Why my wife is not the most amazing wife in the world

My wife is not the most amazing wife in the world.

Some of you – especially those who actually know my wife, Fiona – will be appalled at what I have written. You will note that when I first came on staff at my church, members of the congregation found it hard to believe we were married. I was ‘punching above my weight limit’, or so I was told. She was ‘out of my league.’ (These observations, of course, are absolutely correct.) Then, when I was asked to be the senior pastor, some members of the church sighed in resignation and said, ‘Well, at least we get to keep Fiona.’

My wife is an extraordinary woman. She is patient, kind, clever, godly and wise. Fiona loves reading the bible with mums who are new to (or new back to) faith. Since she started homeschooling our daughters (she is a great mum), she has had to schedule in bible reading with mums at 6am. I am in awe. Besides, I can’t imagine anyone but Fiona teaching me to love brussel sprouts.

But my wife is not the most amazing wife in the world. This is because the idea of the ‘most amazing wife’ is a category error. A non sequitur.

My problem is not with the word ‘amazing’. I trust that the world is filled with amazing wives, and amazing husbands, too. Rather, I object to the qualifier, ‘most’. ‘Most’ brings into play the language of comparison. ‘Most’ is a superlative. It implies that the value of what is being qualified is only found in comparison to other, lesser objects.

In other words, to say ‘my wife is the most amazing wife in the world’ is to say that her value lies in comparison to others. My joy in her qualities is not inherent and absolute, but rather in light of the lesser qualities of others.

And while this may be said of chocolate, or barrel waves, it ought not to be said of wives. Or husbands, churches or God, for that matter. My wife is not one of a set of ‘my wives’. She is uniquely my wife, and the value that I ought to set upon her arises from the fact of her being uniquely my wife, not how other wives are being wives to their husbands. Precisely because she is uniquely my wife – I have no other wives, and she is wife to no other – there is not possible or desirable basis of comparison.

You may complain that I am being pernickety. That the sentiment of the phrase is clear, and this entire blog mere soulless pedantry.

But I would say: don’t be silly. Words matter. Words really matter.

When our standard of preciousness is based on comparison, our language – and hence our very thoughts – have become a hostage to our culture of relativity. We live in a world where Facebook constantly corrodes the innocent delight we ought to have in our experiences by presenting to us the other, ‘better’ experiences our ‘friends’ are having at the moment. Our capacity to take simple pleasure in the moment, a child’s touch, a stray beam of sunlight, a task completed, has been eroded by the need to compare it. Does it stack up? Is it as good as what others are doing? This is the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO), which is the ground of the hunger for perfect and authentic experience lying behind ‘you only live once’ (YOLO). They are both pathologies.

This isn’t mere speculation. Repeated studies have confirmed that we are a culture of hedonism but very little joy. We are manifestly more disenfranchised by every minute spent on social media.

When I speak of the very goodness of my bride, I do not want my language to drive my mind astray. I do not want to be lost in thoughts of how she compares; I want to be lost in her.

This is true, by the way, of church. My church is not the ‘best’ church. It is simply ‘my church’, and anyone who knows the gospel will also know that there is nothing more wonderful or profound that can be said than this.

One final note. I think that, most of all, our dependence on comparison means we are in danger of losing our sense of the absolute.

You see, God is not the subject of comparison. He is not the ‘best’ God. He is not even the ‘only’ God, as if there were a set of all Gods which happens to be empty except for him. He is uniquely the ground of what we mean when we use the word God. He is not the kindest – he is kindness itself. He is not the most beautiful. All beauty is but a pale reflection of Him.

If my language of value depends on comparison, how am I ever to apprehend anything of the absolute wonder of God?

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PART 1: The conversation that church plants and established churches need to have

There is a conversation that church plants and established churches need to have.

It isn’t happening. And this is a problem.

Over three posts, I’m going to unpack some uncomfortable truths about the relationship between old and new churches, about effective resourcing of mission and about the dark side of the minister’s heart.

Another conversation

Many Christians have had a conversation with their pastor, and it goes like this.

It starts when the Christian informs their pastor that they are thinking of changing churches. There are all sorts of reasons church members may change churches. The apostle Paul travelled to Jerusalem to evangelise the Jews, to Tarsus for safety, to Antioch to help out Barnabas and to the world to proclaim Christ. For many of us, the causes are more prosaic.

At my church, St Barnabas Broadway, most people move away from the church because of either career or housing costs. We send people all over the world in order that they may become leaders in their field. And we send people all over Sydney because real estate in the inner city is apparently made out of solid gold.

And so the conversation happens. The minister impresses upon his brother or sister how there is a profound implied covenant within the life of the church. He earnestly argues that we need excellent – no, unimpeachable – reasons if we are to change churches. He sternly invokes words like faithfulness, partnership and perseverance.

There is much truth in all this. If you want hear the confronting way the Bible speaks to our decisions about church, check out my recent sermon video, ‘Why you should leave your church.’

However, I want to show you that there are other genuine issues, about which we have complicated and mixed feelings, that come into play here. Many of these issues don’t feel like they should make a difference. When we talk about them, it doesn’t really sound anything like the vital and organic missional community life that we would like to think of in connection with our church and the gospel of grace.

But they are real issues, and here is where we begin – with two kinds of cost.

Two kinds of cost

Churches have costs.

1. Fixed relative to the individual but variable relative to the overall church

The classic example of this kind of cost is staff.

Different staffing models produce different staff-to-church-member ratios. However, within a particular model, as a church grows or shrinks, two things are true.

Firstly, the staff-to-church-member cost tends to remain static. The church may employ one staff member for the first 100 people. When they grow to 200, they employ a second member of staff. It is true that these are ‘stepped’ increases, but the steps can be made more linear and gradual by employing part-time staff. The staff costs per church member remain more-or-less static, while the staff costs in relation to the overall church (or ‘in total’) are highly variable.

Secondly, the great advantage of this kind of cost is flexibility. At various stages in its life cycle, the church can adjust to ensure that the cost-per-member remains constant.

2. Fixed relative to the overall church but variable relative to the individual

The major form of this other kind of cost is church facilities.

No matter how many people turn up to church, the same number of lights need to be turned on. The bank doesn’t change its interest rate if you drop below 500 members. The roof doesn’t last longer if it shelters a smaller congregation.

These costs are fixed in relation to the overall church (yes, there may be additional wear-and-tear, but that’s usually a marginal issue). If your maintenance budget is $50,000 p.a., then it will still be $50,000 when your congregation doubles and $50,000 when it spirals into terminal decline.

However, these costs are variable relative to the individual church member. If a church with a $50,000 p.a. maintenance budget has 500 financial partners (giving members), they will each need to cover $100 p.a., or about $2 per week. If your church declines to 50 members, then they will each need to cover $20 per week. That’s pretty much the total average weekly giving per person in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

Not every example of this kind of costs is as impersonal as a building, either. The needs of the unemployed single mother in the congregation, or of the local public school, or of the elderly shut-in around the corner, don’t change as your budget changes.

[As a side note: this is why churches that cannot use their resources effectively to see kingdom growth are a self-indulgent and wasteful exercise. This is true of the congregation of 16 saints who refuse to allow a church plant to have the run of their space for fear that things might be changed around. It is equally true of the church plant that rents its own funky space, produces its own website and collateral, and yet fails to result in conversion growth that wouldn’t have happened anyway. We need to be shrewd with our funds, and not waste mission resources for the experience of a few. Far better for staid Builders and funky Hipsters to groan together in a thoroughly middle-of-the-road church service, and give the extra funds to the poor or the local missionary society.]

Costs are nothing new

 

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this problem has only arisen from the institutionalisation (and calcification) of the church. From the beginning, churches depended on financial commitments. When the early church met in the temple courts, someone had to pay for a place to gather (in those days, of course, it was through the temple tax). Someone had to supply the needs of those on the widows’ list.

 

NEXT WEEK: Sunk costs and church plants

Why I love the parish church

You might think, from the state of the current conversation around mission and church planting, that parish churches have had their day. That they are a quaint, nostalgic and ineffective legacy of comfy Christendom. But parish churches have never been more important.

It is true that a great deal of evangelism naturally proceeds along lines that largely ignore residential locality. In a highly mobile (geographically, economically and socially) culture, relationships often cluster around workplaces rather than neighbourhoods. Friendships are made more elastic – and, frankly, more vulnerable – by our reliance on the connections provided by cars. And, as Mark Driscoll has observed, the place where people play is sometimes the best place to invite them to worship.

However, it is also true that churches tend to target the ‘soft underbelly’ of society, rather than its hardened carapace. And this means that some tribes are vastly better served than others. Witness the recent rush of church planting aimed at young professionals in the inner  city. The density of this activity (it is too uncoordinated and uncooperative to describe as a movement at this stage) has led to something of an arms race of media, music, personality and venue to secure a slice of the pie of young Christians looking to escape the ‘burbs.

Interestingly, it isn’t young professionals in the inner city who are most underrepresented in evangelical churches. That title belongs to groups like mainland Chinese, ex-cons, the mentally-ill, long-term migrants isolated by language, Muslims, baby boomers, and communities from South America and the Mediterranean.

This is where the parish model comes in. The parish model insists – demands – that the local church take seriously the call of Christ to reach the hardest and most resistant corners of our multicultural world. It says: you may not follow the easy seams of your culture, like a river working its way to the sea. You must travel uphill. You must batter against granites. You must bridge cultural gorges, becoming all things to all people, rather than becoming just what you really wanted to be, anyway.

The parish model says: yes, there is no mission more economic than the mission to young professionals. Everyone of them has a salary, and nothing to spend it on except themselves and their church. But we are also called to love and evangelise the most uneconomic groups in our world.

And this, of course, demands a different kind of culture. One of sacrifice, where church can’t be ‘the way I like it’, since I am in the midst of diversity. The parish model creates middle-of-the-road churches. Churches where no one loves everything they do. Churches where they sing songs so old that they need an organ, or so new they contain 4 separate melodies. Churches where kids scream during the really, really deep part of the sermon.

Simply brilliant. I love the parish church.

 

The impossibility of excluding religious belief from the political sphere

KEVIN RUDD ON Q&A

On Monday night, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd fronted the ABC’s Q&A panel TV show. By now, it would be hard to find a person interested in the intersection between religion and politics who is unaware of his comments. A Baptist pastor, Matt Prater, said:

From what I’m hearing, most Christians I connect with are voting against you, because they are disillusioned and because you appear to be chopping and changing your beliefs to get votes, with regards to things like marriage. Why should we vote for you?

And Mr Rudd responded with two points – one which I’m often surprised to find controversial, and another which, in the fullness of reflection, should make our Prime Minister a little embarrassed. Firstly, he said

They are gay if they are born gay… You don’t decide at some later stage in life to be one thing or the other.

SEXUALITY – PREDETERMINED OR CHOICE?

As I wrote above, this ought to be largely uncontroversial amongst Christians, at least as a generalisation with exceptions.  I say ‘with exceptions’, not least because while human sexuality – and sexual orientation – is a complex, fluid, messy, and individualized human trait, and one that most likely has some genetic components, some insist on not being defined by biology. Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon famously declared that for her ‘being gay was a choice’. Prominent UK gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has said:

 

[A]n influence is not the same as a cause. Genes and hormones may predispose a person to one sexuality rather than another. But that’s all. Predisposition and determination are two different things.

 

Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at University of Kent adds:

 

Thankfully, the experience of human endeavour tells us that who we are need not be determined by a biological accident. Yes, our genes influence our behaviour. But this does not determine who we are. We are not the slaves of our biology and possess a formidable capacity to make our own world and on a good day to even choose who we want to be.
To say what ‘is’, as David Hume famously observed, is not the same as declaring what ‘ought to be’. The Christian worldview is unaffected either way on the innateness or otherwise of sexual orientation.

SEXUALITY AND SLAVERY

But while Mr Rudd’s comments in support of gay marriage have attracted the most attention in the popular media, within the Christian community, it is his handling of the bible which has proved the greatest disappointment. When Mr Prater responded by asking:

Kevin, if you call yourself a Christian, why don’t you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?

the Prime Minister replied

Well, mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.

Now, while I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this guff reproduced on an ABC discussion board, it is startling to hear this kind of wild error from a man who has spent some years learning Greek in order to better understand the Gospel of Luke. If you are in any doubt about the abysmal ignorance and misrepresentation involved in claiming the bible promotes slavery, I suggest you read this brief and helpful response.

A MORE IMPORTANT CONVERSATION

However, I want to suggest that Kevin Rudd’s comments on gay marriage are less interesting and ultimately significant than those made by the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. Annabel Crabb interviewed Tony Abbott last night on the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet. When she broached the implications of his Catholic faith for policy leadership, Mr Abbott replied

I think it is essential that someone of faith understand that while faith is a splendid thing in private life it can often be quite a misleading guide in public life.

Now, it may simply be that Mr Abbott was making the point that personally held religious beliefs ought not to be imposed upon the broader constituency of a secular and pluralist democracy. After all, he also said

You’ve got to accept that there are all sorts of private views which can be passionately held but in a pluralist democracy such as ours the idea that you could somehow make those private views mandatory is bizarre, just bizarre.

But his comments seemed awfully close to affirming the oft-made claim that religious belief has no place in public sphere or in the formulation of policy.

THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF EXCLUDING BELIEF FROM THE POLITICAL SPHERE

For someone interested in a more full, but still non-academic, treatment of this issue, I recommend the first chapter of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. Better yet, read all of Andrew Cameron’s Joined-up Life. Until then, though, a couple of comments. The great 20th century American philosopher and atheist, Richard Rorty, argued that religion had no space in the political sphere, being a source of controversy and division rather than unity, but this position has been roundly criticised. Rorty suggested that we simply pursue ‘what works’. The problem is that what we think works will depend on our values. To quote Keller,

Any picture of happy human life that ‘works’ is necessarily informed by deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of human life.

Keller goes on to provide an example:

Let’s take marriage and divorce as a case study. Is it possible to craft laws that we all agree ‘work’ apart from particular worldview commitments? I don’t believe so. Your views of what is right will be based on what you think the purpose of marriage is. If you think marriage is mainly for the rearing of children to benefit the whole society, then you will make divorce very difficult. If you think the purpose of marriage is more primarily for the happiness and emotional fulfilment of the adults who enter it, you will make divorce much easier. the former view is grounded in a view of human flourishing and well-being in which the family is more important than the individual, as in the traditions of Confucianism, Judaism and Christianity. The latter approach is a more individualistic view of human nature based on the Enlightenment’s understanding of things. The divorce laws you think ‘work’ will depend on prior beliefs about what it means to be happy and fully human. There is no objective, universal consensus about what that is.

In other words, the kind of political agenda that a politician pursues (arising, we hope, out of conviction rather than mere polling) is dependent upon underlying values and beliefs. These values and beliefs may be individually selected, or they may be derived from religious belief. For the purposes of public policy, there is no difference between these two kinds of origin. Christians, of course, would maintain that their values derive from the character of God, rather than arbitrariness. So Stephen Carter of Yale Law School writes

Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organised religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider most vital.

Why your church strategy is wrong… and that’s OK

Zig Zag Railway

The problem

Here’s a familiar problem: for the last few years you’ve had your church small groups based around congregations. You keep on hearing about the good this does, strengthening fellowship and encouraging shared evangelistic activities. Only recently, though, something disquieting has been going on. You’ve heard comments and complaints: ‘No one’s looking after me’, ‘This church is too segregated’ and ‘I wish I could get to know some older Christians.’

So, in November you bite the bullet and announce that, next year, small groups will be cross-congregational.

Initially, your decision is met with a burst of enthusiasm. Uni students love meeting in the homes of real grown-ups. There’s better food, more wisdom and a sense of family. The older members benefit, too. They tell you on Sunday how encouraging it is to experience the passion and energy of young Christians.

But, after a while, things start to slide a little. Your bible study leaders tell you how hard it is to pastor people when they don’t see them in church. Members talk about how they wish they knew members of their congregations better.

And so you go to Amazon.com and order every small group ministry book you can lay your hands on. As they arrive, one by one, you devour them, asking this question each time: ‘what is the right ministry strategy for my church?

Newsflash: pastor. There isn’t one. Every single strategy you will apply is wrong. And that’s OK.

The zig and the zag

No ministry strategy fell from heaven to resource your church.

This isn’t just a way of saying that there are lots of good strategies to choose from. It’s also a way of saying that every strategy is bad in its own way.

Cross-congregation small groups provide increased opportunities for older Christians to share wisdom with younger Christians, and the younger to share energy with the older; but they make it harder to build congregational connections. Congregational small groups provide great congregational connections, but concentrate the problems of a particular demographic.

Long sermons allow you to teach doctrine, provide examples, build cases, communicate strategy and shape culture. They also exclude the poorly educated and emphasise knowing over doing. Short sermons are accessible to all, and challenge preachers to be concise and clear. But short sermons can starve a congregation of the truth and model a consumer approach to church.

And so on.

As a result, there is no single strategy that will get you where you want to go.  What you need to do is tack. To zig-zag.

tacking-when-sailing

Ministry is all about zig-zagging. Anything else is idolatry. It’s just that very few people realise it.

I can’t mention how many times we’ve considered a change in strategy only to be told, ‘we tried that 20 years ago.’ Our innate insecurities mean that we are likely to respond in one of three equally stupid ways.

  1. ‘Did we? And it didn’t work? Oh, maybe it’s not such a good idea after all.’ = It’s time you bought yourself a spine.
  2. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll do it properly this time.’ = Congratulations, cowboy: you just alienated everyone who loved the old minister.
  3. ‘No, no, this sounds the same, but it’s really quite different.’ = You’re really selling them the same pig, but now you have to go and put lipstick on it.

The correct answer is this: ‘Yes, we did do it before. And now it’s the right time to do it again.’

What you need to know to tack well

To zig-zag well, you need to know three things.

Firstly, the direction in which you want to go. You need to be crystal clear on what outcomes you want to see in the long haul, because everything else is going to be messy.

Secondly, the strategies that, when alternated, will take you in that general direction. If I can bring maths into this, you’re looking for a vector sum where the negatives of your strategies cancel each other out, while their positives add up.

And, thirdly, your boundaries: how bad you are willing to let it get on a zig before you decide it is time to zag again. That’s because every time you change strategy, there is a cost. Congregation members like to know what is going on. They like to know what it is that we do. They like to know what to expect. Every time you make a change, you introduce uncertainty and doubt. The longer you can go without changing strategy, the more time there is for a particular model to do its happy work (and the more time for the costs to accumulate, too).

Outputs trail inputs

There is one thing you absolutely must remember, and that is: outputs trail inputs.

Every been water-skiing? A skilled speedboat skipper can make her boat turn on a dime. She can go racing right up close to the bank and flick the wheel at the very last moment, and still be out of danger.

The same isn’t true of the water-skier. He’s attached to the boat by a long rope. It takes time for the speedboat’s change in direction to communicate itself to him, and in that time he’s just kept on going and going. Splat.

Outputs always trail inputs.

Your leadership team can analyse the situation, recognise the growing disconnectedness in community and decide to change all your small groups to a congregational basis in a single 30 minute conversation in October.

But then the groups have to finish over Christmas. And new groups have start up again. And trust needs to be built as members get to know each other.

It’s not until the middle of July that the change to congregationally-based groups has begun to contribute positively to the sense of connectedness in your congregation. All the while, disconnectedness has been growing – plus, you’ve lost the advantage of the benefits of mixed ages.

So don’t leave the call to the last minute.

Your church strategy is wrong…and that’s OK

What does all this add up to? It means that your church strategy is wrong, and that’s OK.

Any set of tactics you choose will help and hinder all at once. Your job, therefore, is not to find the perfect strategy. Your job is to recognise when the negative consequences of the current model are approaching unacceptable levels.

And then go back to what you were doing last time.

Big city church (6): You can’t build community by trying to

community_wallpaper-HD

This is the last post in my ‘big city church’ series. And today I want to show you that you can’t build community by trying to.

Some time in the last two decades, churches started planting 5pm congregations out of their 7pm services. I hope you’ll allow me to use these times symbolically, in a let-the-reader-understand kind of way, and not begrudge me 15min either way.

They all failed.

Barneys was one of these churches. Out of our 7:15pm service we planted not one, but two 5pm congregations. Neither exists today. And while it wouldn’t be fair to generalise out of our mistakes, have a look around and tell me what you see. Every 5pm congregation planted out of 7pm has a finite lifespan. It looks something like this:

  1. 7pm congregation planted to reach young adults (especially youth and uni).
  2. Parts of 7pm congregation start to grow up and become professionals, postgrads and tradies.
  3. These young workers don’t have a clear social identity – no longer youth, not yet in social circles that include families, everything about their self-definition is negative: ‘I’m not uni’; ‘I don’t want to be around noisy children’; ‘I’m not a morning church person’.
  4. But negative identities can’t sustain. They lead to instability and sense of imminent (and immanent?) crisis.
  5. So the young workers/postgrads cocoon. ‘We want community,’ they say.
  6. Pastor, fearful of them leaving the church (especially, nowadays, to the hipster church down the road), allows formation of 5pm congregation for ‘community’.
  7. Some of the members of this new congregation fall in love. It can’t be helped.
  8. Some of those in love get married. Some even have babies.
  9. When these new 5pm families leverage their new family-based networks to invite their non-Christian friends to church, perhaps for a baptism, the conversation goes something like this: ‘So, you want me to bring my 2 year old child and newborn…’ ‘Yes…’ ‘…to a strange church environment…’ ‘..Yes…’ ‘…at the witching hour…’ ‘…’umm, yes…’ ‘…on a Sunday night before work…’ ‘…well…’ Cue hysterical laughter. You can finish it off.
  10. So, one-by-one, the 5pm families drip out. And because they ‘drip’, rather than move as a cohort, the wind of reality blows them away, one by one, to another church, and the morning congregation of their original church dwindles and dies.
  11. And those who stay at 5pm? Well, they watch it shrink and die, too. Because it was founded in the pursuit of community, which makes it really hard to break into.
  12. One day, the pastor gets a gun. And the 5pm service is no more.

This is because the pursuit of community is, ultimately, death to any real and lasting experience of it.

Community – in a sense much more profound and much less naff than describing a uni as a ‘learning community’ or a suburb as a ‘local community’ – is a social context in which people are loved and accepted. We experience community by experiencing being known, treasured, invested in. We can presume that the early church believed in community, because they expected Christians to welcome one another, because Jesus stands between us, and welcoming one another is the same as welcoming our king:

Matt 10:40   Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me,  and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

This is particularly important when it may be difficult to welcome someone:

Rom 14:1   Accept the one whose faith is weak,  without quarreling over disputable matters.

The means by which we are enabled to welcome the other who is different and difficult is by learning to love them as God does.

Eph 4:2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another  in love.

Which means that community is a by-product of love.

But here is the crucial point: we cannot directly pursue community and love at the same time. It must be one or the other. If we are in pursuit of community for its own sake, we will be driven to marginalise those who make community different. We will create circles of community, and hierarchies, and in-and-out, and even those who are in will start wondering what is required to stay in, and honesty and vulnerability will fly out the door, and we will keep asking ourselves ‘do I belong?’ and, well, the whole thing will remain bright and brassy on the outside but corrupt and rotten on the inside till it collapses under its own weight.

If, on the other hand, we pursue love, community comes along for the ride. How do we love one another? By seeking one another’s good. By conforming one another to the likeness of our master. By serving, encouraging, teaching and rebuking. In short: through discipleship. Brad House, in his book Community, is good on this:

No one really debates the need for people to exist within community. It is not merely a Christian understanding; it is a human understanding. But belonging in and of itself will never be enough. Hanging the need for community on belonging is like hanging the need for water on thirst. The need for both is deeper….We do not have community groups to close the back door of the church. We do not have groups because people need to belong or we need to care for one another. These are good but secondary effects of authentic community. These effects are not the foundation. We have community groups because we have seen the glory of God and we have been given the grace to live our lives to exalt the Christ. We have community groups because we have been reconciled to God and one another…. Unfortunately, though, I am not sure the church at large knows what to do with community groups. Most have some conviction that they are necessary but relegate them to a form of social day care. We have been content with having community groups rather than employing them to advance the kingdom of God. It is no wonder that many in the church today find community groups obligatory and a waste of energy…. With this in mind, I would like to suggest that there are three primary functions of the church for which community groups can and should be the vehicle. They are discipleship, pastoral care, and mission…. There is a reason that the New Testament is littered with commands to love, teach, admonish, and rebuke one another. By discipling one another we are not only learning, but also we are teaching the gospel.

How, then, do we build community? By not building it. Don’t try to trick yourself, in a left-hand, right-hand kind of way. Don’t call it discipleship in the hope no one will see through the veneer and realise you are really trying to make community. Let it go. Free Willy, and all that. Fly away!

Instead, love. Build small groups and clusters and one-to-ones and triplets that are seeking to disciple one another, and in God’s good time, community will come. How can it not, when people (freed from how this will affect their place in the ‘community’) are opening their lives honestly to God, to one another and to the power of his Holy Spirit applied through the word?

You might want to reconsider calling your groups ‘community groups’, though our option (‘growth groups’) is even worse (I chose it). You might want to watch your language of community if you want your congregation to grow. You might even want to watch your heart: am I in this because I want community? Or because the Lord Jesus Christ has called me to love?

There are lots of things you can do by trying to do them. Run a marathon. Bake chocolate tarts. Build a shed. But there are some that you can’t. You can’t be filled by the Spirit by trying to – you need to discipline your heart and pursue godly character, and the Spirit joins in the fun. You can’t make friends by trying to – no one is less attractive than the person seeking friendship. You need to befriend – to serve others.

And you can’t build community by trying to. So stop trying. And pastor, breathe.

Big city church (5): Friendship and belonging

Image 2

As I’ve noted earlier in this series, the city is a place of not just deep community, but also profound alienation.

The sheer volume of people, as introverts have always known, doesn’t make for authentic relationship on it’s own. In fact, often it is a barrier to being truly human. As one philosopher has observed, we have an excess of loneliness but a dearth of solitude. Community – the experience of networks of overlapping and common friendships – is something truly sought after in any city.

Because of this, every church needs some spaces which have joyful permission to grow as big as they can (see my previous posts), and other spaces which have permission to stay as small as they like.

There are a number of factors at play here.

Firstly, most city-dwellers are uprooted from their ‘origin networks’. Cities are places where young adults come to work, study and play, away from their extended biological and surrogate families, away from the context-giving neighbourhoods of their upbringings and stable, if occasionally stifling, relationships of their childhood.

Secondly, many new city dwellers are in the middle of one of the most profound transitions of their lives. Throughout school and early uni, friendships came easy. You made friends, more or less, by simply turning up. That’s partly because in our youth we are relatively undemanding about friendships, to the point that any old warm body that is present, available and fun will do. (I exaggerate – but not by much.) As we grow a little older, though, two things change. On the one hand, we become more demanding with respect to the quality of our relationships. Suddenly, a friend needs to be someone with whom you can do real life. Depth matters for the first time (real depth, not the show-and-faux depth of self-absorbed undergraduate conversations.)  On the other hand, for the first time in our lives, making friends becomes hard. And it will be hard for the rest of our lives, too. Friendships are no longer simply discovered – they must be forged, which takes constancy and intentional stepping-up of commitment. There’s a great (free) talk on friendship here.

The work of friendship-building is particularly felt among singles.

When Jesus said that ‘to everyone who has, more will be given’, he might as well have been speaking of that thing called ‘community’. Families – with their pre-existing mini-communities – naturally multiply connections through school, social and other programmes. This isn’t to say that families don’t experience alienation – I know many mums and dads who feel profoundly isolated in their situation. However, the structures are in place.

Singles, however, have to work much more deliberately at creating the contexts in which friendships can be discovered and forged.

Now, a couple of quick comments here. Firstly, there is a problem with me using the word ‘singles’. Singleness does not define a person. None of the Christian singles I know are truly single – they are part of beautiful communities to which they belong and, even more, have been adopted together with me into a family by regeneration that is much more significant than any family by procreation. But ‘single’ is a better word than ‘unmarried’, which offers a definition by way of a negative – and there is nothing negative about singleness. The church has usually struggled to communicate this, even though the bible does so with very little difficulty (cf 1 Cor 7).

Among the singles at Barneys are some of the most profoundly exciting people I know – architects, nurses, teachers, landscapers – and many of them are the most spiritually mature Christians I know. They haven’t made an idol of marriage and pursued it as their central task in life; they haven’t lowered their standards to marry any old interested party; they know that a bad marriage, or a marriage to a foolish person, is worse than no marriage at all.  They are not to be pitied. They are not bitter Miss Havishams. There is a great article on this here.

But they do face some particular challenges, and among them is the issue of community. They and their contemporaries are highly mobile, often globally. Their housing arrangements are often very fluid, with different collections of housemates each year. Families – which could provide an additional anchor – do a poor job of including them, often (mistakenly) assuming that singles have no time in their lives for kids, or – worse yet – assuming that families have no time in their lives for singles (there’s so little time for our kids to play with other kids, etc etc).

But one person households, currently 22% of all households, are growing faster than any other type of household in Australia. By 2031, there are likely to be an additional 300,000 single person households in Sydney, representing 30% of all households. The number of older women living alone is growing faster than for men. In 2006, there were 1.9 million people living alone in Australia; by 2031, there are projected to be between 3.0 and 3.6 million, an increase of between 63% and 91%, with the trend strongest among women.

And so, I repeat, every church needs some spaces which have joyful permission to grow as big as they can, and other spaces which have permission to stay as small as they like.  We need to allow the church to grow. To have big spaces uninhibited by misplaced expectations of intimacy.

But we also need small spaces, intimate spaces, social spaces. Not spaces that are somehow stapled on to Sunday church to provide a veneer of community, but valid communities in their own right. Spaces where friendships are discovered; smaller spaces where they are forged; and still yet smaller spaces where they are lived and breathed. The bigger the church is, the smaller it must be, too.

But there is a danger to this pursuit of intimacy and community. More on that next week.