Thursday, 3 September 2015

When people ask for 'non-religious' services

One of the more interesting, and often most challenging, moments I have is when someone bangs on my door and asks for a 'non-religious' service for something or other; an essence that is up there with people wanting to make the service fun (which seems to mean going viral on some media site or other!).

My first response is to point out that, 'I don't do religious or religion!' and I point to the fact that, Religion is man's ultimate rebellion against God. We take Grace and replace it with a list of things that we need to keep from being, doing or thinking and then we 'beat the tar out of you*' for transgressing. 

I go on to point out that Christianity is about cancelling the obstructions that occur to prevent us from coming to God and working hard not to put other obstacles in the way in their place. We (Church) are after all an inclusive and accepting body of people - which is great - but not a permissive one - which doesn't go down as well as the inclusive bit! The bottom line though is this when people come knocking at my door:

I don't do religion, but I do do Jesus!

Then we start to talk about what they mean and what they want and what they think they are asking for and the common denominator here usually turns out to be that they don't, or in the case of a funeral the deceased didn't, go to church. I struggle not to tell them that this makes them more like the people whop consider themselves to be Church than they might think, for many of them don't seem to come to church either, and press on.

This is where it gets interesting because even the most hardened of those who come to my door or stop me in the street or email me, once engaged, will tell me of their hope of heaven and will talk about things spiritual rather than mundane things temporal. Often (again in the case of a funeral) the person enquiring will take me back to a service where having uttered the words that the deceased, 'Was not religious,' to the undertaker meant that they had a service conducted by a humanist rather than a theist; 'this is all you get and now it's gone' is not what people want to generally hear at a funeral!

So, pressing on, we dig deeper and find that they don't want 'all those prayers and stuff'. Digging a bit deeper you realise that they want God, hope, heaven and acceptance but they are worried that there will be an interminably long series of prayers peppered with 'Thees and Thous' and all the King James Speak that many associate us with.

And so I berate them with the words, 'But surely thou knowest that we speaketh not like that? For surely it is our bounden duty to proclaim God in the lingua franca, innit blood?'

The Church of England is, for me, a church** which walks the centreline with skill and aplomb. We are the via media. We can talk, and live, with and for those of no faith and in communion with those who have taken up their cross and are following as disciples Jesus, the Christ.

It is about now that I find that what the person/s before me what is in fact something very religious for as they relax I find that they often want a rousing or calming hymn or two (although increasingly people don't want to sing together as apparently we don't do that in our social gatherings any more and they want to listen to it being played or sung instead) and having someone read something comforting and bringing a sense of promise and hope is always welcome (often alongside some trite poem they've found on the internet) yoo.

When the recipe for what they want has been read out and my note-taking has ceased, more often than not I find that what the customer wants is what I would pretty much regard as a normal church service, and this surprises them greatly. Occasionally we have the person whose recipe includes:

  • Not wanting hymns (not a problem - especially if one of them isn't 'All things B&B')
  • Not wanting prayers (a bit of a problem because that's part of the package, but let's talk some more)
  • Not wanting God mentioned in any way or at any time (big problem: Can't visit someone's house and totally ignore them now, can we?)
  • Wants music in the service that is to be considered just a little inappropriate (as were the Gansta rap tracks and the 'date rape' song someone wanted for entry/exit and reflection some time back - just ins't going to happen!)
It should come as no surprise to find that there are lines and limits which just cannot be crossed. But when they are and the answer is a resoundingly gentle 'No'!

I am always amazed at the way, when a 'No' has been issued, that the customer goes on to talk about how the Church is out of touch with the world and how it's mo wonder no one goes and how mean-spirited we all are (I wish they'd use those words, much easier than the reality!). Of course I point out that they don't want God or the Church involved in whatever it is that they want - they merely want the church building for that, like baptism proclaiming a couple living together are acceptable (oddly enough, they always were before that - just hadn't been told of the fact!).

What I work hard to do is avoid the trite, 'I don't have a religion, I have a relationship!' response. It's better to communicate it by discussing rather than using things like that (and believe me, I used to use that one all the time). It's like the people who come to me and tell me that they want to be Anglicans because it is the 'only boat to fish from!'. There are many boats (denominations) and not all of them are bad, unbiblical or hypocritical and shallow in their daily living out of our faith - you can always find a man or woman of God who is seeking to be an authentic believer and build a Christocentric and loving Church.

Now I know that my words will probably upset some of those who work on the theory that we should be doing whatever it is that the customer wants when we do our services. I have friends who having done the spontaneous (meaning rehearsed and previously prepared) flash mob stuff are now finding themselves challenged by new consumers to do things that are both bigger and better and they admit (albeit privately)( that they might just have made a rod for their own backs with this one.

This idea that we should do anything we can to get people into church and 'onside', and that this is 'evangelism', needs to be corrected because that's not what evangelism is at all. It's about reconciling us to God and making Jesus known not turning church into ` three ring circus. 

Now don't get me wrong and listen to what I am saying, for I am not hardline or rigid in what and how we do church, but I don't see how letting people dictate to what Church should be is good for them or us or the message we bring. Popularity, however much we might desire it, is not what Church is about: Sorry!

* An expression John Wimber used to use (along with 'play nicely in the sandpit) which always made me smile (and still does even as I type this).

** Yes 'church' Not merely a ecclesial gathering as some cheeky German who had a church job some time back would have it!

1 comment:

UKViewer said...

Perhaps I am naive, because I can't understand how someone would want a Church funeral without the norms of Christian funerals. I can understand perhaps a favourite song being played for the going out from Church (or Committal at the Crem), otherwise the music chosen needs to be uplifting. One funeral here, recently had 'Guide me Oh Great Redeemer' which given the people who came, we thought be difficult, but they joined in and sang it with gusto. Perhaps recognising it from their dim past in church or even school assemblies.

I know that a key part of pastoral care will be treating them gently, but your firm, but gentle NO, seems too me to be quite appropriate, particularly in the case of inappropriate choices or suggestions.

I'm the Verger for Church funerals, and once I complete my LLM training, really hope to be involved in funeral ministry. Its a privilege to be involved with people in time of loss and bereavement, and those meetings could decide how their future life features (or not) God and his grace within it.

Keep up the good work, because it's not about standards, it's about humanity and dignity in death and spiritual consolation for those who have been bereaved.