I was struck bythe great Sir Terry Pratchett‘s comment in today’s Guardian when speaking of the impact of Alzheimer’s on his sense of self:

I think I’m open to moments of joy… But then I think it’s also made me more… cynical.

The debilitation of such a creative and generous person as Pratchett is a tragedy equalled only by the dignity and eloquence with which he is handling it. He wouldn’t thank me for it, but I thank God for him and his huge creative output – even though I disagree with his views on assisted suicide.

However, I did also think that most of us combine joy with cynicism in one way or another. That’s how most of us experience life: bursts of joy at moments of light and the disbelieving protection against disappointment that cynicism – born of experience – shadows over us. It reminds me of Bret Easton-Ellis’s sad observation quoted in Guardian G2 on 26 July 2010:

Pain’s interesting. Depravity’s interesting. All of my books come from pain. What’s ever been interesting about joy?

Well, actually, most people would settle for joy – however uninteresting for Bret Easton-Ellis – over misery. Terry Eagleton recently mocked ‘exciting’ perceptions of evil, claiming that evil is usually banal, boring and lifeless. Joy is what fires the imagination, engenders hope and shines new light on what had previously looked ordinary.

Here in Hannover I was wondering what this might look like in a community rather than as an individual experience or an abstract concept. Unexpectedly, I caught a glimpse of an answer in a very unusual church.

My friend Silke collected me from the airport and drove me to my hotel. She then took me to visit a church on the site of the Expo 2000 on the outskirts of Hannover. This church was built to last the year of Expo and is shaped like a whale. It is known as the Expowal. Run by the Landesverein für Innere Mission, it is an exploratory community of Christians who want to offer a new way for people to encounter God. Silke and I were given a history and explanation of the ethos and vision of the church before having a look round the building itself.

Two things struck me (apart from the infectious curiosity of the guy who administers the place and engages with the businesses that rent the building when it is not being used as a church):

  1. Rather than point the congregation towards a wall in order to minimise distraction, here they look past the pastor and can see through the windows to the outside world. There are no walls, just windows. The congregation cannot hide within the safe confines of their secure ecclesiastical space because they are visible from the outside. Conversely, outsiders can look in and be curious about what is going on and why.
  2. The leaders are very focused on whom they are there for. If ‘insiders’ don’t like the music or how things are done, then that’s tough. It isn’t for them. Everything is designed to be accessible for and encouraging to those who are outside ‘normal’ church or who feel alienated by their experience of church elsewhere. Church is the means to a greater end: people encountering God in a community context.

The church’s strapline is: “Eine unglaubliche Kirche” (“An unbelievable church”). Given that 5-600 people drive out there each Sunday (two services) or on a Wednesday evening, it seems to be scratching where these people are itching. They simply want to enable people to find, in a  community with others, that God can be encountered and life enjoyed. The realities of life are faced and people of all sorts welcomed. And nothing happens without food, drink and hospitality.

I haven’t the time to translate all their stuff on the website, but it is simple, clear… and joyful. “Auftauchen ins Leben” (“Emerge into life”) is their invitation and it is not a bland religious or merely ‘spiritual’ sentiment; rather, it is a welcome into a community that faces real life – with all its joy and cynicism – and starts where people are.

This church is run by one employee and dozens of committed volunteers. Their vision (from which they do not wish to be deflected) is simply:

We strive to be a New Testament-style community filled with the love of God and serving one another with joy; a community that expects everything from God and infects people who are distant from God with this hope.

Refreshing, encouraging and interesting – and surprising to find behind Ikea on the site of a trade fair miles from the town centre.