Different sides of the glass

Published in Movement magazine issue 111 April 2002

I've been trying to pin down a discomfort I have about the way churches and church organisations discuss club culture. I'm in a meeting somewhere, a church person is telling me about some laudable initiative in mission to the club culture, and it's all very cool and the people are authentic and yet...something bugs me, something's wrong. And I think I've worked out what.

It's the way so many church people talk of 'club culture' as if it were a discrete self-contained entity, something that one is either in or out of, something that can therefore be analysed and ministered to. Part of the NOS mistake, part of the NOS strangeness was to treat club culture this way, as discontinuous, oppositional, apart from society and demanding one's whole allegiance. Maybe it's a London thing, but as a clubber I never felt so marked out from life in general. Some club scenes are separated, separate themselves. But club culture in the usual sense means dance music culture - that vast multifarious commercial entity that permeates huge areas of our general culture.

There have been times, defining moments when parts of it have been oppositional. There are always undergrounds, but even these are part of a continuum fading into everyday life, with times and places of greater intensity but never separate from the general culture around us. For many people clubs become their whole life at one time or another, but then at other times it's part of the background, part of leisure time. Holidays in Ibiza, DJ mix CDs and Mixmag in WH Smiths. Club culture is so varied and fragmented, dance music so ubiquitous that it can't really be addressed separately from the rest of contemporary society. So the problem of how the Church relates to club culture is a subset of the Church's general culture problem. That the Church sees club culture as a separate entity is a mark of its own separation. It's almost the only place where club culture isn't just part of the background.

Talking to people in church organisations about such things can lead to strange conversations. Sometimes it feels like there's a glass wall between me and them. We say the same words, but mean different things. It's a hard matter to work out why you're not connecting, because it's about 'head-space' - the stuff you carry inside you, the internal furniture of your life.

The things we say that sound alike come with different pictures attached in our heads, born out of different cultural vantage points and references. A lot of this stuff goes unexamined until we find ourselves outside our normal context. We would have to live one another's lives for a while, before we could really understand what each were trying to say. Church people talk to me about cross-cultural mission, assuming that because I'm a Christian I'm on their side of the divide. But for me, cross-cultural mission means talking to people inside the Church.

The hybrid called alternative worship can be interpreted very differently depending on which side of the glass you stand. For those within the Church, alternative worship exists within church culture and reaches out into the secular. But for many - perhaps most - of those who make it, alternative worship exists within secular culture and reaches into the Church. Both parties are looking at the same thing. But how you read it depends on where you're coming from. It affects what weight you give to its elements, what you think it should be doing, and how.

I'm in a cafe, right, trying to explain this to you. Consider church and world as two buns on the table [not that sort of buns, please]. Church sees the task of alternative worship as either building a bridge between the buns, or making the church bun more tempting. But alternative worshippers are in the other bun [the currants perhaps]. They don't want to cross over to the church bun. They want to make the bun they're in into a church bun. To do this they'll use its existing ingredients, plus stuff stolen from the church bun as required. Church as a resource to help them where they are now, not as a place to move to.

The Church fondly imagines that alternative worship is some kind of mission to secular culture. Could it be that alternative worship is really some kind of mission to the Church?