29 Church Street, Hamilton, Bermuda HM CX

St. Mark’s

Are our shadows welcome?

By Rev Gav

I once attended a church conference where one of the delegates bravely confessed that she felt compelled to, “leave her shadow at the church door,” and she admitted that she felt more comfortable in the company of her secular work colleagues than she did in the company of Christians. It was painful to hear that when she attended worship she hid her true self — her doubts, hurts, and broken bits — her ‘shadows’. Surely these are the very parts of us that Jesus came to identify with and heal?

Thankfully, I have been very fortunate that the churches of which I have been a member have all been communities of ‘shadowy’ people who have been welcome no matter who they are, where they have come from, or what they have done. We all have things we carry in our hearts and minds — our ‘baggage’ — and most church members freely admit and accept that this is the case, however, like the conference delegate, how sad it must be to be part of a congregation where our shadows are not welcome!

The question is, should we sort out our shadows before we engage with church, or should the church community extend its boundaries such that shadowy people, including me, are welcomed, embraced, and included?

As a church leader, when I think of our church boundaries, whether physical or societal, I reflect on the concept that there are two different approaches to church, and they can be labelled as attractional church and incarnational church. Let me try and explain the difference between the two.

An attractional church is often identified as a gathered community. The church worship gatherings (typically on a Sunday) are the focus of the church and are made as attractive as possible, such that, like moths to a flame, people want to attend. Members of attractional churches are defined by the ‘church’ to which they belong, and it is not uncommon to hear Christians identify themselves by the denomination or specific doctrines of the church, for example, Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Methodist, Hillsong, congregational, non-conformist, evangelical, Spirit-filled, or otherwise.

An incarnational church, however, can be described as an expanding network of relationships focused around God’s mission in the world. Christians are firstly members of the global church of Christ but also understand that they are sent into the world as Christ’s healing ambassadors or agents. The recruitment of new members is not to the gathering but to the cause. It is not church doctrine or style that unites its members, but God’s mission of redemption, restoration, and renewal with which the church is engaged.

It pains me when I encounter people who do not think they are good enough for church, feel like they have to smile and pretend everything is okay, pretend they subscribe to the doctrines or styles of a particular denomination, are weighed down by the expectations of leadership or the community, or cannot be real about their doubts and struggles.

God is at work in the world to bring about its healing, and if we are working towards a time of restoration and fulfilment, then we must allow the Spirit of God to shape us into communities that will advance the purposes of God. When people become part of God’s unfolding plan for the world, when they encounter the King, and submit themselves to God, the rallying cry goes from, “Come in,” to, “Join in.” Such communities are defined, not by denominational structures or geographical boundaries, but by the Spirit of God. The question for church leaders like me is, where and how is the Holy Spirit seeking to form such missional communities?

And this leads us back to how we change the perception of the conference delegate who felt that her shadow must be left at the church door. The thing with shadows is that they only exist when there is a source of light. If it were not for the light there would be no shadows! The very presence of light means shadows exist, and the stronger the light, the sharper the shadow. To have shadows in God’s light is to be human. Shadows are part of our existence, therefore we cannot, as churches, ignore them or pretend they do not exist.

Through the leading of the Spirit, perhaps part of our task is to redefine the boundaries of the church and invite people to ‘join in’? I want to say to the journalist, “Come and join this group of shadowy people who are responding to the love of a King; who have heard God’s call to be his ambassadors to the word; who are his agents of change; and who are his envoys of love. Oh, and bring your shadow with you. Bring all of you. For God and we would not want you any other way.”