Despatches from the front line of the Church
There’s something odd about Christians.
This includes me. At the start of most services (particularly if for some reason the service isn’t ready to begin – usually because people are still shuffling in bleary-eyed at the back, or because the guitarist claimed he was ‘just nipping to the toilet’ and hasn’t been seen for fifteen minutes), the service leader has begun raising the microphone to their lips and uttering a sentence I have learned to find terrifying.
“… so why don’t you turn to someone you don’t know and say ‘hi’?”
This sort of militaristically-organised welcoming warmth is best done at Anglican churches, where hundreds of years of repressed social embarrassment have perfected it into both a script: (“Peace be with you…”) and an action, as if it was a children’s song (the handshake).
But my church isn’t an Anglican church, so we free-style this moment of madness. And this is where it usually goes wrong for me, because I have no idea what to say to anyone. Highlights include:
ME: “Hi, I’m undercoverchristian.”
RANDOM: “Hello, I’m Sue.”
ME: “Hi Sue! So how long have you been coming to this church?”
RANDOM: “Er, about twenty-one years, young man.”
And that’s assuming that I can think of something to say.
ME: “Hi, I’m undercoverchristian.”
RANDOM: “Hello, I’m John.”
ME: “Hi, John!”
Long pause – rack mind to think of something.
ME: “Er… Church.”
RANDOM: “I’m sorry?”
ME: “Church, this is a… is a… Oh the worship’s starting, thank goodness…”
Part of the problem may be that we have unrealistic expectations of Christians, both of those that we know, and of ourselves. If we look through the pages of the Gospels, Jesus is forever meeting new people and responding in a silky-smooth way. He always seems to know what to say. And so we feel we need to live up to this.
But Jesus was a Rabbi – a highly people-focussed role, in first century Palestine – a highly people-focussed place. From birth he would have been immersed in socially-intense surroundings and developed accordingly. He will have been more at-ease with people and conversation than us; more attuned to responding to people in the best way to get the best out of them.
The twenty-first century West is a more individualistic culture, and yet both we as Christians and the world in general seem to expect all Christians to behave exactly like Jesus would. This is sort of fair enough, as we are supposed to be Jesus’ ambassadors in the world, but it’s also tremendously unfair. It makes us very damning of ourselves (and others) when they make mistakes, or can’t think of something to say, or make the wrong call about us (“…twenty-one years, young man!”).
The other part of the problem is that church is one of those places where you don’t necessarily have any point of contact whatsoever with the person you’re talking to. If you meet someone as part of your job, you’ve got various conversational starting points to choose from. There’s a common ground, and it’s socially-acceptable to sit down on it and start talking. If you meet someone at a party, you’ve got common ground in your host, and it’s socially-acceptable to ask how they know them.
If you meet someone at church, however, the common ground is less available because it doesn’t necessarily feel appropriate to ask why a person is there or whether they’re a Christian – you’re acutely aware that people may be there for deeply emotional reasons (e.g. recent bereavement). Instead, we find ourselves trying to deduce something to ask about, like some sort of crazy religious Sherlock Holmes (“I see you are wearing a Snow Patrol t-shirt. My sister likes Snow Patrol. Do you like Snow Patrol? Do you know my sister? Do you know Snow Patrol? Who is Snow Patrol? Have you ever been on a Snow Patrol? Oh thank goodness, the worship’s starting….)
So how do we get over these issues – our unrealistic expectancy to be sage, Yoda-like conversational masters, and to navigate through an introduction with someone we don’t know without any immediately-obvious common ground?
Most Christians will already know the answer to this, so sing along – it’s in the Bible.
The Bible outlines the only way that humanity can short-circuit the cycle of affront and revenge that sits at the base of all human conflict – through forgiving. And actually, that principle – letting go of the things that people do or say to us in the name of love – applies much more broadly, including to this.
So let’s chill out. Let’s forgive ourselves for not knowing what to say to new people, and when we are those new people, let’s forgive other Christians for accidentally saying something that rankles.
Let’s not worry so much about this stuff. Let’s accept that Christians are weird. Everybody has a reason they need God, Christians merely have more reasons or realise that they need God before you have. Either way, they’re more likely to wear those reasons on their sleeve. Christianity is the faith of the socially-repressed, the downtrodden, the ill and yes, the socially-awkward – and so you’re more likely to see manifestations of that in church.
So, the next time some gurning fool turns to you in church and starts a stunted, partially-offensive and probably abortive conversation with you, smile at me and remember I’m only trying to be friendly. I’m not perfect. I’m not Jesus. I’m just trying to show you in my own blackboard-scrapingly uncomfortable way that I’d like to know you.
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