Church, Culture

Into The Pray – Prelude


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Raw Disclaimer

{No, I’ve not gone vegan, but I would like to issue a WARNING that this series is going to possibly offend or insult if you’re religious or blinkered by denominational or institutionalised forms of control. The aim of writing Into The Pray is absolutely not intending to insult or offend in anyway (I take the subject of the church to be almost incomparably important) but I do want to deliberately ‘shoot in raw’ without ‘editing’ in order to process as best as I can}

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“Once more into the fray…into the last good fight I’ll ever know.

Live and die on this day…

Live and die on this day…”

Ottway, The Grey

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Have you seen the film? Liam Neeson’s The Grey is one of those blokey films that stays with you way after the credits have rolled, much like the lingering bone-chill from being outside all day in mid-winter: there’s a plane crash in a frozen wilderness, a bunch of competing men fighting for survival and a pack of wolves savagely bent on the hunt.

At the film’s climactic summit, facing the pack’s alpha male, Ottway’s quote is actually a parody of William Shakespeare’s Henry V. In Act III, Scene I after the English army manages to destroy a portion of the wall at Harfleur, King Henry V rouses his soldiers to plough through the breach and attack:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.

Granted, it is at the point of death, or at least the storm of furious fight, that both of these quotes live, move and have their poetic being. So it has also been at the point of ecclesiastical death for Mairi and I that we have wrestled with a deep dissatisfaction and disagreement with how ‘church’ commonly functions. Almost as though throwing our own flailing punches at the gross disparity between what we believe and what we experientially find ourselves a part, we’ve been increasingly asking questions about a type of spirituality that has been sucking the very breath from our lungs.

Perhaps as a symptom of the hypoxic problem, the decision to stand up and defy how church often functions, and for a time to say no to what church often prioritises being, is comparable to encountering a wolf in the wild – you just don’t want that to ever happen – because there is a serious threat of mauling, of judgment, of misunderstanding and of, God forbid, pigeon-holing.

But we have stood up, or sat down, depending on what culture you’re from as you read.

To best shape this prelude piece to the Into The Pray series, I want to ask/answer 5 questions to better help you locate where we are – like a Dragon declaring their decision in response to an entrepreneurial pitch. Imagine a google map icon dropping as you read the next few paragraphs…

What’s Going On?

Mairi and I have left the church we have been going to for the last two years. There has been no fall-out, no hurt and there is no flakiness. Rather than immediately looking for another church, we are deliberately lingering in an in-between phase of kingdom enquiry…and inquiry. You might say there is nothing unusual about that but, in making the decision, we’re not sure where or at what point we will be able to re-engage.

Why Have We Left?

In our experience, the church is chronically schizophrenic, flitting between degrees of atrophied word and spirit, truth and even heresy. There seems to us to be either the candy-floss of biblical ‘talks’ by any old Tom, Dick or Harriet, supported with charismatic spaces for worship, or solid, awe-inspiring preaching and full-on rigor mortis in response. (I’ve written about this here).

When we read and imagine the bride in Acts 2, it is simply Word and Spirit. Denomination is utter madness – how on earth have we got here?

What Are We Looking For?

Perfect church? That would be a pointless, mythological search.

No. We’re looking for home. Not a John 14 home but an en-route to John 14 home. Eternity driven, not seeker sensitive; Word and Spirit not something pretending to be both and failing to be either. We’re looking for power, for authority, for authenticity, for a diminishing gap between what we say we believe and how we actually live. For community that is truly loving and radicalised for truth not only social action. For a culture based on the written truth that transcends the spirit of the age and the fickle rhythms of trend.

Why Are We Writing?

We’re pretty sure that we’re not alone in struggling to find or belong to a church where we can fully say ‘amen!’ or, even, generally concur. We’re pretty sure that we’re not alone in facing an impossible choice between a church that is mature and strong in Word but on another planet in terms of the charismatic spectrum. We’re pretty sure that most people, whether following Jesus or not, don’t have a problem with God as much as they have a problem with church. We’re pretty sure that many people ‘settle’ for relationships that are less than authentic and more figments of the imagination rather than the living, breathing co-operation of a body, that we’re supposed to be. In short, we hope it will help us and help some others to write.

Why ‘Into the Pray’?

First and foremost, we recognise that we are submitted to the leadership of Jesus as our Lord and so we are entering a time to pray not a mystical, faithless wandering or fight that you might call a fray. Sometimes the ‘unknown’ and ‘unresolved’ can look much like a forest of wood, but, in choosing the road less travelled, we know that we’re going to find Christ in the midst of child-like faith, expressed through utterly dependent rhythms of prayer. Ergo, we’re looking for signposts to the kingdom because we talk about it a lot but, frankly, who really knows or explains what that actually means for the ‘here and now’.

(I had a kingdom lesson today during a conversation with a mate that I met for coffee. We were meeting over a disagreement we’d had about some business comms and were trying to iron it out. I thought I needed to let him know about such and such but as it turns out I had a huge piece of wood wedged into my eye. The living, dynamic nature of our time talking was a signpost to the kingdom as God crashed in to my proud mind and showed me what was going on.  *I’ll punctuate this blog series by including signposts like this along the way – annotations in a notebook entitled ‘every day is a school day’*).

Off We Go

I can’t offer a contents page or a list of chapters; this unfolding series will literally be born from the experience of ‘entering the pray’ and the unfolding daily  rhythm of prayerful reflection on some of these deeply troubling and legitimate concerns.

Those who know me know that I love God above anything or anyone else. Those who know me best know that I also carry a clear signature calling to love the church and help her to love Him as a bride does a bridegroom.

It would be such a massive encouragement and help to hear your thoughts, objections, questions, insights etc.

Please use the comment sections below the posts and help create a discussion thread.

Much love and pax,

NPF

 

 

33 Comments

  • I think that there are many in this position and I really believe its something God getting lots of people to do… Got a million thoughts on this, may write it down blog style so you can see where i am 2 years after stopping ‘going to church’. Fab you are sharing the journey!

    • beckybook, I hope that God is getting lots of people to explore their relationship with the church. Unfortunately, I believe there are too many whose only knowledge of God is through the lessons of the church. Look forward to reading your thoughts.

  • Looking forward to your walk on this one N & M. This isn’t a loaded question..honestly its not…but have you ever tried leading anything that could be described “church” in the “gathered assembly” understanding of the word?. Could perhaps such a venture be an important (vital) part of your journey to understand why many “assemblies” often frustrate many?
    Personally speaking….whilst still reasonably plugged into local church, I am discovering a thoroughly delightful diversity in the emerging wider “Church in Scotland” out there and would encourage you to enjoy the opportunity to get around it all…all of its expressions….the large, the short and tall….and you might discover, as I have, that “The new Church of Scotland” is faceless, nameless, joyful and thoroughly, thoroughly on the move and destroying the enemy in its path. These are great days for you and Mairi and I trust you might enjoy these stirrings in your hearts. They are certainly of Him!

    • Hey Craig. Thanks for reading/reflecting. I’m not quite sure what you mean…if you’re referring to The Filling Station etc, then we love what you guys do with that, especially in such an incredibly ‘religious’ and legalistic culture. Seeing folk flock from various churches is beautiful, eh. (Especially when they’re kind of incognito because their not really ‘allowed’ to go). We’re not looking to lead anything at the minute because we want to reach our own peace with some of the concerns we’ll explore in this series. Please do contribute with thoughts etc because the blog won’t be what is should be without blokes like you speaking your mind! Speak soon hopefully. N

  • I’m very interested in following your journey. To an extent your feelings reflect my own, although I think mine are more muddled than yours. πŸ™‚ You’re totally right that prayer is vital. I have a vision of something – something beautiful and community-minded and Kingdom living but which isn’t flaky or bigoted. Something based on love and The Bible and how Jesus lived. And that makes a difference and is attractive, that draws people because it’s alive and real and warm and messy and safe.

    • Good morning! Can I call you MTM? Thanks so much for reading and for engaging. It encourages me (us) when this line of thought encourages others. I had no doubt that there are a lot of people who go to church week in week out but who are fundamentally parched and malnourished because so little of what church is and ‘does’ is actually kingdom at all. That may sound awfully vague and vapid at this stage, but I pray that the kingdom is going to clarify as the series unfolds. But the example you give is so important: when the truth is spoken about X, Y & Z the world and some of the church would like to attribute labels such as ‘bigoted’ and ‘unloving’ or ‘fundamentalist’ whereas the actual ‘kingdom reality’ is that truth-telling (regardless of how anti-cultural) is the most loving priority. If we don’t do that (regardless of what we may be called) what on earth are we doing? Will check your blog and thanks again πŸ˜„

  • I’m with Move Those Mountains on this one: got sticky & thick mud-dled thoughts on this. You’ve an excellent eloquence though, I hope to follow the journey. Sometimes I feel more in communion with Jesus on a night shift in A&E (with the hopeless, broken, abandoned, selfish) and wonder what ‘church’ a) they would look for and b) they could freely enter.

    • G’day, Tim. Thanks for this…appreciate you engaging, mate. This is the place for thick and muddled thoughts, however sticky! Let’s have them. Mairi and I are fully aware that the significant number of believers who essentially abandon church is not a statistic that we want to be a part of long-term. For example, I would never be satisfied without being part of community – it’s not appealing and it’s not safe. But neither is being part of a community that gather and form primarily around alternatives to the life-giving word of God: namely social action and being ‘missional’ (which really looks a lot like flip charts and coffee rather than actually seeing people discipled and in awe of Jesus). Keen to hear your A&E stories and how they translate for you and others into proximity to Jesus. Cheers, mate

    • Tim – I think I understand what you mean about closer communion with Jesus on the night shift in A&E (and kudos to you for doing that job btw) and wondering if/how those people would fit into many churches. Isn’t church supposed to be the place for hope, healing and salvation?
      PS My name is Nina πŸ™‚

  • Interesting thoughts and comments.

    I think it’s important to remember that no church is perfect – never has been, never will be (until Jesus comes again).

    Our approach has been a) find a church that has the same vision and values as us, b) choose to focus on what they’re doing well (rather than on what they’re not doing), and c) serve. Simply get stuck in, and serve.

    The Church is Jesus’ Plan A. There is no Plan B, so opting out isn’t the answer, neither is starting something new – that’s how we’ve ended up with all the denominations.

    I hope you and Mairi soon get the clarity you’re praying for, and that you’ll soon feel able to re-engage with your local expression of Church.
    Lots of love xxx

    • Thanks, Pod. Yes, as I already said, the perfect church doesn’t exist. Finding a church with the same vision and values is the desire, and to focus on the positives within the imperfection, but that doesn’t automatically mean that a church with the same values actually exists. I think I already said somewhere else as well that we know there is no plan B. N

    • Pauline Bagg, I respectfully disagree with your argument.
      The fact that no church is perfect nor ever will be is not reason to simply overlook what a church is not doing well. Is one truly engaged with a church, or only with a particularly ministry, if able to ignore potential problems? is turning such a blind eye to such conditions truly serving the church? True, individual gifts, talents, and/or abilities may preclude one from becoming directly involved, but nothing should preclude one from offering encouragement, support, and/or prayer in the pursuit of improvement.
      With regard to ‘Plan A,’ I believe the ‘church’ to be the body of believers, not the human institution. The warnings in Revelation make it clear that a church can fall sufficiently away from God to have to endure His wrath. Still, I believe it better to remain connected to a particular church or congregation, so long as one does not substitute a church for the One it is intended to represent.

  • Interesting article. Now that you have embarked on this course nothing I write would persuade you otherwise. However, my concern for a brother who actively removes himself from the church is grave. If, as you say, a church with the same ‘vision and values’ you are looking for does not exist. And, as you say, your ‘not looking to lead’ then where does that leave you? Praying for you both.

    • Hey. Thanks so much for reading/commenting. I appreciate that there is a fine line between “leaving the church” and having a season of respite from the polarised expressions that are currently available (especially in Edinburgh). If it helps you, we have no desire in any way of abandoning the church in the way about which, I think, you’re expressing concern. Equally, when I say that we’re not looking to lead anything, again, I’m referring to this precise moment in time. In my humble opinion, our grave concern (as you put it) is for the church herself and the multiplicity of doctrinal variations, not least regarding marriage. For a young couple to have a break from the distress that this causes, for specific prayerful reflection, is much less worrying than this reality…especially because I think I can legitimately ask, “where are all the men of God, all the Fathers of the faith, who are standing up to refute the nonsense that’s unfolding before the watching world…?

  • P.S. and by the way, if I knew who you were I’d like to think that we could have an open face to face that would make talking/taking advice/wisdom about some of this stuff much more likely πŸ™‚

    • Where indeed are the Men of God?! It is sad that you have found yourselves distressed by the conflicting messages given by the church. The bible is clear, but sadly the wider church is not. Take the time you feel you need, and step back into the Frey when you are ready. Even in the small town of Edinburgh there are gospel centred churches that are not too stuffy (at least for Scotland!). Blessings.

  • ” β€œleaving the church” and having a season of respite from the polarised expressions that are currently available (especially in Edinburgh).”

    Is that a sweeping statement or what? Have you genuinely tried other churches in Edinburgh and given them the time and chance?!

    • Thanks. The simple answer to your loaded question is “yes” – is there a reason why you don’t think we’ve ‘genuinely’ considered this? – and also that one doesn’t need to have tried every church (as though that’s the point about this article?) to know that the expressions of church are polarised…

    • Friend, I don’t believe that this concern for the church is limited to Edinburgh, Scotland, or the UK. I empathize with firebrandnotes’ concerns and have had a similar experience with multiple churches in greater Los Angeles, California, USA. My wife and I spent nearly 20 years as a members of one church. The last five-plus years produced concerns similar to those shared by firebrandnotes. We stayed through a significant change in pastoral leadership and staff brought about by ‘the church’s’ desire to recover its lost relevance in the community. Unfortunately, it appeared to be concern for this church’s relevance, not the Church’s relevance. We sampled another church for six months until the elders identified one of the benefits of membership as the privilege of allowing the pastors to pray for you. Participants in our ‘new members class’ were literally told that pastors did not have time to pray for or with those who were not members. We sampled another church for a year before an election of elders resulted in the elevation of only professional staff and their family members to the elder board. We have been in our current church since April. Obviously, I have not ‘left the church’ as firebrandnotes has determined to do, but I suspect I am far more removed mentally, emotionally, and intellectually than he ever hopes to be. It is one’s faithfulness to God, through Jesus Christ, that identifies that individual as His, not their relationship to a denomination or congregation, though I acknowledge the benefits and opportunities for one connected to a particular church.

      • Thank you for sharing, Sammy. Indeed, the concern and burden and distress we feel is not specific to Edinburgh, though there are marked differences in the church climate cf. London, for example. (By the way, I love Edinburgh very much). Though I might have specific churches in mind when I write, I’m mainly thinking of the world-wide body. Neither do I want my ‘raw tone’ (in which I’ll obviously have points of long-term and recent reference) to be disrespectful or hurtful to any church or leadership. I know I’m on hallowed turf here.

        Equally though, in challenging aspects of what we call church, in pursuit of the kingdom, we’re not being unloving of the church, but rather the exact opposite. This in itself is a paradigm shift that we all desperately need though I have to ensure that my tone is honest as well as measured.

        I think it’s also worth saying that I’m very grateful that the Hello Christian online magazine connected with us at the exact time of the inception of this blog series – I didn’t plan this – but I did ask the guys there yesterday to change the title of the first episode from “Why My Wife and I Left The Church” to “Why My Wife And I Left Church”. Leaving ‘the Church’, the body, isn’t even possible (if you are genuinely part of it)…but leaving ‘a church’ and not immediately re-engaging (the expressed point of this blog at its very outset) is entirely healthy.

  • Oh, where to begin?
    First, thank you for initiating this blog and daring to ask questions about the role and direction of the church. Like you, “I take the subject of the church to be almost incomparably important;” however, it is a subject that I have found difficult to engage. For that reason, I look forward to reading your continued ruminations and, I hope, engaging you in that discussion.
    Second, in that discussion, I hope and trust that all comments and replies will be accepted “in the raw,” as you identified in your own disclosure. I trust that most, if not all, engaged in this forum have no intent to insult or offend others. Should I have occasion to do so, I seek your forgiveness and understanding in advance.
    Third, in the interest of authenticity, I must disclose that I am not a Christian I had self-identified as such for approximately 30 years, but do longer do so. My “problems with the church” have produced a hard-heartedness that has resulted in “problems with God.” Still, I respect and admire those who live consistent with their faith in Jesus Christ. In that light, I hope that my life might serve as a warning of the potential pitfalls you and Mairi may be confronted by in your season of respite. I whole-heartedly disagree with those that have warned that Christians must be engaged in a church. However, I do believe that, in addition to prayer, it is in your best interest to remain engaged with the “body,” be it through family, friends, this forum, or …

    • Cheers, Sammy. Again, appreciate your authentic transparency and time. I’m very sorry that you have come to a place of feeling that you have hard-heartedness about things and I’ll be praying for you, for sure.

      I’m not disagreeing with Pauline, above, or anyone else who maintains that being planted in a local church is the only way forward – I believe that being plugged in to a church is the only way. What I am saying is that a period without being committed to one church is not a bad thing or, (as we’ve already been accused), selfish and not biblical. It’s a concern to me when believers are more concerned about a period of pause and prayerful reflection and, even challenge, than about some of the issues that the series will address.

  • Neil, my wife and I did a similar thing about 5 years ago and while we took a fair amount of flack at the time because of it, it was one of the most refreshing times of our lives. We grew closer to God and to each other and through the process were drawn to a church we now call Home. I look forward to your further reflections as you embark on this stage of your lives. Every blessing. Jimmy

    • G’day, Jimmy; thanks so much for this. Really glad to hear about your experience that has led the way toward a refreshed place of belonging! Was there anything particularly important that you learnt through that time together, amidst what I’m sure would have included opposition or even ridicule? Cheers, Nick

  • Nick, I am displeased with myself at not having noted in my previous comments that the two things that shine through in your thoughts are your love for Christ, the body, and the church. I believe your disconnection with the local church is only temporary, and wish only the best in finding a church with which you connect for your own spiritual growth and from which you might serve that congregation and the greater community. While, yes, the characteristics of church may vary from Edinburgh to London or from the UK to the USA, I do fear there are also universal challenges to spread of the Gospel and the effectiveness of the church. We will see what your blog encourages us to explore. As a personal aside, I do find it amusing that our paths, if not our lives have crossed. I note that you went to Life Church in Bradford BD3 for Bible training. I actually attended a year of uni (BD7, if I recall correctly) in Bradford as part of an international students’ program. Sadly, about a year before Life Church was established. Should our paths cross again, I hope for the opportunity to meet in person. Until then, may you find the blessings you seek.

    • Dear Sammy, I’ve been meaning to reply to this properly since reading it when you posted it. I’ve been on the move ever since. I’m writing again tomorrow and intend on replying to this then πŸ™‚

    • Hi Sammy, thanks so much for this. It is certainly a small world! I really very grateful that you’ve written to say this. My hesitancy around writing anything about the church is because of the classic accusation of being unwise and unloving. I think I probably m do carry a burden for the church and sometimes don’t know how best to express things, but I don’t doubt that my burden is loving albeit frustrated. At the end of Colossians 1, Paul writes of his struggle with the energy of Jesus working in and through him at the epicentre of his ministry to the church. But it certainly wasn’t always a bed of roses. Anyway, thank you again. Feel free to drop me a line via the “contact” section of the blog and we can email for sure. Cheers πŸ™‚

  • Hi bro, having read part I & II, along with the resulting comments. I see why I am still not back in a church. There are some well meaning people out there, along with the inevitable church mafia who can’t see beyond what they haven’t experienced or don’t want the boat to be rocked. When I read my bible, it tells me we are The Church, when 2 or 3 are gathered then Jesus is right there in the midst. When I stand before my Lord, I am sure his first question won’t be did you go to church. He will be more concerned with my heart and if it beat in time with His, did it break for the things that made His heart break, was I am good and faithful servant. Did I keep the faith, run my race, do the things that God planned for me before time began. Many people are uncomfortable when people do things out of the norm, but look at the prophets and even Jesus, they were way out of the boundaries of what was considered normal for the time they were in. Stick to what you are doing guys, don’t be normal, be extraordinary for Jesus, too many people are going to hell, while the majority of churches sit behind their walls thinking of new ways to get people in, argue about petty temporal things and discuss what colour the carpets and chairs should be. I’ve been there done that. Where is the reality of the rubber hitting the road in todays Christianity!! I watched Derren Brown, dismiss and mock the power of God last night saying that it is all just clever tricks and psychology, along with a side helping of greed. And while the programme made me angry, I was more concerned that our Churches don’t seem to have an answer. The giant has been asleep for too long, it needs to wake up and inevitably it takes bold and radical people to step out. Some has to be first to sound the wake up cry. Once more into the pray my friends.

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