Which would you find more vulnerable - turning up to church dressed in nothing but swimwear, or admitting to your home group that you have a problem with alcohol?
It’s my theory that being honest about yourself at church is the equivalent of turning up in a bikini (or swimming trunks): it’s a trifle vulnerable.
A few weeks ago, I was on a beach in Greece, admiring other people’s bodies. (My husband raised his eyebrow when I told him this. But fear not! - it is not ‘that’ kind of post.) It wasn’t a lustful look, but an aesthetic one.
The great thing about the sun is that pretty much every body looks good and healthy when it’s tanned. There are lots of different shapes of bodies. Some of the body shapes were large, and had ripples and curves that mirrored the sea’s waves. Others were angular, like the rocks. Each body on the beach held a kind of beauty.
Back in June, everyone was talking about the notorious advert for a weight loss food that posed the question, ‘Are you beach body ready?’ - with a photo of an impossibly fit, blonde, hour-glass-shaped model, wearing a skimpy bikini. The implication was that unless you looked like that, you had no right being on a beach where you would offend others with your non-model, imperfect body. The public were understandably outraged and the backlash came, with posters defaced and petitions signed. (Read Premier Christianity's culture column on this subject here)
At my beach in Greece, no one - no one at all - had anything like the ‘beach body ready’ body. We all certified as ‘beach body decidedly unprepared’.
But the thin bodies didn’t look dramatically better than the thicker bodies. There were plump 70-year-old women who were wearing bikinis, and they looked wonderful. Some people had tattoos, and I wanted to surreptitiously study them.
I stopped putting people into categories and labels, and started looking closely at the people, each person a unique story wrapped in skin. When you stop judging on appearance, you are faced with the beautiful multiplicity of God’s creation. Baring our bikini-clad bodies felt safe, because we were all in the same position.
It made me wonder - is the church a safe place to lay bare your soul?
We all want church to be a place of utter authenticity and honesty, but sometimes being honest in a church setting is like stripping off to your underwear, only to find the rest in the home group fully clothed and looking askance at your boldness. It’s hard to admit to others that your marriage is falling apart, or that you have an eating disorder, or that you can’t remember the last time you opened your Bible. It only works if everyone is to be honest.
Though not all churches are like this, often we Christians are huddled in our protective coats (both metaphorically and literally, given the central heating system of most churches). On the beach, if you are in a coat, you are hampered. You can’t relax, or build sandcastles, or have a dip in the sea. It’s the same at church. If we conceal ourselves, we can’t love one another as God loves us, because we don’t truly know one another. So we sip our weak coffee nervously and hide our faults, and are left wondering, “Would I still be welcome if they knew…?"
It would be great if churches were a place where you walked in and knew straight away, “I can show my whole self here and still be loved”. When we as a church create that kind of culture, it mirrors God’s unconditional love.
Pastors and leaders have their own role to play in this. From the pulpit, it is easy to sometimes unintentionally communicate the message that our souls need to be ‘beach-body ready’ before we are welcome in church. If a pastor can lay bare her or his soul, with all its cellulite and sin, then the church may feel they can also be honest.
This summer, I’m hoping we can all start wearing a bikini to church*, being honest about ourselves and finding love and acceptance when we do. (*Metaphorically, not literally - we are in Britain, after all.)