Uniting Church in Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I used to write book reviews for New Times, the Uniting Church in Australia’s South Australia Synod monthly newspaper and one of the books I reviewed was Honourably Wounded, a description of the stresses faced by Christian workers in overseas mission. When the book arrived I wondered what its significance might have been for me. After all, I am an Australian living in Australia, and even though I had recently returned to Australia after six years in the United Kingdom, and was still thinking in English-English rather than Australian-English, the culture shock of coming to regional South Australia from the Home Counties was hardly significant. As I read, I was reminded that all mission, by its very nature, is cross-cultural. According to John Burke in No Perfect People Allowed our culture is what shapes how we view life, and how we view each other. As members of a particular culture, we speak a different language and view the world from a different vantage point to people from other cultures. For some people, going to Church is a cross-cultural experience as real as any overseas visit. The question we will be addressing over the next few weeks is, is it the responsibility of non-Christians to learn Christian culture in order to “fit in” at church, or is it up to us as the people of God to try to understand the people outside our doors so that we can invite them in and effectively communicate the gospel to them? People who have never been to church can have strange ideas of what Christian worship is like based on what they have heard from others, or what they think they know extended from their own limited experiences. It is the same with overseas visitors: I once thought England to be Australia with better manners, and I know that many English agree with Bill Bryson who once described his preconception of Australia as “Baywatch with cricket”. Is Australia like Neighbours or Home and Away where everyone is white skinned and owns a swimming pool, or lives near a surf beach? What do people think Church is like?
What is Church like?
The American college basketball coach John Wooden is quoted as asking, “we are many, but are we much?” Christian worship events are the largest attended gathering in Australia on any given weekend, but is the Church influential along with its numbers? I have been very involved in local footy since 2010, first in Port Lincoln and now in Whyalla and as an umpire I know how Australian Rules works. I have been playing and watching footy since I was small, going with my dad and my little brother to watch the Glen Waverley Panthers play in VFA matches after we had been to the clinic at our primary school. We didn’t have the age group teams that exist on the Eyre Peninsula, but we had drills every Saturday morning and about once a year our school would represent South Melbourne in the VFL “Little League”. My brother, my dad, and I would also attend the annual Geelong versus Richmond game at the MCG or VFL Park, Kardinia Park was too far away. I saw Geelong play Adelaide at Football Park in 2008 and 2012, and my sister andI saw Geelong play Port Adelaide at The Oval in London in 2006. I know footy, but how confident can I be that non-attenders know what it is that takes place at Bennett Oval on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon? In the same way, how confident can I be that people who have never been inside our building know what our congregation does? Are the events of my church as comprehensible as those of my local ground? The two weekly events either side of the highway beg the question: in Australia, the Christians are many, but are they much.
So, how do we as Church get to be as influential as Aussie Rules in our city, let alone in our nation? I believe there are two keys, both found in the sheds of local football: we must help people to develop trust in us, and we must help people to belong to us in the ways they want to belong. Of course people need to trust in God, ultimately, because men and women will always let you down; and the Church can let you down more than anything because we have a higher expectation of it. The Australian church leader and evangelist Dan Armstrong describes Christians as The Fifth Gospel to some people because people seeking God will never come to know God enough to trust God until they have first spent quality time with individuals and groups from the local church. It might be true that until they pray “the sinners’ prayer” all stand in a position of alienation from God, but “the prayer” is not the goal. The goal is the lifelong process of transformation into the likeness of Christ, of learning to trust and rely on God, and coming into an ever-deeper relationship with Him. In Hebrews 11:6 we are reminded that without trust it is impossible to please God, therefore we need to model and encourage trust in God by being trustworthy ourselves with those whom God has given us.
It has been said of this generation that it needs to belong before it believes. Remember “this generation” is not just “the young people”; “this generation” is everyone who lives in the twenty-first century. Baby Boomers do not think quite like people born in the 1980s, in fact Boomers seem to think that people born in the 1980s do not think at all, but across all of the age groups there has been a shift in how people negotiate new friendships and new belongings.
All people want to fit and belong, that is why they join clubs or pick a footy team. When they enter a new situation they are looking to discover, what the rules are so that they know how to conduct themselves. When we were at Football Park in 2008, I told my dad about how different the AFL is from the EPL. Football crowds in England do not mix as they do in Australia, in fact, the stadium for the soccer team I support has a separate entrance for visiting fans and they are restricted to one particular road between the railway station and the stadium. Pubs are segregated, or at the very least, you are not allowed to wear “team colours” inside. When Dad and I went to Football Park not only were we surrounded by both Cat and Crow fans at the ground, we travelled between West Lakes and the city on the same free buses. The rules are different because the culture and what it means to belong are different. I love Geelong Cats, but I wouldn’t take a broken bottle to the face to defend our honour. In a similar way my brother who defected to support Richmond in 1978 has not been shunned or assaulted by his brother, sister, and father who remained loyal to the One True Faith. Teased yes, rejected no.
Our job as the ones who already belong is to uphold the culture set by our leaders that welcomes new people and allows for vulnerability. Vulnerability requires a sense of security, which as Christians we believe can come only from God. The Holy Spirit and our local ethos guide how much we feel comfortable sharing
with each other within the Church, and show us how to be vulnerable and honest without showing insecurity or sinking into spiritual voyeurism. Church is for hurting people. To be sensitive to seekers is to be sensitive to hurt as well as “relevant” to sub-culture. The smoke machines and doof-doof of a youth service or a Pentecostal church, alongside the golden old hymns and the mediaeval torture devices we call pews, are useless in themselves of meeting the deeper needs of people. Do I trust these people beside me? These expressions of worship may make people feel comfortable in our environment, but can they make them feel safe in our company? What makes people feel safe is an attitude of care, the absence of condemnation, and the unspoken willingness to listen and pray with someone who needs reassurance. John Burke reminds us that seeker-friendly small groups must be founded on a culture of dialogue. People must be free to come and talk without the fear of others launching into the chaotic situation of trying to “help”. This is a situation that usually drives people away. I don’t know about you but that’s certainly turned me away on many occasions. The Church is a place for people who are incomplete, so if we say no perfect people allowed it implies that everyone in the group is moving toward completion, (wholeness, perfection), as no-one has reached it yet. In James 5:16a we read that believers should confess their sins to one another and to pray for one another so that they might be healed. This is about having a model of authenticity, not a priestly sacrament: there is no penance involved, only unity.
It’s nice when we don’t have to pretend: authenticity and the permission to be authentic is liberating and it’s only the Church that can offer this. Authenticity breaks down the trust barriers that are preventing this generation from pursuing faith. Such a culture, where people are free to be themselves, is the soil where God produces growth. However, authenticity must not be left alone; it must be accompanied by acceptance because that is where the grace is. It is not enough to encourage people to open their wounds and their hurts to small-group scrutiny if there is no complimentary abundance of grace. This “one-but-not-the-other” has caused much hurt and disappointment across the Church in recent years. Even “well established” individuals within the Church, and I can put my hand up to that, will only feel free to share their story with you if they know you will still love them in ten minutes time. Why should unbelievers, let alone unbelongers, behave any differently?
We must remember that we are “chosen by God”, but our choosing is selection for responsibility, not election for merit. This was the mistake of the Jewish nation, and particularly of the Pharisees, who were actually the good guys of Jesus’ time. They let religion get in the way of compassion, but they were faithful to God as revealed in the Old Testament, just a bit slow to accept the new revelation. Therefore, to prevent us going down the same road, let’s review what an authentic spiritual life looks like and what it is we are hoping visitors will find at our church. Life in Christ means:
- Experiencing a life of growing connection with God.
- Growing in love for God and all people.
- Believing more and more that God is what I am desperately searching for.
- Believing God is the source of the kind of life I really want.
- Living a life others would want to live. Christianity is all about showing people the life they can also live with Christ. This is my life; you can have this life too.
- Finding the experience of life in Christ so fulfilling that I cannot contain it; I have to give it away.
Is this what visitors find here? Is this what regulars find here? Is this the experience of the people of our city to whom the pastors go during the week? Do we serve beyond the food vouchers for the poor or prayer and company for the lonely and sick?
Burke describes what he calls “sticky statements” which are statements used by leaders that colour what everyone in the group sees. A sticky statement sticks with you, and reinforces your thinking in a group way, not by brainwashing but by a clear declaration of a common goal or value. These statements come though stories and dialogue of issues in an authentic culture. Authenticity should be the stickiest statement. The message of our congregation is the message of grace: that human value and worth come from who you are in Christ, not what you do as a Christian. We also believe that Christianity is not about enduring hell on Earth to be rewarded in Heaven, but to live with an Eternal mindset while still serving the world’s needs. If we live like that, we should find that we are trustworthy and patient with those people coming to us with the questions we ourselves had before we met Jesus.
Authenticity, and encouraging trust in ourselves, has one key expression in this generation. As a Gen-X’er I want to ask, “What does it look like?”, and as a Gen-X‘er the answer is “it looks like space.” Not space as in stars and blackness, but space in the sense of room. People find connection within communities at their own level, so our task as the local church is to invite the stranger in and make him or her welcome. We do not invite strangers in for intimacy; we invite them in so they will no longer be strangers: we give them space and they find belonging.
In his book The Search to Belong, the Christian writer Joseph R. Myers lists four circles of belonging: Public, Social, Personal, and Intimate. One of the questions he asks of the churches where he acts as a mission consultant is how many public belongers connect with the individual people and with the congregation. What would happen, he asks, if the experience of belonging publically would be counted as significant as those who belong personally? How can people who belong to a local church at the public level show their commitment? The question is how we define belonging. Can people belong to our congregation in the same way that I belong to Geelong Cats Football Club, or is church supposed to be closer than that? We will be returning to these sorts of questions in the coming weeks, so don’t worry if this seems a bit new now; the point we want to consider when talking about shared trust is that people belong to us at different levels and we need to find ways of working within that.
One of the men Myers worked with made the comment “I do not really have many friends, I have people who are comfortable around me, but I am not comfortable around them.” This man was one of the most popular guys in the church, and was in fact a friend of Myers, yet he felt isolated even in the middle of the crowd, even as the centre of attention. He went on to say “some people I belong to socially are in my personal space.” I wonder if you know what that feels like. It’s actually quite common for manse families, especially the lay people who live with the Rev. I don’t think I’m telling you anything new in saying that lots more people know me than I know, and these people know more about me (or think they do) than I know about them.
However, as a local congregation it is not true to say that those who belong publically are on the fringe, and need to be encouraged to move in to a personal (or intimate) belongingness. As mature Christians we must validate the belongingness of people because if we did we would find countless people prepared to engage within their space and who would actively commit to it us at their level. These are people who have been marginalised or excluded in the past, but who now feel comfortable to belong six feet away rather than being forced to stand two feet away and then feeling uncomfortable enough to leave. True community can be experienced in public space; public space is not togetherness but is connectedness. At the same time those of you who are married will understand that intimacy between couples goes beyond the physical level: to belong to your spouse intimately is to share information, which can only be shared with someone who won’t think you are weird or crazy. We must remember that when we try to involve new members of the Church in the activities and fellowship groups of this congregation. If I am new then you can be sure that I am not ready to share my deepest psychoses with you, or to have you share yours with me.
We are not in control of who belongs to us. We are also not in control of who belongs to God. Who has belonging to the Kingdom is God’s decision: and Jesus warns his followers on several occasions not to make kingdom decisions. In Matthew 25 both the sheep and the goats ask Jesus the same “when, Lord, did we see you…” question. Neither group knows who belongs to the kingdom and who doesn’t. In a similar way even when he was in “the Far Country” the prodigal knew he could come back: he knew he could enjoy the family connection even if only as a house-servant. The older son never knew that, yet both sons belonged to the father. The lesson is that the prodigal son knew the prodigious father, so we need to be ready to welcome and accept all who come to God through us on the terms by which they came. The Father will only trust us with the sacred lost if we can be trusted to act towards them as the Father acts toward us: with unconditional acceptance and the endless patience and favour of grace. If we can be this to them, then we will have earned their trust and the privilege of speaking God’s wisdom into their situation.