My last post was a look at one of the questions raised by the idea of relational mission: what’s our motivation? What is underlying our desire to befriend people? This is some further musing on the same question. But this time I’m looking at it from another angle – what have the people we have befriended gained from being our friends?
I guess I’m challenging the unspoken assumption that getting to know ‘us’ is a good thing. In all the Church’s talk about mission, it’s taken for granted that our outreach to new people not currently connected to the Church is beneficial for those new people. That’s a theological assumption, I think. But if we no longer believe that we take God to where God is not (which, thankfully, we don’t) what ‘goods’ do we bring? And dare we test empirically how good it really is for people to interact with the Church? For whose benefit is that interaction, really? For those with whom we interact or for ourselves?
We are at least in part motivated I reckon by wanting to see the Church grow. Why? To shore up our own fragile faith by persuading others to share it or by temporarily fending off the decline that so sorely tests our confidence? Sound cynical? It is a bit. If we believe we really have good news it would be selfish to keep it to ourselves. But at the same time we need to recognise that our proselytising tendency can be experienced by others as a threat, particularly if they are of another faith background or are avowedly secular or humanist. While others might be prepared to say that those people are just plain wrong, I am not. We have to share this world. We need to find ways to peacefully co-exist. That means I think according people a high degree of dignity and respect and taking their views seriously. That means putting ourselves in others’ shoes. For me that means being prepared to ask whether, from the perspective of, say, a secular humanist, we might ever be viewed as a positive presence. So again I find myself asking: what ‘goods’ do we bring?
I was having a conversation recently with someone who used to work in retail. They were telling me the story of a retailer who tried to grow their business by increasing the sale value of each customer interaction. The net result of all their action was that the business stayed exactly the same. Setting out to grow the business resulted in stagnation. The concentration on what the business wanted from the customer interaction did not allow that business to meet its aims. When, instead, they focused on what their customers wanted from their interaction with the business, the business grew.
That’s an anecdote and not careful research. But it does suggest that the Church will fail to achieve its desired growth if that is what it thinks about. Instead it hints that concentrating on the people with whom the Church interacts, considering their needs and desires, will be the only way that growth can happen. It’s only while we’re looking the other way that growth can occur. That’s a pretty bold statement and it’s based on pretty flimsy evidence. But surely that is what we’re all about. No, not bold statements based on flimsy evidence. Though that is something of which we’re often accused! I mean putting others first. We should be seeking to generously strive for the benefit of others as an end – the end – in itself, not merely as a strategy for achieving our organisational goals.
Some will argue, I guess, that wanting the Church to grow is for the benefit of the (capital ‘O’) Other. It’s for the ‘Glory of God’, whatever that means. But the Christian story surely makes clear that God is always out for the benefit of the (lower case ‘o’) other (even if some parts of the Bible are a little more difficult to reconcile with that proposition).
I wonder if you can see what I’m getting at? If you can, you might be able to help me because I’m not quite sure! I think I’m just trying to push the question of motivation all the way – in this instance in non-theological terms. Why? Because I think we have to at least try to imagine what it might be like to encounter a community of people that, to some degree, have an agenda that includes seeing you change. The Church is not unique in that but it’s there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about progress. It might mean – it pretty much does for some church members here in Somerstown, I think – that people with insurmountable mental health or addiction problems at least find a place to belong and to find companionship in the midst of their struggles.
But [finally he gets to the point] what has it meant to the newer members of the Sunday Sanctuary to encounter this fragile community of Christians and become part of it? How has that been good for them?
I haven’t really asked. But others have. These are not desperate or broken people we’re talking about, at least no more desperate or broken than the rest of us. So we haven’t fixed anyone (as if we could). The sense I have is that our new friends, like the rest of us have found a deeper and growing sense of belonging, self-esteem and purpose. And they, like us (these distinctions seem so empty of meaning now) have found new friends. We are all discovering a wider – yes theological – framework in which our being, our living and dying, our meaning and our place in this universe make a bit more sense. For some reading this, of course, that framework is inherently delusional and so cannot be a ‘good’ but I do beg to differ here. We are inhabiting, a little more deeply and in some subtle and unexpected ways, the idea that – to borrow the title of Rob Bell’s book – love wins. We’re aligning our lives as individuals, as families and as a whole community with the idea of that gentle victory, just a little more each week. I think in a tiny, tiny way, that’s making the world a little bit of a better place. That’ll do for me.