Spent Monday in Coventry, stewarding at 'Spirit of Life', a spirituality fair organised and hosted by the Cathedral, which for my money is one of the best buildings in the UK. The idea was to offer something like 'Mind Body and Spirit' fair, using the language that would appeal to spiritual seekers who normally wouldn't go near a church. However, everything at the event was done by Christians, and it was fantastic to see all sorts of creative things going on.
The area I was stewarding included the 'Jesus Deck' - a pack of cards with 1 suit for each gospel, each card with a picture of a gospel story, with various bits of symbolism within the picture. Pick a card at random, and the card is explained, the story told, and opens up a conversation about connections between the story of Jesus and your own life. On one level it's a 'reading' - a format for spiritual conversation which a lot of people can relate to. On another level it's a form of Bible study, or even counselling.
Quite a few other stalls nearby were about opening up a conversation through some means or other - cards with a variety of words written on them ('Words of Destiny'), pictures and photos etc., though in each case the folk on the stalls would be praying for the Holy Spirit to show them what was going on in the persons life and to help them in what to say. There were clearly some deep conversations going on, and people getting God's guidance and wisdom.
The challenge was in how to explain what was going on to the folk walking by. I tried to use really neutral language, free from churchy jargon, but ended up having to have 1 explanation for Christians (to reassure them that what was happening was ok) and 1 for everyone else. Folk who stopped to have a 'reading' included a long-lapsed Catholic and a Reiki 'healer'. I wonder where else those people are going to stop to talk about the Bible with a Christian and be prayed for? These were things which would probably be more at home at fairs, car boot sales, shopping centres etc. than in a church. The 'Words of Destiny' folk go to Camden market on a regular basis, and local shopping centres in London, and get to talk to and pray with folk from all sorts of backgrounds, including people of other faiths.
In the brief chance I got to wander round, there were all sorts of other things: massage, healing prayer, baby blessings, icon making, sculpture, seminars on angels, and some really creative 'prayer stations' - one which particularly captivated me was called 'water of life', a river of material across the floor of the cathedral starting with a 'waterfall' and ending up at a lighthouse, with all sorts of objects (fish, boats, shells) and words/Bible verses scattered across it, a really rich source of meditation on imagery of the Holy Spirit as water from Ezekiel and Jesus.
There was also some lovely music through the day - gospel singing, and some Latin chant which would sound dreadful in our little parish church but echoing round the Cathedral it was perfect. Oh yes, and some bloke went round all day swinging incense. Like you do.
Came away with a number of questions. One was how much of this could be integrated into the life of the church as it is. Which led me on to wondering whether church 'culture' is so well defined that these kinds of expressions of faith would flourish better outside it than inside it. Many of them have been developed as forms of mission, though they also function as ways of doing prayer ministry, spiritual direction and Bible study and meditation. Also, what happens to people who become Christians through this sort of ministry? I did an excercise with a group a couple of weeks ago by asking them to eat a chocolate mini-roll but saying that they had to chew through the wrapper first. That is many people's experience of church - they want spiritual life, the love of God, forgiveness and grace, but the 'wrapper' of church forms is inedible.
Historically the church has said 'here we are, what you see is what you get, we're not going to take the wrapper off for you, the wrapper is part of the deal'. Mission says (doesn't it?) 'we'll take the wrapper off for you, because it's our responsibility to go to you, not yours to come to us.' The thing is that us who are part of the church are so used to the wrapping that we don't even notice it, nor can we conceive that it might be a problem for anyone else. I was trying to get into a carton of Tesco fresh orange juice the other day, and the effort require to pull the tab off was so much that in the end I gave up and broke in with a pair of scissors. In my head I thought 'a lot of people will just give up with this and never buy it again.' Wonder how many folk have that thought about Jesus because we've made him too hard to get at?