor’s “weakness” is used as a way for the rich to get them to do all the jobs they would rather not do. We end up in a grotesque religious parody of the worst aspects of the world; much like Jeremiah’s temple. Do you realise that your decision “not to be that involved”, to stay with the people you already know, to put your own family first is never just that, it is a decision to pass the hard graft of church life to someone whose life is probably less full, less successful, less materially fulfilling than ours, to deny them the very thing that they really need from the church, the very thing that Jesus offers them.
It does all feel like far too much to fit in sometimes I know. But here’s the thing, middle class busy people oppressing and using the weak in church life is not an option. If we feel like some other choices we have made about our work, our relationships, our family stop us caring for the weak among us; the other choices need to change. Jeremiah’s temple isn’t there any more, because what use does God have for a community that bears his name but oppresses the weak that he loves, died for, became one of?