Her eyes slid past to the gentleman behind me, even as she extended her hand to bid me a bright “Good Morning!” In her eager grasp, I was firmly but kindly being drawn across the Threshold of Indecision into the Chamber of Commitment, a.k.a. the church foyer. I lurched when my hand was abruptly released. Faced by the unfamiliar teeming crowd, I was overwhelmed. I was also being gently prodded from behind by the afore-mentioned hand-shaker. Time to move on.
The usher creased his brow, trying to place my origins. Thiessen, Friesen, Enns? None of the above, thank you very much, my people hail from the Orkneys. Small, dark, wiry, covered in blue tattoos and prone to run screaming into battle. Could he tell? Glancing over my jeans and faded shirt, he was unsure where to seat me. In the end, he handed me a bulletin with an uncertain nod toward the postmoderns in the east wing. I had been successfully ushed.
The graciousness extended to our family during those difficult months of transition was astounding. The first few weeks were the hardest to navigate, but once we were recognized as the “new” family in the church, there was no time lost making us feel welcome, accepted, valued, and potentially useful. Early encounters with leadership were effusive and affirming. Everyone was so nice. Almost too nice. It was a little surreal. Could that many people really be that nice?
I tried responding with rude candour to inquiries about our health and mind. “Flipping lousy, thanks!” didn’t even raise an eyebrow. Could Mennonites get mad? I poked harder. No one poked back. Did generations of pacifism alter the genetic code? My Pictish blood recoiled. My husband and I had just buried a father, a church, and a dog, and were dealing with a rebellious teenager. We were living through a bad set of country lyrics. We were, in fact, not at all nice.
Coming from an ultra-casual, blue-collar charismatic church, I felt clumsy among these solicitous sophisticates. They knew what to do with their hands. They were skilled in the art of evasive, non-threatening conversation (“Well, that’s an interesting thought. Thank you for sharing!”) and careful, acquiescent answers to potentially touchy questions (“Well, that’s an interesting question. What do youthink?”). Where did they learn all these social graces? How could I possibly fit in here?
Work – surely that was the key! Relational fulfillment would be found by “signing up” for as many events and ministries as possible. A sense of trench fellowship, labouring side by side. But what if a crisis should render us non-functional? Would any of these relationships have a foundation outside service? Would I become the blind woman at the quilting bee, offered small manageable tasks to restore my sense of significance and belonging? I snarl when I feel patronized. But they, no doubt, would still be nice.
Yearning for challenge
Adrift in this sea of “seeker sensitives,” I searched out friends who would get in my face, confront my selfishness, provoke my passion for God, challenge my complacency, hang out with me just because they wanted to. They were there, but waiting patiently and modestly in the wings for people like me to approach. Even then, raw honesty took time to cultivate. I felt like a sheaf of wheat being forced to throw itself at the sickle.
The years have passed, and I have grown to appreciate the graciousness of our church members. Indeed, I have found valuable and treasured friends. Some, I confess with embarrassment, I had to pick a fight with first, so I could be sure they really cared. I no longer view the “nice-ness” of the Mennonite version of seeker sensitivity with suspicion.
But, I have come to believe that such niceness works best as an appetizer to tempt the taste buds, not to be confused with the meal that ought to follow. Too often we are content with relational “snacks,” happy to tick church off our to-do list each Sunday without having had one meaningful, uncomfortable encounter with another person, much less with Jesus. Perhaps our Menno-nice approach has become an end in itself, rather than a means to a far more relational end.
It bears little resemblance to what we know of Mennonite Brethren heritage – literalistic rebels who faced persecution to pursue and proclaim a more personal relationship with their Saviour and a more determined devotion to the Word of God. Can this be done with niceness? And if so, what are we doing with those we win?
Won for intimacy
In some cases, it seems, we simply plug the new believers into similar seeker-sensitive outreach activities. But surely the church is not meant to be based on multi-level marketing strategies. We are meant to win others into something – into a deeply disturbing, life-changing experience of a holy God. We are called to intimacy with the Creator, an intimacy we both fear and crave.
At some level, after all, we all seek to “sense” God. We are, in fact, “sensor seekatives.” This is how God created us. Such a relationship demands that we move beyond being polite; it requires the kind of uncomfortable exposure that leaves us feeling utterly known, and utterly loved.
Our God is not a “nice” God. He is holy, just, and merciful. He pierces us with words and questions that shatter our defenses, that leave us naked, trembling, undone. Desperate to run away, even more desperate to run to him.
Jesus was not “nice” to his followers. In fact, he was incredibly rude and insensitive at times. And yet, surely one would do anything to have such a man as a friend. A man without pretensions, without illusions. Thrusting your sins in your face, and then dying to set you free from them.
This is the kind of passion we are called to ignite – to love each other as invasively as Christ loved us, to bring seekers into the church and help them discover a whole new meaning for the word “personal” in this “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” we preach, to insert more time for intentional relational depth into our planning meetings and work bees.
Would we become less efficient? Very likely. It might create ragged edges to the flow of our Sunday services. Small, inconvenient cracks where our humanity peeks out, turning an otherwise smooth event into a series of authentic and often awkward encounters with God and each other.
What would church be like then? A place for sensor seekatives like me.
“Niceness works best as an appetizer, not to be confused with the meal that ought to follow.”