The imperfect church

How people can become a community by overcoming their differences and worshipping together

No matter how much Christians might wish it were otherwise, all Christian communities are imperfect. All over the world, hundreds of denominations carry out their collective faith in Jesus Christ in good conscience, but in ways which draw varying degrees of scorn from the outside world, from rest of the worldwide church and even from their own members.

Some churches are highly ritualised and steeped in tradition, offering a reliable format for worshippers to follow whenever and wherever. Some prefer to exist on the other end of the spectrum where meetings are highly informal and unstructured. Some focus heavily on the incredible love of the Father, some more on Scripture and Christ and the sinfulness of man and some emphasise the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sadly, networks or denominations of churches occasionally fracture, divisions occur within single congregations or individuals become dissatisfied with a particular aspect of one congregation, and leave in search of another church that does things differently.

The question of how to “do” church has been around since the resurrected Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations” [Mat 28:19; NIV]. This command stood out for me as a teenager attending Mass. It was one I found hard to dismiss as anything other than a straight-up call for the whole congregation to become missionaries. Perhaps as a toned down answer to this call, I eventually joined a group of people within City Gates Church, Soho, who had a vision to plant a church on an estate in Islington and to serve and to share the Gospel with the community there.

Not a splinter from CGC, New River Church is more like a cutting from her. After four years, we resemble her and remain united with her, accountable and receiving her full support and encouragement. A small, non-denominational cell church, we are a body of believers who meet together in a hall on Sunday mornings. Smaller groups, cells, meet up in homes during the week to encourage one another as we live out our faith. I like to call cell groups mini-church where you can ask questions.

Each of us has come from a different background, either within the worldwide church or outside of it. As individuals, we have each repented, put our faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and committed ourselves to living our lives according to his will rather than our own. We also share a desire to see new people find out about Jesus and begin to follow him. We are not perfect.

At the heart of the Christian message is the response Jesus gave to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council, who visited him one night to question him about his teaching and healing ministry. Talking about himself, Jesus answered: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16; NIV] He answered that God hadn’t sent his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save it through him.

Christianity is a response to this offer of salvation – it revolves around Jesus. It hinges on what we think about him, on whether or not we believe in him, know him, obey him, love him. And so, I will not claim any high ground on the basis of the particular flavour of church that I go to. But while I continue to pray for greater unity between all churches, and for us all to “do” church better and better, I am comforted that those who believe in Jesus shall not perish.

Adam is a worship leader at New River Church, Islington, a non-denominational, charismatic Christian church of about 40 people. He has a degree in physics, a PhD in neuroimaging and is a member of the electro-indie rock band Personal Space Invaders.
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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.