Don’t end up just banging dustbins

It is amazing how certain comments stick in the mind. It is hard to know whether it is the context in which they are spoken or the sheer simplicity with which the comment nails its intended target, but nonetheless some things remain with you. I am regularly reminded of one of the funniest, and yet searingly clear, comments I received whilst engaged in mission work.

The context was my regular pilgrimage to the Holy Land; or, Llandudno as it is more commonly known. I was co-leading a week of mission. Much of the work involved cold-contact evangelism; approaching folk on the promenade and trying to generate conversation. The aim would be to share something of Christ and perhaps leave them with a Christian book or piece of literature to read in their own time. Sometimes conversations take off – often in ways you wouldn’t expect – and excellent theological discussion can take place. RC Sproul was right when he noted, ‘everyone’s a theologian’.

One particular afternoon, I got chatting to a couple of couples. It was the usual Llandudno clientele: nominally Christian, vaguely religious types who believe in ‘something’, probably God, but generally don’t bother with church and whose supposed Christianity had very little practical outworking. I remember mining some of their inconsistencies. They had strong views on what Christianity was supposed to be but little in the way of anything to back it up in practice. They were certain church should be traditional but didn’t see much need to go.

At some point, however, things took a slight detour. I suppose in a bid to sound a bit more religious, presumably feeling a bit exposed and wanting to fit in with the God-botherer presently forcing them to consider matters they had long tried to block out, one of my interlocutors volunteered that they did watch Songs of Praise periodically (presumably as they were led by the Spirit, who apparently saw no need to lead them to a church). The lady proferring this defence of her religiosity clearly hadn’t counted on her husband’s similar view of the programme to me.

In the way that only a plain speaking Northern man can, he said something approximating this. The final key sentence, however, is verbatim:

It used to be OK. It used to be traditional hymns and that. But last time we turned it on, they had that Stomp on. It were a right racket. I mean, that’s not church; it’s just banging dustbins!

Without realising, this man had offered a fine theological defence of the regulative principle of worship. I daren’t argue that I wasn’t quite a fully paid up regulative principle adherent – though I’m not so far away in practice – because, despite our divergent logical paths, we both alighted on the same conclusion: that’s not church; it’s just banging dustbins.

But where to take the conversation from here? Should I push these people toward an actual church or affirm them in their errant belief that it is unimportant? But I wasn’t there to send them to church, or encourage them to try and be ‘a bit more religious’, I was trying to share the gospel. What about talking about sin as rubbish for the bin and Christ as the divine binman? Absolutely not. That’s the kind of schtick reserved for ill-prepared gospel services in which the speaker is trying far too hard to be ‘relevant’ and the captive audience too polite to get up and walk off, sickened by the lameness of it all. Truth be told, beyond agreeing with him about the programme and leaving them with some literature I forget my response, which I’m sure wasn’t all that interesting anyway.

The reason this comment came to mind again is that it tells us something instructive about church. Even those who have no real Christianity to speak of expect church to be relatively ‘churchy’ when they come in. Far too many of us spend our time wringing our hands hoping to make church accessible and remove the barriers we presume will keep people away. My experience, as this conversation also affirmed, is that more people are put off by our innovations than anything we tend to think put them off.

It seems especially pertinent this time of year as Christmas and New Year often see a slight break in the standard programmes of the church. We may begin thinking a bit more evangelistically in the not unreasonable hope that, this time of year, people may just wander into our church for a sprinkling of culturally acceptable religious tradition. But tied up with this mode of evangelistic thinking comes a heavy dose of hand-wringing about the religious stuff that may put people off. Will they come in if we’re too religious? Won’t the things we do be off-putting because they have no frame of reference?

It has more commonly been my experience that people find the church ‘cult-like’ (the chosen word of actual visitors I have met) when it tries hard not to look like a church. People expect the church to be churchy. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be down to earth or act like real people. It simply means that people are more likely to be repelled by the things that we think they’ll embrace than we perhaps realise. In the end, we need to make sure that we don’t end up just banging dustbins. After all, that’s not church – it turns out nobody else will think so either.


  1. In your choice of language and your reference to Songs of Praise I must assume that you are talking about tourists to the Holy Land.from the British Isles and their preconceived notions of “church.” Even though they might not be regular churchgoers, I think that we can safely assume that their views of “church” would have been shaped by the established Church, that is, the Church of England, by the religious instruction that is required in English schools, by broadcasts on radio and television of cathedral services, and the occasional visit to an English parish church at Christmas, Easter, and the occasion of Aunt Mabel’s funeral, little Johnnie’s baptism, and cousin Iris’ wedding.She always wanted a church wedding.

    But are these views transferable to let us say tourists from the United States or some other part of the world. I think that you might find a greater diversity of views of what is “church.” I also suspect that you would not like find many non-churchgoing Americans on a trip to the Holy Land.

    Non-churchgoers here in the United States fall into two categories – those who have never attended a church and whose views of “church,” if they have any, are shaped by television and the Internet and those who once attended a church but dropped out of church for a variety of reasons. The views of “church” of those in the second category would depend upon the kind of church or churches that they once attended. This may include churches where percussion instruments of various kinds were used in worship, including pianos as well as drum kits, conga drums, stacked bells, cowbells, djembe, and the like. If you visit these churches and question their pastors and worship leaders, they may point to your attention the Old Testament account of Miriam and the young women of Israel dancing in praise of the Lord to the beat of the timbrel, or hand drum, and to Psalm 150 with its exhortation to praising God with cymbals, loud clanging cymbals.

    On the other hand, if they had attended churches in the Restorationist tradition, their views of “church” would include no musical instruments at all, only unaccompanied singing from a shaped-note hymnal. . The pastors and worship leaders of the churches that they attended would argue that there is no warrant in the New Testament for accompanying the singing of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs on the organ and that the early church did not use the organ in its worship. They might also point to your attention that organs were in ancient times played at pagan temples and in brothels.

  2. Hi Robin,

    A few points that might help you out:
    1. I was using the phrase ‘Holy Land’ facetiously, you will notice I immediate refer to how it is more ‘commonly known’ and state that I was in Llandudno. Llandudno is a seaside resort in North Wales which is part of the UK. The post didn’t have anything to do with the Middle East nor the kind of tourists that might go.
    2. Whilst many in the UK would perceive ‘church’ as specifically Anglican, not all people do. What is more, nobody really believes what goes on in schools has much to do with church at all. For the record, we no longer have ‘Religious Instruction’, which was historically Christian, but have for several decades had Religious Studies, which is dedicated to teaching about all major religions. Before becoming a pastor, I used to be a Religious Studies teacher (along with History and Politics). It really wouldn’t inform many people’s view of church.
    3. Your suggestion that the US, or other parts of the world, would have a greater diversity of view doesn’t seem to account for the fact that we have all those same traditions here in the UK. If you are Scottish, for example, you are more likely to have gone to the state Prebysterian Kirk than anything Anglican. If you are Welsh, you are most likely to encounter Methodist chapels. Depending on which region of England you live in, different mainline denominations are dominant. Not all presume the Church of England (England only accounting for one of four countries in the UK at any rate) is ‘the church’.

  3. 1. What you are saying does not rule out the existence of a common cultural view of what it is “church.” in the United Kingdom, assuming that group of non-churchgoers with whom you had contact are actually representative of all non-church goers in the United Kingdom, a conclusion backed up by solid empirical research. .
    2. Neither does the existence of similar denominational bodies in the the UK as in the United States rule out the existence of a greater diversity of opinion of what is “church” in the US. Remember that the US is geographically a much larger country with a different cultural landscape which landscape varies from region to region and community to community. You may find several cultures in the same region and community. What is seen as “church” may differ from region to region, community to community.”
    3. What you appear to be inferring from one group of non-churchgoers is that ALL non-churgoers have a “traditional” view of church, not only in the UK but elsewhere. Your support for this inference is purely anecdotal.
    4. The danger in what you are writing is that you not clearly define what is meant by “traditional.” You are either assuming your readers know what you mean or you are leaving to your readers to provide their own meaning.
    5. Here in the United States there are “traditional” churches that are declining and dying because they are “doing church” as churches did over 60 years ago. This is not working for them. They are not reaching and engaging the unchurched population in their community. Indeed they have become disconnected from their communities.They, as the late Peter Toon, himself a traditionalist, pointed out, need to “retool” for the twenty-first century. This does not mean that they must abandon everything that is “traditional” in their worship and ministry but does mean evaluating what they are doing and its usefulness in the particular cultural context in which they find themselves. However, when their members read an article like yours, they may be led to conclude that they should keep on doing what they have been doing because of the mistaken idea that ALL non-churchgoers have a “traditional” view of church. Some non-churchgoers may but the evidence here in the US is that group of non-churchgoers is shrinking. in this country. That my not be the case in the UK. However, a handful of non-churchgoers met at the seaside is not a large enough sampling to draw that conclusion. . .

  4. I think, mate, you are reading too much into what was a fairly straightforward blog post based on a mildly amusing anecdote. The wider point is one based on my years of mission work and pastoral work in a variety of churches and organisations in different parts of the UK.

    But, don’t overthink it pal.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly. The vast majority of folks have an idea of what to expect when they come to church, sing some songs, somebody prays, somebody reads the Bible, and somebody gives a sermon. Getting something entirely different than what they expect can be a little off-putting. To put a sharper point on it, any attempt to be cool and relevant often comes across as just embarrassing to watch.

    I want my church to be ‘churchy’ just like I want my work to be ‘worky’ and my home to be ‘homey.’ Anything else is just weird.

  6. Several years back there was a spate of articles here in the United States that put forward the claim that Millennials were flocking in droves to “traditional” churches. The basis of this claim was anecdotal. However, the empirical research did not back up the claim. A segment of the churchgoing Millennial population was attracted to “traditional” churches but a far larger segment of that population was attracted to non-traditional churches. However, the leaders of a number of “traditional” churches gave more attention to these articles than they did the research. They heard what they wanted to hear and ignored what they did not want to hear. They kept doing what they were doing. But Millennials did not flock to their churches in droves as they had been led to believe. The attendance at “traditional” churches has continued to wane. There are exceptions but a close examination of what these churches are doing points to other factors beside a “traditional” ambiance – factors like a commitment to quality, a commitment authenticity,
    opportunities for service,opportunities for community, and so on.

    As someone who has a longstanding commitment to reaching and engaging the unchurched, it concerns me that the leaders of “traditional” churches were acting on inaccurate and misleading information. Those who wrote the articles were excited about what they saw as a promising new development. However, they had not done their homework and they had gotten carried away in their excitement. Unfortunately these articles quickly birthed the myth that “traditional” church was THE way to reach millennials.

    Like you I have been involved in ministry in a variety of churches, “traditional” and non-traditional, in a number of localities for a number of years,(about 30 odd). One was a historic church and the rest were new church plants in various stages of development. I was recently placed in pastoral charge of a small church that is on the cusp of revitalization or demise. I have learned from empirical research as well as my own experience that non-churchgoers are not a homogeneous group and they differ in their expectations.

    Like you I am also a blogger. As a blogger I have learned that what I write, my readers re going to take with utmost seriousness. I have learned that readers can draw the wrong conclusions even from a “mildly amusing anecdote”.with unfortunate results as in the case of the articles about millennials flocking in droves to “traditional” droves. In reality only a trickle of millennials were going to “traditional” churches but the article’s authors in their excitement turned this trickle into a flood.

  7. But I wasn’t arguing for traditional or non-traditional churches. Not was I arguing that Millennials per se would be attracted to one or the other. I was arguing nothing more than that many of our innovations put visitors off more than they draw them in. People do typically expect church to be churchy. That does not necessarily mean traditional but it does mean many expect church to appear like a church in some respect. That is all.

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