John Updike, ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’

I am endlessly moved by this poem.

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules

reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

 

It was not as the flowers,

each soft Spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled

eyes of the eleven apostles;

it was as His flesh: ours.

 

The same hinged thumbs and toes,

the same valved heart

that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then

regathered out of enduring Might

new strength to enclose.

 

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the

faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

 

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,

not a stone in a story,

but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow

grinding of time will eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

 

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,

make it a real angel,

weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,

opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen

spun on a definite loom.

 

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are

embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

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Big city church (4): The deadly passion for small church

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We’re now going to turn to the reason why the longing for small church, for the sake of intimacy, is a terrible and destructive ideal.

Firstly, it doesn’t understand the nature of church.

The church is not a community seeking to create intimacy; it is a community intimately united to Christ, and only then to one another.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“[Jesus] stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality… The call of Jesus teaches us that our relation to the world has been built on an illusion. Al the time we thought we had enjoyed a direct relation with men and things. This is what had hindered us from faith and obedience. Now we learn that in the most intimate relationships of life, in our kinship with father and mother, brothers and sisters, in married love, and in our duty to the community, direct relationships are impossible.”

What this means is that a healthy church is one that understands that what matters most is not whether we feel united to one another (what Bonhoeffer described as the ‘romantic feeling’) but whether we realise that we are united to Christ, and hence to one another. Our relationships don’t need to be experienced to be real  – they are concrete already, because between you and I stands Christ, and we are united to one another in him (a mediated rather than an immediate relation).

The implication of all this is that if you find yourself worshipping in church next to a bunch of people whom you do not know, you ought to rejoice. For in that moment the gospel is most clearly expressed: that we are bound to one another not because of friendship, class, hobbies, but in Christ. We are already related in a way far deeper than any friendship we might construct, a relationship which does not need to be forged but discovered and expressed.

Secondly, it doesn’t understand the nature of, well, us.

In the 1960s, a sociologist named Edward T. Hall observed that we (that is human beings – people) express ourselves relationally in 4 different ways according to context. In the intimate space, we share our lives with another in undying friendship or in the intimacy of marriage. In the personal space, we build tight and open communities of 3-5. In the social space (ideally around 20) we discover new interests and meet new people. In the public space, we orient not around one another but a third party, a coordinating thing.

One of the key insights of this model is that our experience of belonging is mediated differently in each space and, particularly, does not require the same kind of intimacy to function. When I’m waving my flag at a rugby match (public space) I don’t feel the need to know what’s going on in the head and heart of the person standing next to me to feel I ‘belong’; the same occasion would feel immeasurably more awkward and alienating if there were only two of us (intimate space).

Leonard Myers has applied Hall’s observations to the life of the church in his book The Search to Belong. Crucially, Myers points out that there are different relational expectations of small groups as opposed to Sunday church and, if taught correctly, different ways to experience belonging.

As an aside, Myers’ arguments raise some confronting questions about the size and capabilities of our church small groups. These groups, in most churches, tend to be around 10-12 people. At that size, it is too large to function as one of Hall’s personal spaces (where genuine sharing and engagement takes place) and to small to be a social space (where new connections are made). Perhaps this explains why our groups struggle to be places of any more than superficial sharing while at the same time being almost impossible ‘front doors’ into the church for newcomers. For this reason, the EU at Sydney Uni has been experimenting with ‘small groups’ of up to 25. At Barneys, we’ve launched a midweek small group cluster for new workers called ‘Central’ to attempt to explore the ‘social dimension’.

Whatever your strategy, according to Myers, you need intimate, personal, social and public spaces, and you mustn’t treat them the same.

And the most crucial insight for me: the church service is not social space. It is public space.

Church – I’ll use this as a shorthand and hope you’ll trust that I believe church is about much more than Sunday – church is the space in which we gather shoulder to shoulder in praise of our great and mighty God, and exhort and inspire one another to new living in that praise. It is the space where we gather, not around one another, but around the Lord Jesus Christ and his Word.

And the beauty of this is that Sunday church is almost endlessly extensible without losing the thing that makes it church.

We see this worked out in Acts:

Acts 2:42   They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching  and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread  and to prayer.  43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.  45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread  in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number  daily those who were being saved.

The people gathered house to house in a deep expression of fellowship. In this I suspect that we would want ensure careful caveats on Bonhoeffer’s teaching. But they also met in the temple courts, courts which could hold thousands at a time. And we know that thousands came, including three thousand men in one day (implying a larger number of women and children).

How could they cope with that? What would it have done to the sense of intimacy? Surely there would be no sense of belonging!

Or would there?

You see, adding thousands is only a problem if we think of church as social space, the space in which I make and find friendships, the space in which I am united with the others in that space by our intimacy and knowledge of one another.  It’s when we project the demands of social space onto Sunday church that we kill church. We demand that it must not grow (or must not grow by much).  We move to churches with smaller services and burden them with our demands that the church service be my social space.

But this leaves us with a few questions.

What causes this misplaced projection? And where do I find intimacy, the place where I belong?

But that is another post.

Big city church (3): Intimate church isn’t us

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If you’re Christian, or exploring Christianity, and you’re about to move to the inner city, you should know about a bunch of great new church plants. White Horse Church, in Pyrmont.  Resolved Church, Newtown. Vine Church, Surry Hills. And, of course, the great transformational work happening at York St and St Stephens, Newtown.

(As an aside: if you’re not moving into our area, or if your networks don’t intersect in the city, don’t move to one of these churches and don’t move to Barneys. We don’t need more immature Christians signing up for the latest thing.)

What connects many of these church plants is their tight focus. Young, inner city hipsters, arty professionals and musos (along with the engineers, financiers and lawyers who love to be part of a cultural crowd). This is gold. Globally, these are the least likely modern Westerners to count Jesus as their King and church as their community. They need the gospel, and I take my hat off to the laser-like focus of the godly guys leading these ministries.

At the moment these churches are on the smaller side, but from what I’ve heard, they are rapidly growing. This is good news for the kingdom. Only 15 years ago you could drive over the Harbour Bridge and not hit a decent sized ministry for young adults until you crashed through the east wall of St James Croydon. Now the inner city is littered with churches that are, in my mind at least, awesome. Before they swell to Barneys’ size and beyond, though, many people have commented on the intimacy of their vibe, and the ease of belonging on a Sunday night.

These are great things.  But they aren’t us.

Our congregations are big (well, not big in a world that includes Hillsong and Willow Creek, but big for a Reformed, evangelical Anglican church south of the equator. Which is a little like saying big for a dachshund): the morning is around 250, the evening up towards 300 and our little afternoon Mandarin/English service is popping up above 50 (and I hope it will see 200 by the end of next year).  I’m praying we hit 700 on Sunday before the end of the year, and that almost all the difference will come from people who weren’t at church before.

Our congregations are deep: although the average age of Barneys is slipping beneath the 27 mark even as we grow, we are parents, kids, professionals, tradies, Anglos, Asians, South Americans, Iranians, postgrads, undergrads, doctors and drummers.  Late last year I ran an orientation for 26 new members who came from Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Iran, India, Italy and Camden. What this means is that we don’t have a ‘sweet spot’ for our services. I think about 30% of what we do at church will never float my boat, but it will float someone (and they’re probably a much more interesting person than me).

This combination of ‘(middling) big’ and ‘diverse’ can have an unintended side effect, though. Every now and again, someone says: ‘I don’t feel connected/I don’t belong/Church doesn’t need me/I’m going to move somewhere intimate.’

And, sooner or later, the question is asked: why don’t we just plant a smaller congregation?

My answer is: not in the foreseeable future. We have no plan to do small services. No plan to pursue intimacy on Sundays. No plan to create cosy around a sermon.

And there’s a reason for that. I think it’s a good one – even an important one. But you’ll have to wait for my next post.

Big city church (2): Sydney, my city

ImageYesterday I wrote about what Sydney isn’t. It’s time I said something about what Sydney is. Or, at least, my part of Sydney, the inner, urban world.

In my part of Sydney, locals are twice as likely to be university educated as the average Australian. But they are 15% more likely to be unemployed and and 15% more likely to live alone.  They are four times as likely to be renters, three times as likely to have moved in the last 5 years, 3 times as likely to be born in a non-English speaking country and 3 times as likely to have no Christian affiliation.Next door to our church, 60% tick ‘no religion’ in the census.

Because the city is where services are concentrated, it is where broken people come. Sure, there are plenty of hip young things just glistening with possibility for whom the city is a playground.  Equally, though, there is a hidden but substantial minority, whose mental illness disconnects them from others and whose inner isolation is compounded by social alienation.

The city is where the newly-divorced flee. The daily rhythms of suburbia remind them of all the things they have lost and, besides, they no longer need the quarter acre block with swimming pool. Like Bezer, Ramoth and Golan (Deut 4), cities give a fresh start in safe anonymity.

If, on the other hand, a family lives in the city (and not in public housing), then they are rich. Busy, harassed, longing for space but too proud to embrace the cultureless suburban masses they’ve scorned. Their kids are probably in early primary school, reflecting the baby boom of 8 years ago that saw local birthrates triple the city-wide average.

In short? The city is a place of usually young, often lonely, sometimes broken but occasionally highly successful students, young workers and disconnected families. It is the place of those who rule, those who rue and those who seek refuge.

At Barneys they find for the first time a new family and a new home.

Big city church: Sydney is Sydney

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Over the next week or so, I’ll be posting some reflections on what it is to be church in the city of Sydney. Day 1: Sydney is Sydney.

Sydney isn’t New York. The closest we come to the high-density urban burroughs of Manhattan and Queens is Surry Hills, which is predominantly middle-rise. The CBD is a place Sydneysiders go to work but avoid on the weekend. Our most desirable suburbs are in the city fringe, not the city centre, and this means lower-density populations.

Sydney isn’t London. Our urban locations are fragmented and isolated; London is everywhere linked by the omnipresent Tube. In Sydney, all roads lead to the CBD (or, at least, to Central). Broadway and Pyrmont, the two centres of our parish, have no direct public transport connection. As a result, even in the city, we expect to drive and park.

Sydney isn’t Seattle. We are twice the size, and 5 times the cost. Once, when I was considering doing a PhD in Chicago, I spoke to a local real estate agent about the cost of living in the US. She told me sadly that if I wanted to buy a new three-bedroom terrace I could expect to pay up to $185,000. ROFL. There are no cheap factories waiting to be converted into mega-churches in the inner city of Sydney.

What this means is that whatever may work at Redeemer Presbyterian, St Helen’s Bishopsgate or Mars Hill Church, may not be immediately transferable to Sydney.

And one last note: we are irreligious. Deeply, abidingly, in-our-boots irreligious. When asked, 44% of Americans claim they went to church in the last week, and more skeptical studies indicate that perhaps 22% of them actually did. Our figures are more like 7% and 3.5%, depending on who you ask.

Sydney is Sydney, and nowhere else.