There's always a dilemma on holiday, or on a long work trip: do I go to church? There are many reasons why it's hard; I might just want to rest, or feel I need a break, or I can't easily travel to one. As almost every church group is now listed on the 'net, saying I don't know when or where services are, would show me up to be lazy. But this does leave the biggest obstacle of all, which is "What sort of gathering will I feel comfortable in?" With many different denominations to choose from, and with many many traditions within a denomination, it's difficult to predict what I'll find. And even if I've found out enough to know it should be quite close to my current tastes, I can still be disappointed.(Before I go any further, just a quick note on terminology: Christians primarily use the word 'church' to mean a localised gathering of Christians; the usual secular sense of the building where services are held is only a secondary meaning. What I'm going to write makes more sense if you have the former meaning in mind. Occasionally we Christians remember that the church is really the worldwide group of Christian believers, not just those we meet week by week in our church gathering.)For example, on one trip to the US, I decided to head for the nearby Episcopal church, rather than go off with colleagues to some local national park. As Episcopals are a type of Anglicanism, it was pretty familiar stuff, though rather "higher" with a robed choir, and with more spoken liturgy than normal for me. I put up with the rather unfriendly welcome: being told I was a "stranger" and that "Dick wouldn't like it as you're sitting in his pew". Biting back the "I rather thought it was God's pew" retort, I then battled through unfamiliar and rather turgid hymns, and hoped the sermon would be worth it. It possibly was, but the preacher had such a heavy Southern drawl that I couldn't follow most of it, not helped by a PA with the "make it muddy" switch turned on. Afterwards I asked how long the preacher had been in the church, and my elderly pew-mate revealed, "About 20 years, and I still can't really understand what he says". That was an occasion where I'd probably have been better off enjoying God's creation with non-Christian colleagues, rather than fuming at some of His fellow believers.On our most recent holiday the closest English-speaking church was the Ark Christian Fellowship (Sunday services at 11am; located at Centro Comercial Las Rampas, Fuengirola). The listing mentioned it was an Icthus-linked church, and so from prior experience I figured it would be informal, Bible-centred, but also in a more charismatic style of gathering than we normally get.Our experience was good and bad. First the bad: there was a lot of rather bad theology used in the songs and comments from the worship leader. (Two examples: "Lord, pour out your Spirit on us" to which the usual answer is "God's already provided his Spirit to all Christians; do you really believe the Bible shows God would give us half measures of his Spirit, when he gave his Son totally to redeem us?". And "we claim the power of your victory in our lives ... in our relationships and jobs ...", to which we point to the Biblical evidence that Christians can expect significant suffering in life, after the pattern of no less than Jesus Christ himself. But I digress.)But thankfully there was plenty of good there too. We were amongst a friendly, lively group of people, who clearly trusted in Jesus and were delighted to be called Christians. So we were amongst brothers and sisters in the faith. We were able to share communion with them, and it meant just the same as "back home". We could encourage each other by singing together of the goodness of God. And most importantly we were following Jesus' command that he wanted his followers to make a point of meeting together.Michael Lloyd says in his book Café Theology:

"Some statistical studies have shown that churches grow faster if they are socially and racially homogeneous. Churches that are basically middle-class or basically working-class or basically young grow faster than ones which are mixed. Maybe. It's just not what church is for. We are meant to be a model of how, when you come into relationship with God through what Christ did on the Cross, you begin to have your other relationships healed as well." (p.179)

And the Ark was also a disparate group of people. We distinctly heard Aussie, New Zealand, Brummie, American and some African accents, and saw people from 1 to 81 (or so). So, maybe this gathering was doing fairly, though I couldn't tell whether people were working- or middle-class. (If that distinction really still holds.) But we were definitely all English-speaking, not trying to assimilate into a Spanish-speaking church. We met one veteran ex-pat, who moved to the area 28 years ago, who presumably speaks pretty good Spanish by now, but hadn't made an effort to join with native Christians in their adopted country. That doesn't seem right. But it was definitely helpful for us visitors who speak almost no Spanish, to be able to have a service where we understood what was going on. But why not a mixed-language service? They'd only get half the sentences in, but it would be a way of becoming more of the "church universal". Last words to Michael Lloyd again:

"The church, if it is to be faithful to the Cross, must live in defiance of the hostilities and enmities that so lace and lacerate our world."

AuthorJonathan Clark