The large, brightly glowing sign outside the motel said ‘Box-O- Rama Put-U-Up:Your Cube, The Way You Want It.’ Inside, the light was, if anything, harsher – only this time it was coming from the bright yellow hair of the receptionist and her even brighter teeth.
“Hello citizens,” she said. “How can I be of assistance?” “Could you turn down your grin please,” I muttered. “It’s hurting my eyes.” The receptionist looked at Helen. “You must forgive my friend,” she said. “He’s old and dead.” The receptionist shrugged. “Whatever,” she said cheerfully turning her grin up to thermonuclear levels. “We’d like two cubes please,” said Helen. “Certainly. Do you want large or extra-large futons?” “Large.” “What scent would you like?” “I ’m sorry?” The receptionist looked at me. “Your cube,citizen. What scent would you like?” I looked around me.“This is a motel, right?” I asked. “Surely all motel rooms smell the same. Slightly musty with a side-order of something unspeakable.” “We ’ll take vanilla,” said Helen hurriedly.“With a touch of lemon.” “Two lemon-vanillas it is,”said the receptionist. “And what colour would you like your cube?” I was now completely bewildered. “I can choose the colour?” “Of course,citizen,” said the receptionist. “You can alter your environment how you wish. Your choice.” “I’ll have yellow,then,” I said. “With large purple spots.” The smile didn’t falter. “As you wish...”
The cube was a plastic room, stacked on top of other cubes. It was like staying in a house built entirely of tupperware. I climbed the ladder to my cube and opened the door. Inside the walls were bright yellow with large purple spots. As I lay on the futon and breathed in the smell of lemon and vanilla, I regretted my sarcasm. The next morning I met Helen at the breakfast table. ‘Menu’ she said,and the surface of the table shimmered and then was suddenly full of writing – hundreds of words flowing like liquid spilt across the surface. “That’s not a menu,” I said in bewilderment. “That ’s a novel.” “It’s customer choice,”said Helen. “People don’t all want the same thing.” She paused again. “Kippers,” she said.
I stared at her? “Kippers?” I asked.. “I was ordering breakfast,” she explained. “Oh.” I looked around me for the waiter, but no-one was there. “Who from?” “The table of course.” “Of course. Stupid of me.” I looked down at the table. It looked, unusually for a piece of furniture, slightly smug. “Hallo citizen,” it chirruped. “My name is Eric and I’ll be your table this morning. Can I interest you in our special - germfibre pancakes with added bran. To help you with your ... er ... problem.”
“What problem?” “Well,between you and me, citizen, reports came from your bathroom that you’re not what you might call regular.” “Reports from my bathroom? Who’s been spying on me in the bathroom?” “I received the data from your lavatory seat, of course. It’s interactive.” “An interactive lavatory seat?” “Of course.All for your own health and safety citizen. So,can I put you down for the roughage?” “No you cannot,” I snapped. “I ’ll have a croissant.” The table beeped. “I have 14 different kinds of croissant, citizen. Do you want chocolate, all butter, almond ...” “Just a plain one please.”
“Plain,”sniffed the table.“Not much of a challenge there,is there.”There was a pause.“What kind of jam do you want with your croissant?”.“We ’ve got apricotmarmaladeraspberrystrawberryblackcurrantpeachplum...” “No jam.”I said hurriedly.“I just want a plain croissant. And a strong coffee.”
There was an ominous pause. “What kind of coffee?” enquired the table. “I have 38 different kinds. I ’ll list them for you ...” I leant close to the surface of the table. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” I whispered. “Otherwise I might be forced to polish you. With an axe.” “I’m only giving you a choice ...”it said, sounding hurt. “Just a strong black coffee,” I hissed. “And make it fast.” The table shimmered and went black. “Someone got out of the wrong side of the futon this morning.” said Helen.. “I can ’t cope with all this choice being flung at me. And I don ’t want lavatory seats to report back on my health problems, thank you very much.” “It ’s only trying to get some idea of what you want,” said Helen.
“Admittedly it ’s doing it in an annoying and intrusive way, but at least it ’s trying.” “A taunting loo seat and 37 kinds of coffee... so that ’s a good thing,is it?” I snarled. “37 kinds of coffee and a talking loo seat is the height of customer service?” I looked down at the table, which seemed to be sulking. “The kind of hotels I used to go to you had two choices of breakfast: foul or uneatable.” “Yes,”said Helen. “The set menu. You had it everywhere. And nowhere more than in your churches.” “Oh, here we go...” I muttered. “This is the point where you tell me everything we ever did was wrong.” “Not everything,”she said.“But you did more or less the same thing for everybody”.
Suddenly the middle of the table slid open and from inside the tube came two coffees. Helen took one and sipped it. “Just as I ordered,” she sighed.
“Thank you Eric.” “Thank you, citizen,” chirped the table.. I took my coffee. It did smell rather good actually. The table seemed to be waiting for something. “What’s those two little words, you’ve forgotten?” it said to me.. “Fire wood.” I replied and it suddenly shut down with a ‘hmph’. Helen smiled at me. You know what the four most useless words of your time were?” She paused.“One size fits all. What that invariably meant was everyone could put it on but it would never actually fit. It was a cheap and easy – and often lazy –way of doing things. And the church did exactly the same thing.” She leaned back and sipped her drink. “Think about church services in your day. Weren’t they ‘one size fits all’? Oh yes, some had louder songs than others, some had longer sermons, some were led by men, some by women, and some by men dressed as women, but they were all more or less the same. And what that meant was that there were loads of people who were excluded from church simply because they didn ’t like church. It wasn ’t that they didn’t love God, you understand. It was simply that they didn ’t like the way that we talked about him.”
“I know all this.I talked about it a lot.” “Yes,”she said.“You were good at talking...” “What ’s that supposed to mean?” She didn ’t answer. Instead she reached down into her bright silver coat and pulled out a book.She flipped it across the table; an old paperback,its pages brittle and yellowed with age.
“’Small is Beautiful’,” I read. “I used to have a copy like this.” “That was your copy. Look.” I opened the book and looked at the fly-leaf. There,scrawled on the yellow paper, was my name. “Where did you get this?” “I bought it from your estate. After your death. It was one of the few books that weren’t ruined by ... by what happened...” “What do you mean. What did happen? And how did my books get ruined?” She shook her head.“That doesn ’t matter now. The point is the title is right: small is beautiful. But you lot always believed it to be ugly.” She sighed.“You lot were so locked into numbers. So locked into a church structure which meant large numbers of people meeting to do things in the same way. So when the numbers fell away it became depressing, because you were still trying to act in a way that needed lots of people.”
“I don’t understand.” “It’s quite simple. You need 22 people to play a football match. If 12 or even 10 people turn up you can still put on a game of sorts. But if only two people turn up, you’d do far better to have a game of tennis.” She smiled. “One of the problems with the church in your time was that it carried on staging football matches when it should have been encouraging everyone to try their hand at tennis.” I stared at her.“Are you sure that ’s just coffee you’re drinking?” “What I ’m on about is that small can be beautiful, providing it ’s not trying to be big. You have to do church differently with small numbers, but you can still do it. And successfully, too.” She pointed at her espresso coffee.“I like espressos,” she said. “Small, but incredibly potent. If you ever get back, tell your people to be more like espressos.” “I’m sure they’ll be pleased to hear that.”
“Small groups,”she said,ignoring me. “They could have changed everything, if you’d really believed in them. If you’d seen them as opportunities rather than as an admission of defeat.” “You ’re talking about cell churches.” “I ’m talking about lots and lots of different kinds of churches. Different flavours.
All concentrating on the same things, but doing it in different ways. We built an entire system based on persuading people to come into a big old building, sit down and listen. And it stopped working some time in the 1950s. Maybe we should have gone and listened to them.” “So how do you do that?” “You ask people.You get feedback from them.You find out what they want to know about and how they want it to be taught. You create services to do different things at different times.” “You mean cell church.” “Yes,as long as cells don’t become prisons. As long as there is always room for development and for people to change. You see,what small groups can do really well, is create community. They enable real relationships and real commitment to one another in a way that huge mega-churches never can. They were church and community at a more accessible, more appropriate scale. Bite-sized, if you like.”
“But what about worship? What about teaching? How can you ensure that people are taught well in groups?” She smiled. “Oh and every church in the country taught them so brilliantly, I suppose.” “Touche.” “Look, the fact is that so many people were put off church because there was simply no variety in how it was done. Worship is so much more than we made it. We limited it to singing songs while a few people banged away on guitars, but who defines what worship is? And as for teaching – wherever we went we received the same messages in the same ways. But that ’s not how Jesus taught. Sometimes he preached. Sometimes he led discussion groups. Sometimes he just told stories. Sometimes he just did things and left people to draw their own conclusions. So why did we assume that one person talking to a room full of other people was the best way to teach?
“Small groups allow you to teach at their pace. Each Sunday morning we would expect a large number of customers to come in, sit down and receive huge portions of whatever food we chose to give them. And then we wondered why some people got terminal cases of spiritual indigestion. But if we’d actually listened to them, we might have found out that they were interested in our cooking – just in different portions and with a few more dishes.”
I sipped my coffee and munched on my croissant. “But what about unity?” I asked.. “What about the idea of one church?” “It ’s a mirage,” she said.
“Always has been. Since when has there ever been ‘one church’ in the sense that you’re talking about? I mean, when was there an occasion where there was just one church in any town or city or village? From the middle-ages onwards,there have always been alternative ways of doing church. Our unity – such as it is - has never been in one big meeting in one big building. It’s been in Christ himself.Unity in diversity and all that.”
“So you ’re saying that we should just turn everything into cell churches.” “You already have them.”She tapped once on the top of the table and the surface turned opaque, like white marble. Then she began to draw on it with her finger and black lines appeared,like marks on a white board. “Look at the figures,” she said.“The average weekly attendance of churches in your time was around 55 people. That ’s the average. So there were hundreds and hundreds of churches with far less than that. And all these churches – the ones that were struggling on with less than 20 people in them – they already were cell churches. But even then they carried on acting in the same way.They carried on playing football, when they could have had a great time playing tennis.” Suddenly she looked sad.
“We failed so badly to listen to people, especially young people.They wanted a church that allowed them to express themselves.Not one that made them sit in rows and listen all the time.They wanted a church that offered variety,but we made them sit through the same thing again and again until they got bored. They wanted a church that involved them – gave them tasks and challenges. We pushed them to one side and told them to conform.We carried on serving up the same food in the same way and never changing the menu. And we won- dered why so many customers went else- where.”She stared at me.“When you go back,tell them to give church back to the people. Before it ’s too late.” The table beeped. “I was just wondering,if you ’d like to choose from our selection of 340 low-calo- rie lunches,citizen,” it said.. “Of course,”said Helen.“There ’s such a thing as too much choice...”
To discuss if when I get back.
- Does my church do the same thing each week?
- How many people attend? Are we a cell church without realising it?
- How can we offer more variety in our services?
- Have we actually asked what people want from our church? How do we consult them?
- What small groups could serve our community? What kinds of things could they offer?