A Cityside Kaleidoscope

 

I go to a church called Cityside Baptist.1 Our approach to church is simple: each person is welcome, but not pressured, to volunteer to contribute something to our service of worship. The expectation is not of excellence, but of authenticity. Anyone can stand up and offer an authentic personal statement about their faith (unvetted, unscripted, unrehearsed) in any format they choose, and everyone else tacitly agrees to support them in doing so. Not to agree, necessarily, or enjoy, or admire, but to at least go along with people in whatever is an authentic expression of worship for them.

Unlike a Brethren or Quaker service, where people speak without prearrangement, Cityside has an order of service and people offer themselves in advance for particular portions of this. A convenor then rosters them to a specific service. This gives people the chance to prepare - though some don't and I have heard some wonderful spontaneous meditations.

Any level of creativity is OK, and sometimes people do unusual things. Breaking out of familiar forms which push us into familiar channels of thought and sentiment can mean we are better able to express what we really think and feel.

 

So what do our services look like?

Well, different each week, inevitably. And many weeks are not necessarily that memorable. But here are some of my memories of what has been done, in a kaleidoscope of images, following our usual order of service.

When you enter Cityside, you soon notice the art on the walls. Much of it dates back to one or other of the "Stations of the Cross" Easter art exhibitions, something we have done every year for a while now. Part of the openness of the Cityside process is that every year Mark asks if there is any interest in us doing an Easter art exhibition again. He doesn't want to do it just because it's a thing we do, but because people want to do it. He always gets a flood of interest, but someday perhaps he won't, and then we'll stop.

There is an enormous banner: "If they keep quiet the stones will cry out praise". There are paintings of various shapes, sizes and styles. There is a stained-glass work. There is sculpture and there are photographs. An old door has a cartoon painted on it. All of these are by past or present members of the congregation, most of whom are not trained or professional artists.

When I told an overseas friend that we put on an exhibition with up to sixteen Stations of the Cross each year, plus original music, she thought I must go to a church of about 2000 people. No, I said, fifty. (It's now about seventy or eighty.) Probably a third of the present congregation has contributed to at least one Easter art installation.

Cityside's carpet is vivid purple and strewn with cushions. People recline on the cushions, sit on chairs around the walls or on an old sofa at the front. There's not much uniformity in dress or appearance, except that most people are aged between 25 and 35 (with a few in the 40s and 50s and one elderly lady, Dora, our kuia). Almost everyone is European, though one who isn't says that in contrast to her previous church, nobody seems to mind that she's "not white".

A man in black jeans and a black T-shirt will normally be wandering round organising things. That's Mark. (The black is nothing to do with traditional clerical clothing. He just likes black. His house is black, too.) He often, but not always, is the one who provides continuity; linking together the things others are doing in the service.

Someone will be at the door handing out newsletters, which may have responsive readings in them to be read by a leader and the congregation at some point in the service. Someone may have produced a 'visual display'. This can range from a vase of flowers to a bowl of floating candles, to an abstract sculpture. Anyone can sign up and do whatever they want.

Several television sets sit around the space, often showing some art video or other. Candles or flowers sit on top of them.

The service nominally starts at 10:30 am, but actually around 10:35. It begins with a Call to Worship. I am sometimes rostered for this and my contributions are typical: reading poems (by George Herbert, T S Eliot, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins), classic prayers (from Carmina Gadelica or the Anglican Prayer Book) or spontaneous prayers, and playing recorded music.

Recorded music can be, and often is, played at almost any point in the service. We have much more recorded music than live music, although a lot of people like to sing (some don't). Whilst we have a number of musicians, they don't necessarily want to play for us all the time, and nobody makes them, so often the singing we do is unaccompanied.

Eighty to ninety percent of the music is what is normally called 'secular'. For example, I have played Fleetwood Mac's haunting "In These Strange Times" (Mick Fleetwood in voiceover moving from "God is nowhere" to "God is now here" while the words "faith, have faith" are chanted by a chorus in the background). Other people's choices range from Palestrina masses to techno-house, via Sinead O'Connor, Depeche Mode and U2.

I think my favourite call to worship, though, and one I have since imitated (sincerest form of flattery), was the time a young mother stood up and said that she'd been a bit depressed lately and didn't feel very worshipful, and certainly not able to call others to worship. So we sat for a few minutes in silence. To me that was a wonderful outworking of the Cityside ethos as I see it - a truly authentic expression.

It also meant something that it was a woman's voice. The previous church I went to did not permit women to have leadership positions or preach - there were even subdued mutterings when a woman prayed at the front of the church. Then it annoyed me, but now it seems insane, like tying one hand behind your back and blindfolding one eye before you went in to worship.

 

After Call to Worship comes Songs or Meditation. Sometimes we sing - frequently old hymns. Sometimes we listen to a recording and meditate, possibly on words put up on the overhead (of the song being played, or something else). Sometimes we do something else entirely - paint pictures, for example.

Then comes Prayer of Confession. There's often a stress on confession not necessarily being about sin, but about coming into alignment with God in our ideas - though confession of sin certainly gets airtime. Again, music may be played, or people may write their own (often very fine) prayers or do a reading from a book. Once we wrote our confessions on pieces of paper and Mark came round with a little office shredding machine and shredded them into streamers, which decorated the floor for the rest of the service.

Somewhere around here comes the offering. You can always spot first-timers to Cityside because when the offering bags come round, they laugh. The bags are made out of old socks. I once suggested that this was to keep us from taking the offering too seriously, and Mark denied it, but I'm not sure if he meant it.

Unlike other churches I've been in, money generally doesn't seem to be a huge issue, perhaps because people volunteer a lot of time as well. We pray for the offering, one of the few traditionally Baptist things we do. Mark regularly forgets the offering and has to be reminded, something I love.

 

Sometimes there is a 'hot text', which is supposed to be a Bible reading but often isn't. One man delights many of us by reading bits of 'extra Bible' that for one reason or another didn't make it into the official canon, at least not the Protestant one. It is nice to have some more Bible to discover after (in my case) sixteen years as a believer.

Most of us, incidentally, have been Christians for a while. Dora holds the record, at over 50 years, which is longer than most of us have been alive. Longer than some of the younger ones' parents have been alive, in fact, though many of us, oddly, are youngest children and/or have elderly parents. A surprising number of these parents were pastors or missionaries.

Many of us were to one degree or another chewed up and spat out by churches and parachurch organisations in our younger days. There's an image of us in some places outside Cityside as a bunch of rebels who've compromised our commitment to the truth and turned away from organised religion - but we're the people who were the prayer roster organisers and the small group leaders in our university Christian groups (three-quarters of us are graduates), who went on short-term missions, who memorised big chunks of Scripture, who went and got Bible college degrees and diplomas. We burned, but unlike Moses' bush we were often consumed.

We are here because we gave our best to organised religion and now we want to try the disorganised sort, thanks. You could sum us up as round pegs who struggled desperately hard to fit into square holes (and yes, I have deliberately reversed the metaphor) and eventually had a frustrated epiphany and walked off yelling, "No, I am round, do you hear me! Round! And that's a valid shape for a peg to be!" But not everyone has had this kind of experience either.

Many of the people who are still involved with or support a Christian organisation choose TEAR Fund, which has a holistic development-based approach that sits well with us, and, like Cityside, encourages the arts.

 

After Hot Text, if any, comes the sermon - if any. At the church I went to previously, the sermon was definitely the centrepiece. Everything else led up to it or wound down from it. It lasted 50 minutes. Sometimes, the whole Cityside service is shorter than that (though usually not). It was the thing I missed most when I first came to Cityside. But I like the Cityside sermon slot now, particularly when a member of the congregation other than the pastor speaks, something which happens increasingly often. (At that previous church, you would have had to have a theological degree, and be male, to be allowed to speak.)

I mean no disrespect to Mark when I say I especially like the sermon slot when it's not him. His sermons are good, but he has to do a lot of them and inevitably not every one is his best material. When one of us speaks, it's usually only once or twice a year, and you get not only a new perspective, but a person's most interesting ideas.

Such sermons are usually thought provoking and a few are transformational. Like when one woman brought in an effigy representing her false ideas about God, put a noose around its neck and hung it at the front of the church, then talked about how she'd had to give those false, comforting but ultimately disappointing ideas up in search of truth, in search of the real God who was out there somewhere. She wrote up the lies she had been told about God on the effigy and invited us to do the same. It was an act of stunning authenticity, deeply disturbing in all the right ways.

Sometimes we have guest speakers from outside the congregation. Oddly, I rarely enjoy them. They tend to seem a little 'off', as if they're making assumptions about us that just aren't true. Or maybe I'm getting parochial and can't hear from someone who isn't 'one of us'. There is definitely a strong community feel to Cityside - a lot of people are starting to flat together or live next door to each other or at least within walking distance, but the feeling of community predates this move and exists outside it as well.

This has its exclusive as well as its inclusive side, inevitably. We've talked about it with concern at church meetings.

 

Church meetings, ah, yes. We have them when we feel we need to, plus an Annual General Meeting like Elizabeth I's annual bath - whether we need it or not. They are often hilarious, and it is traditional that the minutes reflect this. (We did miss the AGM one year, and the following year voted that the absence of minutes of the previous year's AGM was a true and correct record.) This has its downside - at least one family left because they didn't feel they were heard when they wanted the AGM taken more seriously.

I never enjoyed going to church meetings before. But they're not all jokes. Sometimes we discuss emotive issues that people feel very strongly about, and what impresses me is how adult everyone is about it.

I remember a particularly sticky meeting after one Easter art exhibition, in which one artist had used an obscenity as part of her piece. It offended some people - it offended me - but after we had talked about it, I felt that the people who were and the people who weren't offended had understood each other's position and that, although we had two different viewpoints, we only had one side and we were all on it.

Everyone writes the annual report. We're given a form with some questions - what was helpful this year, what do we need to work on, that kind of thing - and anyone who wants to fills it in however they want. All the forms are photocopied and distributed, and that's the annual report.

 

But back to the service. After the sermon or whatever (if there's a baby dedication or some other significant event, the sermon may get cut short or removed), there are notices and Prayers for Others, which tend to flow together.

Another contrast with my previous church: there, you had to get the permission of an elder to give a notice. It was a larger church, but I don't think that was the point. The point was control. At Cityside, anyone can call out anything - "I'm having a party", "Does anyone want some stuff I'm throwing out"," I've got a gig/exhibition/poetry reading coming up and you're all welcome".

Prayers for Others is similar, and everything from war in the Middle East to a sick pet can be mentioned for prayer. The most common theme is probably the health of congregation members and their friends and families. We are quite aware of illness for some reason. A lot of us have or have had illnesses that have limited our activities - a surprising number have OOS, for example.

Usually the format is that the person running Prayers for Others collects the prayers and then prays aloud, but we've had other formats including lighting candles, putting flowers in a vase or planting seeds to represent our prayers, or writing them out and tying them to a wire 'tree'.

At the end, there may be another song (sung by us or a recording), and then we say the benediction to each other. We love the benediction, which was written by a Presbyterian minister in America but is Celtic in style. We usually divide up in some arbitrary way and say it to each other, one group first and then the other. Sometimes the division is determined by where we're standing in the church, but it's also been: over-thirties to thirties-and-under (about 50-50); crunchy vs smooth peanut-butter eaters (not nearly so even); and a whole raft of other 'divisions' which underline the arbitrariness of dividing ourselves up. All the regulars know the benediction by heart, which means we can look at each other while we say it.

 

Finally, there's morning tea - the noise level rises, groups form and re-form, and lunch dates and other arrangements are made. Citysiders spend a lot of time together besides Sunday mornings. Not in 'official' church activities. Mark sometimes shocks American pastors by telling them that he doesn't provide, or vet, the study materials, if any, that any small groups use, or appoint or train small-group leaders (not that there are any official leaders), or, for that matter, authorise the formation of small groups.

Groups form in association with Cityside - there was a reading group for a while, then a writing group (no arithmetic group is currently planned) and a "wild women" group. There are even a couple of semi-conventional home groups in which people talk honestly about their weeks (if they want to) and discuss current topics. But Citysiders can be found together any night of the week, playing board games, watching movies, going to concerts or art exhibitions (sometimes each other's), talking into the wee small hours. Perhaps we haven't fully grown out of being students - for that matter, many of us still are students.

 

In fact, we hope we never will cease to be students, or rather learners ('mathetes' in Greek - often translated 'disciples'). And our learning and exploration will never be complete, because we can never fully express our authentic experience of faith.

We keep trying, though.

 

NOTES

1 Cityside Baptist is known to Reality readers through Mark Pierson's columns during the past two years.


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