Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Exile In Need of a Bride

For almost as long as I can remember, I have gone to church every Sunday morning at 10.30am religiously, so to speak. Through primary school, secondary school, college and work, my whereabouts at this time of the week remained a constant in the varying routines that came and went. I never questioned this practice, I never doubted the habit that had been formed for me and which I in turn formed for myself. I still don't.

Yet there is an irony at work in my life right now. In September I moved from Galway to Belfast, a city with a church in view almost everywhere you turn your head. Throw a stone in Belfast, and chances are it will land on a church building. I moved to Belfast to study Theology, a discipline whose beating heart is the church. And yet it is only here and now that my church-going habit has been broken. I move to the home of churches to study Theology, and suddenly I cease from being a regular church attender.

What's going on?

My history as a church member has been one of participation. At home in Galway I have been part of the same church for 17 years or so, moving from Sunday School member to youth group member to worship team member to Sunday School leader to Worship Team leader. I have a role in that church, which gives me a distinct identity. And not only do I have a role, but I have family. I am known not only for what I do in the church, but also for the people who call me "son" or "brother" or "cousin" or "nephew". I eat dinner with some of these family members church every Sunday I am in Galway. To question whether I belong in the church would almost be to question whether I belong at home, for church and home are very much interrelated come Sunday. I am no isolated "Bible College student from down South" when I step inside the doors of GCF. I am Declan Kelly - Dermot and Pauline's son.

In Belfast, these identifiers have been stripped away from me. I go to a church and I am little more than a consumer who can walk in and walk out of the store, no strings attached. This feels so little like church that I've stopped doing it. It is a form of godliness without any commitment to neighbours, and it doesn't sit right. Yet how else does one find a church to commit to, if "trying them out" is not the answer? Am I at a time in my life where I need to be a consumer and find a church that I can buy in to?

This leads to another problem. Is any church the right church, or should I find one that falls in line with my (admittedly hazy) vision for church? The former seems naive to the reality that there are churches out there that will crush your spirit and which ought to be avoided, while the latter is an "ideal" that is quite rightly unrealistic.

I love church...or at least the idea of church. To have a community of believers committed to God and to each other, learning to live together through participation in practices and habits that don't conform to the anti-creational patterns of the present world order - this is indeed an "artistic operation" that I want to be a part of, that I want to commit my life to. But as I hop from church to church -- or as I don't, as the case may be -- I feel like an exile, displaced from my church heritage and wandering in a foreign land, where the old songs I know don't fit. I am learning so much during my hours spent reading and writing, but the more I learn the more distant I feel from what goes on inside the churches I visit. The sermons often seem uninspired and flat, the music is the same ol' Chris Tomlin stuff that I can sing on autopilot, the people are either too old or too cool or not cool enough.

I read Volf, or Hauerwas, or Brueggemann, or Wright, or Wells, or Caputo and I feel inspired and challenged to follow Jesus. I spend my time around campus and I am surrounded by a community consisting of people from all over the world...or at least I was surrounded by such a community. By fusing these practices together I have created my own church in many ways, but it is a phoney church of which I am the head. To follow Jesus is to follow him to a local church. As hard as I have found it to belong to one of those up here, I can't escape this uncomfortable truth. What I consider to be learning will not really prove to be learning unless it is lived out in a community not of my controlling, and certainly not of my consuming. 

But which church do I commit to?  

Kevin at Creideamh links to a friend's blog on the topic of being married to the church. My question is, How does one know what church to marry? Is it some sort of calling, a matter of finding "the one"? Perhaps those who are actually married to a man/woman can weigh in on the similarities or differences between the two processes. Joshua Harris told me to stop dating the church. But don't I have to date churches before I decide to marry one of them? Or does the analogy of being married to the church break down before it even begins?

Whatever the case, I know that changes need to occur within me as I look forward to at least two more years in Belfast. I have been in healthy, dynamic churches in Belfast, and perhaps I need to return to some of those with fresh eyes. "Soft eyes" to use the Bunk's term, which will allow me to see and experience the whole community as it worships together rather than focussing in on one aspect of a service that I don't like. Besides, since when does "I don't like" get the final word?


  1. Being married to the fine young lady who wrote that blog, i don't think the marriage analogy works that well for choosing a church (though i don't know if that's my wife's opinion) I think it's more suited to being in a church. In my current church in Maynooth I feel like i'm married to it/her, i'm not sure it would have helped me choose it.

    though even then marriage is a helpful model - when i got married i didn't really know what i was getting into anyhow - i thought i did, but the bigger thing was promising to be in it no matter what.

    (I'm pretty sure hauerwas has that in somewhere)

    so even if you're deciding on a church to be a part of I'm not sure you've a clue what you're getting into anyhow!


    PS love the blog, you're giving us gems

    PPS the wire is the single best thing out there.

  2. I think it does work well Neill! Your spousal-unit would surely say(if I prompted her with intricate staff meeting sign language) that the church is not limited by location. I think you hinted at that but its good to state it out loud. There is only one church in Belfast. (Make the communities that explicitly (or implicitly) recognise that fact are the ones you should choose from?)

    So Declan: when you commit to a local church you marry the same church I am married to.

    End point: Go see Stocki. Marry the church by joining Fitzroy and then come take up the internship we'll make up for you in Maynooth. ;)

    - Kevin who has yet to watch the Wire
    (Who doesn't make it his business to offer jobs in blog comments often)

  3. That's funny you mention Stocki and Fitzroy. It must be a sign that this is "the one"! I was just there this evening for the penultimate "Faith on Trial" evening, which was really quite something. Brueggemannian, I would say. They're hosting Nicholas Wolterstorff next month for the final fling. Can't wait.

    Ps - Go see The Wire (and read The Corner). There is no ministerial task more urgent.

  4. Since we are the church . . . We want to be the kind of Christians who help everyone we meet know that God is real and God is Good. we want to be so filled with with God's Love and Spirit that we can be the church anywhere, anytime, with anyone . . . I enjoyed your teaching at First Assembly of God, Worcester, were right on! Go where God leads you and serve as Christ served! No matter how busy things get always make time (quiet time) with the Lord>>>He wants that more than anything! He wants a relationship with us! God bless you!

  5. I agree with some of your contributors that the 'marriage' analogy doesn't fit. Theologically its a symbol of Christ and the church rather than me and the church. I like the idea of 'limbship' (the alternative being membership). Finding ones's place in the body of Christ through belonging and committing to a local church. In your own transition I am sure God will lead you. I also think what you are experiencing although uncomfortable is most probably good for you in the long run. You 'need' to forge your own spiritual path. I read once that it is very difficult to belong in the church of your parents. However, f it can be done it is a beautiful thing. I belong to my local church not for what they can do for me but what I can contribute to them. I am trying my best not to simply be a consumer.