One of the things I like about John the Baptist is that he was unconventional:
- He had an unconventional appearance; he was the wild man of the desert.
- Instead of going out to meet the people he expected the people to go out to meet him.
- He didn't even supply his followers with refreshments. I don't expect many shared his appetite for locusts and wild honey.
John’s unconventional ministry is, perhaps, a reminder for us that sometimes today’s church may need to be unconventional as well. Maybe not all the time, but at times.
For us at the Minster, exploring what it meant to be unconventional led us to start ‘Sanctuary’.
- The church opens at 9.00pm on a Friday and Saturday night, and stays open until some time between 3.00am and 5.00am the following morning.
- The church is candlelit, there is a chill-out soundtrack playing mixed in with contemporary Christian music. Free tea and coffee is served.
- Our pastoral care volunteers work alongside the Reading Street Pastors (based in the church office) and the Paramedics (who use the vestry as a treatment room and minor surgical area).
- A range of people come in to the church: the homeless, young people enjoying the night time economy, pub and club owners and their door staff, amongst others.
- The aim is to offer a place of refuge, recovery and refreshment.
Nothing we did was rocket science, but they were unconventional, they were things that people didn’t expect an Anglican church to be doing.
So, we thought let’s press a bit further into the question of why people were surprised; why we had exceeded their expectations.
All of which led us to ask questions about what kind of church people thought we were. And what we realised is that there are two models of being church, and they come with different sets of expectations. And I’d like to talk about that this morning.
Two different models … the first is called a ‘bounded set’ model.
A bounded set is where we create a boundary, a theological border, a doctrinal fence, a cultural barrier … and separate those who are inside the fence from those who are outside. It is an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset where everyone on the inside is probably accepted, loved, and welcomed, while those outside the fence are kept away until they can change their beliefs and behaviours to fit the entry requirements. It’s what some people call a PLU church, i.e. People Like Us!
People within the church – and it varies from church to church who they are – often serve as the gatekeepers, welcoming those who belong while holding at bay those who don’t ‘change their ways’.
Let me give you an illustration which might help.
Imagine a cowboy film. Now think of a bounded set as a Western style horse corral. The cowboys build the fence to keep the horses from wandering away. You only get in if the cowboys – the gatekeepers – let you in.
Obviously, any wild horses – the ones with energy and enthusiasm – have to be broken first. But, the corral is safe and you’re fed, just so long as you don’t mind conforming to the herd and giving up your freedom.
Churches can be a bit like this.
So long as you conform to the rules and limitations, and don’t want anything different to what’s currently on offer, then it’s not a bad deal. The only real cost is your freedom.
And I know churches where the gatekeepers ensure conformity and the maintenance of the status quo, but they’re not life-giving places.
The other model we discussed as a team is what’s called a centred set (bounded set).
In a centred set, there are no boundaries. There are no walls. There is no fence. There is no dividing line between us’ and ‘them’, no rules or guidelines to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. There are no gatekeepers turning people away. Everyone is loved, welcomed, and accepted, no matter what. Everyone automatically ‘belongs’.
The boundary is no longer important, but the centre is. Because at the centre, there’s something compelling which pulls people in.
Some people are closer to the centre, and some are further away. Some people are moving towards the centre, and some are moving away.
Everyone ‘belongs’. This time, involvement is not based on whether you made it through the gate and are now inside the fence, but on how close you are to the centre, and the direction you’re moving.
This time I’d like you to imagine, not a corral, but a water hole in the African grasslands.
In many cases, there will be only one watering hole for miles and miles in any direction. This means that animals that live in the area will never stray too far from the water, especially in the dry season.
And during the dry season, when the rains don’t come and the grass withers away and the ground is parched, it is not uncommon to find hundreds of different animals all sharing the same watering hole. Animals that at any other time of year might stay away from each other, or even prey on one another, will live in relative peace and safety near the water hole. Lions, zebras, deer, and birds will drink from the same water, and while the rains are absent, will not stray too far from the water, because they know that the water is their life.
There are no fences to pen them in, and no cowboys to keep the peace, and yet the draw of the water is enough to accomplish both.
It’s a different picture of the church.
It’s a picture of the church in which all people of all backgrounds and beliefs will be welcomed at the table to join in the conversation, to participate in serving the community, to learn from and challenge each other, and to encourage one another to move ever closer to Jesus Christ.
It’s a less-conventional kind of place. There’s a bit more ambiguity. But there’s more reality … there’s more openness and honesty … there’s more people seriously doing business with God.
It’s the kind of church which recognises that we are all sinners, all struggling to be the best people we can be. But we also believe that the closer one gets to the centre (the centre being Jesus Christ – who is the way, the truth and the life), and as that happens, the more Christlike our behaviour should become.
No one is considered unworthy of belonging because of the messiness of their life or because they hold different views. It’s the church in which all are truly welcome.
As I conclude, let me say this.
For us, this is still a work in progress. We still enjoy the conventional. Bit we have been blessed, and have been a blessing to others, through the unconventional.
I don’t know whether you’re at a stage in your journey where you need to be doing things which are conventional or unconventional, or both. But what I hope is this:
- That you will be a community that’s a watering hole, not a corral;
- That you will be people for whom your closeness to Christ is the important thing, and hopefully that you’re people who are wanting to move towards him
- That you will welcome people of all backgrounds and beliefs to the table, to join in the conversation, to participate in serving the community, to learn from and challenge each other, and to encourage one another to move ever closer to Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Saviour.
Let us pray.
Rev Stephen Pullin