There’s been little reading for pleasure lately. It’s only when I come to blog about my readings on life and leadership that I realise how bad that situation has become! Instead I have been reading for research, I have been reading for lectures on a Biblical Perspectives course I’m due to start teaching next month and I have been reading for the new preaching series. And whilst it’s not that any of those is bad, I do miss the creativity which comes from reading for pleasure – reading without any obligation to regurgitate it all on to a page for someone else to read or hear. Still my diary doesn’t suggest to me that it’s about to get any better for a while and I don’t want to lose the habit and skill of writing for a blog so I thought that perhaps I’d share something from my not-so-creative reading!
Today’s excerpt comes from Church Comes Home by Banks and Banks (according to Andrew Francis’ Hospitality and Community After Christendom which I reviewed here). It’s reading which I have been doing for the upcoming preaching series on ‘Food, Hospitality and Community’:
The challenge to the early Christians was to redeem a network of existing relationships; our challenge is generally to create community where little has existed before.
Though this excerpt is short, it captures for me a very real dynamic in building a community of disciples in 21st century London. If you are part of my church community, you will have heard the leadership team droning on ad infinitum about the centrality of community. You will have heard us tell you to call someone from the church community this week, to invite them over for dinner or dessert or coffee. You’ll have heard us challenge to you to get some of your Christian friends in the same place as some of your non-Christian friends with no more agenda than sharing life and joy together over food and conversation. You will have heard us encourage you to take the contact number of someone who is new to the community, to invite them over and introduce them to your friends. You’ll have heard us say that church is not just for Sundays, that building community doesn’t just happen but takes commitment from each one of us.
But still it happens that people come and tell the leaders that they don’t know where they fit in, that there is no one like them, that people don’t make an effort with them. One after another, people come to us with the same story. (So, as an aside, if you think I’m talking about a conversation that you have had with me recently, you can be assured that I’m not – we really do get these conversations regularly!) And our response is always the same: whom have you called this week? Whom have you invited over or to go out for a drink? What efforts have you made to join one of our ad hoc or more regular mid-week gatherings?
For a while, you know, I thought I was superwoman. (But then, if you have been reading this blog for long, this misapprehension of mine will not be news to you!) And my superwoman aspirations coupled with my commitment that no one in the church, especially the women, should feel lonely and unloved by this precious community led me to meet systematically one-to-one with as many women as I could each month.
Now on one level this totally worked. Women felt connected because I had cared. They shared their hearts because they felt heard in that moment.
But, for whatever reason, they didn’t always then reciprocate by extending the same care towards another woman in our gathering. And therein lay the rub. Because not only did some not extend the love to still others who were on the edges of the community but they also remained dependent upon relationship with a leader to feel connected into the life of our beautiful church. The result was that the dynamic of community was not always functioning as it was intended. We were not a network with multiple nodes, ever-expanding and mutually-encouraging through solid and committed relationships, but a system of loose connections centred on a handful of leaders and core believers.
In some ways this didn’t surprise me. After all, you have only to look at the culture to see how little 21st century London understands genuine community comprising covenant-type relationships. Indeed, I sometimes think that flash-mobs are a better metaphor for London experiences of community – we come and we go according to our own decisions to opt in and out, we gather with people we hardly know for a moment in time, a year in the same house, maybe five years in the neighbourhood before we move on, rarely a decade in the same workplace. And so we become casual, cavalier even, about relationship-building. We don’t expect to be part of a community where we are committed long-term to the other’s good; rather we are there for as long as it suits us, as long as we are getting something out of it.
It has led me to conclude that we really don’t have the network of relationships which the early Christians had, relationships which come from generations growing up and then living and working in the same place. In fact, largely, we don’t even have the experience of how to maintain committed relationships and everything in our culture seems to be leading us away from such an ideal towards a mentality which makes it ok to consume people rather than loving them. That makes building community hard and yet…
…(and at this, something in my heart quickens!)…
…perhaps it may be one of the most counter-cultural statements which today’s church in the UK could start to make.
The LifeGiving leadership is committed to this, even if we feel that we make a step backwards for every couple of lurches forwards. But what about you? Could you start to dream again – maybe for your church or perhaps, if you feel that you have not got the influence at that level, you could dare to believe for something as simple as a small gathering of believers who will covenant to share this Jesus-life together and to invite outsiders into that joy?