Just One Star?!

Rating systems and pollsters have hit some new lows, yet we remain surrounded by subjective public ranking. The church Facebook page gives the ability to any user to rate the church. Equally, hotels, restaurants and even a public washroom can have star quality. In some news there’s been reports of the famous Michelin Stars being granted to a Canadian highway rest stop because of the quality food they sell. The same star rank was given to a food truck in another country.
There is some debate about the levels of quality, nonetheless the stars are there along with the opinions. Do they really matter? I believe they do, and they don’t. Read on and I will try to explain.

In the church there are a couple of tests, quality controls, or plain simple observations that can offer constructive feedback – at least that’s the ideal. One such test is the “mystery worshipper” who, like the commercial equivalent of the mystery shopper, has a list of check points to cover. If you’re still not clear, think of the mechanic giving your car a 21 point inspection. I’m not sure if the Anglican Church in Freiburg folks are aware, but they’ve been reviewed by a ‘Ship of Fools’ mystery worshipper. You can find the review online.

In past congregations I have brought in mystery worshippers to give some evaluation. It helps me to get another point of view. I try to alternate between a Christian reviewer and someone who is Spiritual but not religious (SBNR). The reviewers have different points of view: someone of a different church or denomination makes comments that are, well, ‘churchy’. They have a bit of a critical eye towards form and function. For example, they might suggest that ‘you say baptism declares full participation in the church, but then only adults do the major rolls of service in worship’. The non-religious, or the spiritual but not religious person usually has a very different report that is no-less important. The SBNR person usually has some powerful insights about belonging, and some that are so basic that they are invisible in plain sight. Here’s some comments as examples – ‘do you really think that everyone knows when to sit stand or kneel? I felt foolish as the only one mumbling along to a prayer everyone else seemed to know. I couldn’t find the front door.’
Another test that I have done personally in churches that I might visit is the ‘Coffee test’. Esenially, the coffe test is a test to see if the community ‘walks the talk’. They’ve been in worship, now what do they do afterwards? Grab a cup of coffee and see who talks to you. What do they talk about? Is God mentioned in the conversation?

Travelling with my own small children we found a local church to go to for a Sunday morning. It was a disaster! The online presence was nothing like the actual experience. Admittedly, I was only there for one Sunday so I can say it is a limited survey, but the impressions were long lasting.

I felt lied to. Pictures of a young active church online was replaced with the reverse. Apparently everyone was on holiday. We were forced to stand and introduce ourselves. The congregation was small enough that we were easily recognised as ‘others’. Worship was standard. The children were children and the adults did their bit by making ‘ssshhhhing’ sounds at us. I felt like crawling into a hole. I was just glad we made it to church as the online directions actually brought us to another neighbouring building and the only door with a sign said ‘Ancestry research library open Tuesday to Friday.’ I nervously explained that we were at the Jehovas Witness’.

At coffee I was told the pastor would come and introduce herself. She was nowhere in sight. I was given a ‘visitors mug’ to identify me as a visitor (as if standing up and publicly stating this fact in worship had now slipped the minds of the regular worshippers).
Needless to say, I had a cup of coffee and ate several doughnuts. Maybe I’m a nervous eater, as nobody ever came to speak to me. I was upset. I did however, fail the church as I never gave any polite comments about my feelings. How would they ever know if I didn’t tell them? How would they ever try to make changes or corrections when I had never expressed my own perceptions and needs? Of course I didn’t think that they would automatically change things just for me, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be the last to feel this way. We are not consumers of religion, yet rankings somehow make us fall dangerously into this model.

Saying this: the rankings do have a role that the church needs to be aware of in its service to the wider community. I therefore see both the good and the not so good power of rankings. If we put all our hope on one system it will sadly let us down. If I go to church strictly for the top quality raking I might be disappointed. Fortunately, I have found that no matter how great, or how terrible the worship was, I’ve still been able to meet God in the experience.

Let me propose that God is always calling us for better, but at the same time we live with the brokeness, the complex relationships and the fragility of the world knowing that God has already declared it Good.

Now, let’s see how many stars I get for this post!

(Editorial Notes: I pounded out this article the other day while I was waiting for my language exam to begin – that’s another story.  Typing with my thumbs on my smartphone keyboard was less than ideal, but at least my nervous energy was directed toward something constructive.  

What I would like to add is, there are, and will be times when the congregation does not pass the coffee test.  Perhaps a ranking of one star will show up sooner or later, however, this is no reason to fret.  Conversely, if we always get high rankings, 5 stars, can’t we then aim for a sixth…just one more star?  As Advent will begin soon, the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany will soon follow.  Upon reflection, this long article might be left as ‘all thumbs’ if we just follow the stars.  The Magi certainly follow the star, but it is not what they come to worship.  As communities of faith being aware of the rankings is one thing, but forgetting who we really worship is a much more risky and damaging game to play.)

Narrow

There’s a reason why the rearview mirror in vehicles is so much smaller in size than the front windshield.  The majority of our time is spent speeding forward so we need a large view, a big picture.  Whilst the times we use the review mirror is relatively few…and some might say that there are some drivers that never seem to use it.

Driving at a good speed in reverse is seldom done.  The view we find is narrow and often a bit distorted.  The rearview mirror makes us look through our own vehicles and all our stuff, or the passengers in the back seats, to the world outside.  Most accidents at low speed happen while drivers are reversing their cars.

It seems to me that drivers, institutions and even nations can get their views confused so that they act and behave as if they are looking through the rearview mirror.

It is all too easy to say this about politics –  that the juggernaut of a nation is barrelling down through history with a narrow, backwards and distorted view.  It can make for scary driving.  It makes for horrific living.  Yet I too am narrow.  Narrow in my views and spheres of interaction. I rarely get feedback from the various subscribers to my blog.  Most of them are likely ‘bots’ that just want me to click back to them to find some kind of marketing advertisement.

Equally, my computer keeps track of the websites I’ve visited and I surround myself in a bubble of like-minded folks.  It is uncomfortable to experience the other and to learn something about a person, a place, a people, that we might find ‘other-worldly’.  Despite this risk, many do make that leap and find that their perspective has changed.

Admittedly it is exhausting listening to angry, violent and abusive rhetoric yet the work of listening and seeking to understand is important.  How else can bridges of understanding be built? How else can we then understand that we are all riding in the same vehicle? Reconciliation is tough work, and our view points, opinions and perspectives need to be shared, as well as critically examined.

Muddling through

Every two weeks people in the congregation get together to study the Bible.  The name of the group is ‘Roots & Shoots’ which doesn’t tell people new to the church a lot about what we do, but it is a name that has stuck and which I emphasize as the ‘Roots & Shoots Bible Study‘.  In the back of my mind I still wonder if there will be a day when someone comes to the group ready to garden.  Despite the name, the purpose is simple: study the Bible.

For many years I have participated in Bible Study groups both as studies which take place in the churches, or as private home group Bible study.  Not a single group is the same.  Not a single meeting is the same and this causes both delight and frustration for many.

I can recall the first time I was asked to lead a Bible Study group and the interesting personalities which made it…let’s say, interesting.  The formal leadership of the group was an elder layman who had basically grown up in the church and seemed to live and breath the Bible.  He used a ‘method’ that had people studying large passages throughout the entire Bible over the course of a couple years.  It was a study that would give anyone an overview at just about every book in the Bible.  From the moment I was asked to take a lead all I could really think about was the most senior person in the group, a woman named Joan.  Joan was a (long) retired teacher whom I am sure taught in a one room school house with pupils writing letters and numbers on pieces of slate and erasing their mistakes with ripped pieces of cloth.  Joan loved to talk and she loved to talk with her eyes closed.  Yes the habit of closing her eyes and talking at you:  at times you might have thought that some oracle was speaking, but for the most part I found it exceedingly annoying as it blocked any further attempt at any conversation.  Bible study usually meant a race between the leader who had prepared an outline, and Joan who, once started, could go the distance and take over the entire session.

These battles often meant that the group which met remained small and that the turn over in membership was high.  In fact it was probably my own look of having one foot out the door that the leader proposed that I should lead.

The long awaited evening came and as usual we met in the boardroom which gave the impression that about ten people more should be coming at any moment.  The table was a wood laminate and was badly chipped around some of the edges.  The carpet was an overwhelmingly bright avocado green with a hint of over-ripeness to it with brown flecks that were either bits of dirt that had accumulated, or a poorly made design feature.  The stackable chairs were uncomfortable and the arms of the chairs sometimes became a little loose with the wear and tear suddenly pinching your fleshy bits of arms if you were not careful.  A wonderful start to the evening.

I’ve read somewhere in some managerial magazine that board meetings and boardrooms lend themselves to a psychology of power struggles depending on who sits where.  The chair often takes the head of the table and the anti-chair (antagonist) usually sits directly opposite.  Those who wish to be ignored are often to the right and to the left of the chair, in a way, they are present, but not really present enough to be called upon for questioning, or discussion.

I arrived a little ahead of schedule like an athlete visualizing the course of events that was about to happen.  I sat in my usual chair and did not claim the head of the table like the leader usually did.  Closing my eyes, and maybe being seen to waver from side to side  like some skier mentally preparing for the downhill event I was startled to find that Joan was sitting exactly opposite me in a chair that was not her usual seat.  The antagonist had arrived.  Small chit-chat ensued and I was so very tempted to silently get up and change seats while Joan lamented her days events with tightly shut eyes.  Obviously the crowing glory of her day was to be the Bible Study group.

To my surprise there were more people in attendance.  It was, I thought, like people coming to see a spectator sport.  I had the notes that the leader had given  me and they were laid out on the table in front of me like a script.  Once we began it became apparent that I wasn’t comfortable with the status quo of the leader trying to rattle off as much of his script before his competitor, a bit slow off the block, but far more enduring, got started on her own race to the finish.

No sooner had I started that the leader began interjecting like a perfectionist director of a Shakespearean production –  I wasn’t following the script! Instead I did the unthinkable and started with a simple request that we read together the passage of study and note what interested us, or what was challenging, or if something was just plain strange.  Truly white knuckled stuff this was.  “But this isn’t how it is suppose to be!”, the elder leader burst out.  A small pause of silence which always feels excruciatingly long ensued until someone began to say that something from verse 12 really spoke to them.

We had gone through about two people who were perhaps more surprised at their own willingness to speak, when the warning signs of someone coming up from the rear of our Bible study track were upon us.  Joan sighed inwardly, closed her Bible (King James of course), folded her arms across her chest in a movement that suggested that she was adjusting her sweater for when cold seeped into the room, and with drooping eyelids and a slightly tipped back head she began.

A few minutes later, after we had heard about what seemed an actual recount of the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness I spoke up.  I began to point out a small reference Joan had made in regards to the actual passage we intended to study and wondered aloud if others had any other thoughts on the subject.  I thanked Joan for her impressions and scanned the faces around the table for someone who looked eager to jump in with their own ideas.

It was like a tennis match had started and peoples eyes flicked across the length of the table from me to the Joan.  Joan had stopped talking and one eye lid flickered open and the look of the people around the table was as if I had just awakened the Kraken whilst the elder leader was quickly on the Flying Dutchmen off into the hidden darkness of the car park outside.

Repeating the words, “Oh no, oh no!” in ones head does actually give the appearance of serenity and deep prayer.  Yet the crack had opened and it seems a dams worth of water was now going to rush through as others burst forth with their own insights and questions about the scripture.

After the evening had wrapped up I felt exhausted and I felt that I had failed.  I looked around the boardroom at all in attendance and had an image of a shipwreck in mind.  Yet there was more talking, more excitement, more interaction with everyone, not just Joan and the leader.  I began to feel more like we were somehow saved in the wreckage and were in a lifeboat together.  Something had saved the night.  Yes, it was stormy.  Yes, we had people yelling that they could not swim (metaphorically speaking). But now here we all were in the same boat and it felt that we were now rowing, not in circles with one person in the bow pointing, and other in the stern demanding that we go her way.  No.  Instead it felt like we were on a journey of discovery and that whatever the weather we could all stick an oar in and contribute and therefore go somewhere.

This experience, although it happened over twenty years ago still has an impact on me to this day.  It is curious, and rewarding to also know that the passage we studied was Luke 8: 22-25 where Jesus calms the storm which ravages the boat filled with disciples.  No Bible Study meeting has ever been the same – both a frustration and a great relief.

Luke 8. 24The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, weʼre going to drown!”  He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25“Where is your faith?”he asked his disciples.