When Church Goes Wrong

firetruck

I wasn’t at church this Sunday, but apparently during a particularly vigorous rendition of ‘Let Your Fire Fall’ the fire alarms went off and the building had to be evacuated.

I’m told, by the way, that it wasn’t a traditional ringing alarm but a slightly more unnerving recorded announcement that went something along the lines of, “there is an incident. This is an emergency. Please stay calm and leave the building by the nearest emergency exit. There is an incident…”

There are few things more likely to endanger my calm than the ominous-sounding word ‘incident’, which makes what is presumably a mundane electrical fault sound like a virus-triggered zombie apocalypse.

It’s wonderful when things go wrong during church services. From when the worship band sing different verses (and sometimes different songs) to those put up on the screen, to when visiting preachers accidentally swear during their talk. I have a faintly apocryphal story about a church on the south coast that used to hold services on the beach, which led to huge confusion during the talk as non-churchfolk set down their towels between the preacher and congregation and then wondered why a man was standing up talking at them. Similarly, there may have been an embarrassing incident during a baptism when two helpful passers-by thought the convert was being assaulted.

One of the reasons that the unexpected is wonderful is because it reminds us not take church too seriously. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to have it all figured out – and although we have some responsibility, we are not fully in control.

We can try to engineer everything as much as we like. We can exercise our control-freakery like zealous contestants on The Apprentice to our hearts’ content. We can try to arrange  ‘the perfect’ lighting to ‘help’ people ‘feel’ close to God. We can bring a non-Christian on ‘the perfect’ day to hear the ‘best’ speaker talk about the things we are convinced they need to hear – glancing fervently at them throughout the service for any sign that their God-gauge is creeping up.

But church is not supposed to be a manipulatathon. It’s not a Derren Brown gig. Church is supposed to be a group of flawed and broken people gathering to commune with each other and the One who keeps the broken pieces together – fixing some bits for us and helping us to cope with the others.

Jesus was forever having to cope with drama during his work. From his rejection in his home town following his first preach (Luke 4:14-30), to a congregation that liked him so much they effectively tried to kidnap him (Luke 4:42), to a ton of interruptions during teaching (Luke 5:17-19, John 8:12-13, etc). Jesus took the opportunities that presented themselves and worked with them. In fact, Jesus actually put a stop to an incident of stage-management by his disciples.

Good churches do their best to create a safe environment where people can meet with each other and meet with God. Great churches know there are limits to how much they can do.

The rest gets done by Someone Else entirely.

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Feeding the Five Thousand by Committee

feedthefivethousand

There are a few subtle differences in the Gospel accounts of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Maybe this is what really happened.

Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.

When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said.

There was a pause.

“All of them?” said one.

Jesus looked at them. “Yes, all of them. All five loaves and two fish, please.”

There was another long pause. Somebody shuffled their feet.

“Is there a problem?” asked Jesus.

“Er, Lord,” said Matthew. “It’s just that we don’t have much bread and fish… the economy and that… we’ve already given quite a bit. If we give up this then we won’t have anything. What will we eat?”

“I gave one of my loaves to an old lady earlier,” said John. “I’ve made my contribution.”

“I gave a kid an M&M,” said Thomas.

Jesus rubbed his temples. It was getting late. “Gentlemen, this is not a difficult concept – give me the bread and fish. Seriously.”

“Lord,” said James, who was notably clever. “If we surrender all our possessions, then we will starve, and then we won’t be able to give on a more regular basis. Surely long-term sustainable provision of food security is preferable to this random act of self-deprecation?”

The other disciples looked impressed. James had been to college. He had a BTEC.

“If I may,” said Judas. “Strictly speaking we are only required to donate ten percent, aren’t we? So how about we cut off a bit of fish and a bit of bread and give you that for the people?”

Andrew was looking out at the crowd. “Some of them are quite well-dressed, you know. Should the wealthy not give more? If they’ve got lots of money maybe they should be buying the dinner.”

“Also, Lord,” said Thomas, “this much bread and fish isn’t going to solve the problem, anyway, is it?”

“Well, Thomas,” sighed Jesus. “You’d be surprised.”