As we considered embarking on our great venture of creating the Sunday Sanctuary, there was one concern that was the most persistently expressed: ‘how are we going to be sustained in our faith?’
In response, I had relayed the experience of people who had been part of the Friday Fridge — a mission project I was involved in establishing four years ago. A number of people consistently report that they have grown in their faith through their involvement on Friday nights more than through any other part of their involvement in church. I encouraged people to expect that being part of the Sunday Sanctuary would give them a similar experience. That hasn’t so far been entirely borne out.
What I had perhaps forgotten or maybe even glossed over (as much with myself as anyone else) was that the people involved in the Fridge had not had to give up any other part of their church participation to get involved. They still got their ‘fix’ on a Sunday of those things — whether it was singing, prayer, teaching or whatever — that helped them feel… well whatever it did make them feel… encouraged? refreshed? sustained? renewed?
For my companions in this new enterprise, they have given up Sunday morning as a place to receive; to find an oasis of prayerful calm. Instead Sunday morning has become a time of sacrifice; of giving out for the sake of others.
I think the thing that may be particularly hard is that people are not bearing the weight of this effort equally. There is (inevitably?) a range of levels of commitment. What’s harder, perhaps, is that where people are on the range is not entirely related to capacity or to perceptions of capacity.
In trying to offer spiritual and pastoral care to this group, I am walking a very fine line between trying to give space to those who might well grow into this missionary endeavour while at the same time protecting others from burnout or frustration.
I had hoped that our Tuesday night gatherings would offer enough to sustain us in our communal spiritual life. It’s becoming more apparent that as I am currently structuring them, they are not entirely. The question is: can they ever? Or will Sunday mornings need to offer more to the explicitly Christian community in order to sustain us in our faith and participation in mission?
Which brings me to the group I feel the most protective of: those new people — residents of the tower block in which we are now located — who have been coming week after week to share in the activities we’ve been offering.
I don’t want to rush them into doing stuff they’re not ready for because that stuff is what the ‘core community’ need to be doing. In my thinking the needs of ‘outsiders’ always come first. Because it seems to me that’s who Jesus is interested in. And maybe the Church is meant to be, as I’ve heard Pete Rollins describe it, the community of outsiders.
I’m running the risk here of painting this little Christian community in a light that might make them appear selfish. I think that would be grossly unfair. I am not expected as an individual Christian priest to spend myself utterly for the sake of others. Quite the opposite, I am encouraged, nay required, to have a lively prayer life that encourages, sustains, refreshes and renews me in my ministry. That requires that my first priority is to set time aside essentially for myself and my own spiritual health. I need to have deep wells to draw on. Every individual human being needs the same. But that requirement of a Christian priest is not just for me as an individual but is meant to make present the priestly ministry of the whole people of God. Together we are to be formed, encouraged, sustained, refreshed and renewed in prayer for our common participation in mission.
And if I’m completely honest, I know that I’m also just a little bit driven by a perverse desire to be ‘radical’. I am probably a little too conscious of my own reputation as a pioneer of things funky and unchurchlike. Because maybe our new friends would not find it so odd or difficult if this began to look a bit more like something more easily recognised as ‘church’ through the most superficial of indicators.
I always allow myself a little scoff when I hear the stories of things calling themselves ‘fresh expressions of church’ that still involve singing or preaching or other such churchy bunk. Pah! I say! We’ll none of that. We are mission-shaped not worship-shaped. But maybe people wouldn’t find it so awful to sing the odd song or listen to the odd talky bit. [Shock, horror: we have done this a little already -- we’ve even had *gasp* the odd prayer or two.] We probably just need to ask the families who’ve joined us instead of trying to second guess them all the time.
So that’s my dilemma. That’s what’s keeping me from my sleep tonight (this morning now actually). But fortunately I don’t have to resolve it on my own. I have an excellent colleague to share it all with. And then there’s the community itself. It’s our issue together. We will engage in frank conversation about how we are finding it alongside some searching prayer. And try to find a way forward together for Tuesdays and Sundays that will keep ‘us’ alive. That might seem like we are putting the needs of those among whom we are working second — that’s an obvious and inescapable implication of how I am framing this — but it’s equally true that if this community collapses under the strain then we’ll have nothing at all to offer our new friends.
This is all beyond me, of course. But thank God there is prayer. Not that I think it will all be just dandy in a minute if I pray about it. But dandy or otherwise prayer offers the gift of peace — the peace that comes from knowing I don’t have to make it work at all costs. I can fail or I can succeed. And fail or succeed: all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.