You can hear the worship music from the carpark half a kilometre away. Overly excited greeters welcome me at the door, palming service booklets and pens into my hand.
The conference auditorium seats over a thousand guests and they’re clapping enthusiastically as the host jumps up on stage with a huge grin on his face. He welcomes the room with a cheer and kicks off the first worship song. The smoke machines frame the well-dressed worship team.
I manage to find my friend’s face in the dimly-lit room and crawl over knees and purses to get to her. I drop my Bible and service booklets on the floor and pick up the lyrics halfway through the song.
“I see you move, you move the mountains! And I believe, I’ll see you do it again!”
The congregation has gathered from the four corners of the country for an intense weekend involving worship sessions, workshops and preaching. Conferences like these are well organised and feature “big name” Christian speakers who are often flown in from overseas to share their theological wisdom.
There are Christian conferences for anyone and everyone. Some are only for women, others for men. Some are themed, focusing on topics such as healing or relationships or evangelism. Thousands of attendees come with the hope of an encounter with God and new connections with like-minded people and fresh inspiration on how their faith applies to their lives.
Two songs in, I have to escape for a bit and slip away to the foyer. I let out a sigh and question why I’m here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully committed to Jesus and a practising Christian. However, I find conferences like these exhausting. The people, the lights, the show; it feels so insincere.
To me, Jesus is an everyday God, one who is near and present in all areas of life. Sure, He can be found in the lights and smoke of this event, but I wonder if the church is outsourcing his influence to an artificial environment. Attending events like this, it feels like we’re exchanging the community-loving, glory-in-mud-and-dirt Jesus for shiny, Instagrammable Jesus.
I spend the worship time pacing through the foyer, praying, taking deep breaths and sketching on the side of the little conference schedule. Knowing the flow of things, I return to the auditorium as the band is softly playing in the background and a profoundly phrased prayer is spoken. Aware of how much this moment means to a lot of people in the room, I feel slightly guilty as I shuffle back to my seat.
As I sit, the host appears on stage again. He starts talking about “the world out there”, saying:
“They can get a show everywhere, but they can’t get acceptance and love everywhere. They can only get that in the church.”
I write that statement down. I read it once. I read it twice.
Do I really believe this?
I grew up in a Christian family that spoke openly about faith, but I also attended a non-religious school. As a result, I’ve spent most of my life with half a foot in Christian culture and the other in “the world”.
Out there, “in the world”, I have experienced rejection – at times even on the basis of my faith. Overwhelmingly however, I have been embraced and celebrated despite my flaws, differing lifestyle choices and beliefs. Within the church I have experienced the same, felt truly seen and known and free to be myself. Nevertheless, I have also experienced judgement and reflection, however it’s usually hidden under the guise of “spiritual growth” and “loving rebuke”.
The Jesus of the Bible lived acceptance in such a radical way that he upset the religious leaders of the time enough for them to want to kill him. But that doesn’t automatically make church communities good at doing the same, let alone the only community marked by love and acceptance.
It’s not just at church that a room of strangers can become family. This also happens volunteering in the community garden and the local shelter fighting homelessness, at a human rights group meeting for global justice or through the local soccer club. It’s a traveller that becomes a friend in a moment of need, the guy who waves off an unwanted admirer and takes it on the chin for you, the lady in the supermarket who pays for your food because she can hear you talking about student struggles on the phone in the line.
The famous three values cited in Corinthians – faith, hope and love – aren’t exclusive characteristics to the church or any specific belief system; they are human characteristics. People love, embrace others, accept freely and celebrate deeply all around the world, in all cultures and religions.
Sitting in that conference, staring at my piece of paper, I conclude that the idea that church communities know how to practise love and acceptance and “the world” doesn’t, is not matched by my experience. This statement makes me feel that the divide between “us” and “them” might even be emphasised in a way that prevents love and acceptance.
Though we can find a loving and accepting community when we enter church, Christianity doesn’t hold exclusive rights to a strong and positive community. No, I believe the church is still figuring out how to live in community – just like the world does.