I will try to fix you

5 12 2011

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?

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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.





Nowhere to run to?

15 07 2009

418898_hiding_-_2Is there any place that’s just for ‘us’? That’s the issue I’m grappling with just now.

I’ve been asking the little congregation I’m with to effectively give up our Sunday gathering. Not to stop coming. I’m asking if we can do something else with the time together. I’m asking them to give it over to mission. Some are really up for it. Others are struggling to let go of something that has sustained them spiritually and that they have worked hard to sustain through some difficult times. I understand that.

But I think this is a push worth making for the sake of mission.

But maybe it was a step too far to ask those who were there at our Tuesday night gathering if they would be willing to give up those Tuesdays as we do them now in order to be part of something new in the week too. I had thought they’d be up for it. They really weren’t. And actually, though I was a little taken aback and disappointed then, I can empathise. Because this isn’t about hanging on to a worship style that suits. It’s been about building relationships and conversation that can really be safe space.

A number of us are, in one way or another, refugees from more conservative churches. A common thread that emerges in conversation is how often people didn’t feel able to be truly themselves. We have felt under pressure to say or do the expected thing. Where we have said what we really think, we have been made to feel, by well-meaning people, that it is not acceptable to either hold or express a particular viewpoint. We have managed to create in our Tuesday night gathering a place where people can be themselves; where they can be real and genuine without being slapped down with a quote from the Bible. That’s not to say there’s no Bible in our gathering. There is. It’s a partner in our dialogue. We find it embraces, encourages, challenges and frustrates us in equal measure. We don’t spend our time necessarily looking at a particular text, asking setup questions and then finding the answer where we’ve been told to look. Instead, we can draw on those parts of the Bible that have seeped deep into our souls and shaped us, as well as confronting and grappling with those parts that we find it harder to reconcile with our experience of life or our knowledge of the world. Our conversation is honest, compassionate and enlightening. We all grow and are fed through it. We’ve got something precious — space to be ourselves and to grow in faith and discipleship in a grown up and honest way.

The issue with conservatism is not conservative theology per se, but how some of us have experienced it. There would be plenty of space for a conservative viewpoint in our conversation as long as that viewpoint was expressed in a compassionate way that valued the relationships in the group above the ‘right’ view prevailing.

There’s not really a fear of engaging with people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘christian’. In the experience of most of the members of the group, conversations about faith are often more real in this setting than in the churches we’ve known. The fear that was expressed was because my invitation was to be part of something else with some other christians we don’t yet know so well. People understandably were reluctant to risk a return to unreality or disapproval. And, given the relaxed, conversational feel of our gathering, they were reluctant to have to do something that felt very much more structured or formal or to have to do heavy Bible study as they’d experienced it in the past. There is also a feeling that if the intimacy of our small group is lost, we would find it hard to have the same quality or depth of conversation as we currently enjoy.

So I think all that is good. It’s encouraging to me that people value so much where we’ve got to as a group. What I find harder to reconcile is the potential exclusivity that might foster. We invite new people on our terms.

But actually is that so bad?
What are our terms?

  • Be real.
  • Don’t judge others.
  • Be compassionate in conversation.

These are not things, having achieved them to quite a degree, that we should recklessly give up. At the moment, this is a gathering that includes some people who don’t call themselves ‘christian’ or who are less certain about what that might mean for them. This offers a safe place for them to explore without any pressure. There is a growing sense of commitment, one to another. The challenge is how we can continue to reach out and be inclusive, perhaps to some who would find the views expressed at times difficult.

It has been helpful to me to consider the gospel for this coming Sunday as I’ve prepared to share my reflections on it on Sunday morning. In that episode, the apostles Jesus has sent out on mission come back excited but tired and hungry. Jesus invites them to come away with him – to find some space just to be with him. It doesn’t quite go to plan: they don’t even find the space to satisfy their hunger. But these twelve hungry men are the ones who serve bread and fish to the enormous crowd that gathers. And at the end, there are twelve baskets full of scraps left over. This suggests three things to me.

  1. Jesus does invite those who have responded most fully to his call to spend time alone with him. But…
  2. That time is snatched along the way – they get a bit of time in the boat with him before they’re right back in it. And…
  3. Their needs are met when they are stuck into mission; when they’re feeding the crowd, they get fed.

What does all that mean for us – this little group of pilgrims on the way? It suggests to me that I’m right to ask this bunch to give up Sunday for the sake of mission. And it suggests that they were right to refuse to give up Tuesday so that they preserve their special, intimate time away from the crowd: a place to share our stories and be with the one who calls and sends us.