According to research published earlier this year by Wijnnand van Tilburg of Essex University in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin people whose “hobbies” included “going to church” (along with watching TV and observing animals) were judged among the most boring. He also discovered that the most boring professions were accountancy, data analysis and insurance; while the least boring were acting, science and journalism. The Times of 15 March 2022, in an article headlined, ‘Meet Ms Perfectly Boring, the birdwatching accountant’, does not report where church ministry came on the scale! However, after reading this report the question inevitably came to mind: ‘Are Christians boring?’ Indeed, is the Christian faith a bore?
There is no doubt that, in the perception of many, church is boring. Noel Edmunds, the entertainer, once said: “The church is the dullest experience that we have in this country”. Robert Louis Stevenson entered in his diary, as if recording an extraordinary phenomenon: “I have been to church today, and I am not depressed”. While Oliver Wendell Holmes, the American humourist, wrote: “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked so much like undertakers”.
My response as a Christian minister is to reply: “It’s true! Church can be boring”. There are times when I have gone to church and been bored out of my mind. I vividly remember the occasion when in the middle of an evening service I fell asleep as one of my associates preached a particularly boring sermon – to make matters worse, on that occasion I was sitting on the front row so that many noticed my slumbers. Yes, there have been times when I have agreed with Søren Kirkegaard, the Danish philosopher:
Whereas Christ turned water into wine, the church has succeeded in doing something more difficult, it has turned wine into water.
But not every church service is boring. On the basis of a lifetime of churchgoing, I have found that church can also be a place of joy and inspiration; indeed, it has been a place where I have met with God. What’s more, just as I have found that it is not one type of church which bores me, neither is it not just one kind of church which bores me. As I wrote in Faith and Festivity:
I, for one, can think back to a whole host of occasions when heaven itself was open for me and when, with Isaiah of old, I saw the Lord on a throne, high and lifted up. a very traditional Baptist Union Assembly of Wales meeting, singing the praises of God in minor key; a Spring Harvest celebration, charismatic in flavour, with brass sounding and drums rolling; a quiet celebration of the Lord’s Supper with only a dozen or so people in a remote Lake District chapel; an overflowing expectant congregation celebrating God’s praise in the context of a baptismal service – on all these occasions and many more, God has spoken in on me.
For me, there is no experience which can compare to Christian worship. In the words of Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, worship is “the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that cane take place in human life”. Worship is the occasion when we become truly alive, when we humans, made in the image of God, begin to fulfil the very purpose of our existence by relating to the God who made us.
As for Christians themselves: are they boring? Yes, some Christians can be incredibly boring – but no more boring than some non-Christians I have met. However, I can think of other Christians I have met who have absolutely fascinated me. Indeed, some of those fascinating Christians have become my friends.
More importantly, I have never found following Jesus boring. Jesus has never disappointed me. I love the title C.S. Lewis gave to one of his books, Surprised by Joy, which tells of the joy that Jesus brought to his life when he became a Christian. Having said that, honesty compels me to add that I have known some expressions of the Christian faith which have made people’s lives well and truly miserable. There have been times when the Gospel has been perverted and when people have been cheated of life. But that has never been true of Jesus.
John in his Gospel records Jesus saying: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly“ (John 10.10 NRSV). Indeed, according to Arndt & Gingrich in their Greek-English Lexicon, the underlying Greek word (perisson) can also be translated as ‘extraordinary’, ‘remarkable’, ‘that which is not usually encountered amongst men’. Jesus came that we might live life ‘beyond the ordinary’, that we might live life ‘to the full’. Or as Christians of a past generation used to say: Jesus came that we might live life ‘with a capital L’. In that regard, let me end with the testimony of Malcolm Muggeridge, who for much of his life was a cynic, but then discovered the difference Jesus can make to life:
I may, I suppose, regard myself or pass for being a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets – that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Inland Revenue – that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions – that’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time – that’s fulfilment. Yet I say to you – and I beg you to believe me – multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing – less than nothing, a positive impediment – measured against one draught of that living water Christ offered to the spiritually thirsty.