This summer I had the opportunity to be part of a learning tour to the United Kingdom. Our interest was to see how Anabaptism was engaging the Post-Christendom context of Britain. We were not disappointed. Although a very small presence, Anabaptism has been a key influence in re-engaging a generation of people who have rejected the church.
Part of our tour included attending the Greenbelt Festival, an annual gathering celebrating spirituality, social justice, arts, and music. According to John Bell, from the Iona Community, this was a gathering of people who were here to “give God one last chance.” Quite a sobering thought. I expected to experience an anti-God sentiment; a gathering of hardened skeptics. However, what I experienced was quite different.
The 18,000 people who gathered were clearly not a typical church crowd. It was a place where questioning was welcomed, and doubt was honoured. There was no interest in obtaining easy answers or finding consensus. Disagreement was embraced as healthy dialogue and challenging conviction was applauded as serious engagement. I didn’t see people opposing God. I saw people resisting a simplistic interpretation of God.
This became evident to me at the annual “Beer and Hymns” session on the final day of the festival. Intrigued by the title, I found myself cramming into a huge big top circus tent. Many young adults, some with small children in tow, crowded into the tent with me until we were standing shoulder to shoulder. With sweat beading on our foreheads the piano started and the most rousing hymn sing I have ever encountered erupted. Men and women sang with gusto. And whenever the hymn spoke of the redeeming love of Christ, the crowd lifted their glasses in a worshipful toast to God’s mercy.
Unexpectedly I found myself drawn into an emotional worship experience. I saw a young man close his eyes and lift both hands in an expression of deep appreciation. I watched a young woman lift her glass as high as possible; her desire to honour God propelling her up onto the tips of her toes. I found myself scanning the room and remembering so many young adults from my past; those who couldn’t feel embraced in our congregation because of their tough exterior. And I wished that there had been a place for them where faith and transparency could come together. Before I realized it my eyes were filled with tears and my heart bursting with adoration for a God who refuses to cooperate with stereotypes or stay confined within the box of acceptable church worship.
Our Redeeming God was honoured that afternoon. These were people for whom life did not fit into neat theologies. Easy answers mocked their complex lives. But they were not blaming God. They were worshipping God, beer and all. These were not a people giving God a last chance. These were people who were giving the notion of ‘church’ one last chance. They have not abandoned God. They had abandoned the church.
This unusual hymn sing has given me a much richer appreciation of God’s Spirit. I am filled with a new hope. We serve a God who is not easily annoyed. An honest search will always find open arms. Who wouldn’t raise a glass to such a passionate God?