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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

the ideal and the reality...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A conversation I was engaged in last night has got me thinking some more about missional church commmunities. It was a fascinating discussion in which we voiced the tension between the 'ideal' Christian community and the 'reality'. The ideal community is one where members are so committed to one another and to journeying together in relationship with Christ that they are able to put up with one another, 'warts and all', tolerating and even embracing differences. Furthermore, the 'warts and all' are not hidden behind the facade of false 'Christian smiles' and utterances of 'everything is ok', but are public and worked through in an environment of honesty and unconditional acceptance. And so, the ideal Christian community will be multi-generational and multi-cultural, where everyone is open to learn from and engage with the people and things they don't particularly like (music, traditions, beliefs, etc), as well as those they do.

The reality of course is always different to this - generally people belong to their particular faith community because it best expresses the kind of things they do like, and includes the kind of people they can relate to. And woe betide anyone who comes in and tries to change this balance too radically to a different way of doing things. Generally we don't put up with 'warts and all' because we tend to keep them hidden, and when they do rise to the surface we simply resort to criticisms usually behind the backs of the people concerned!

So how do we move from the reality to the ideal... is it even possible? It dawned on me (rightly or wrongly) during our discussion that to try to 'create' the ideal is always doomed to failure. It's not good enough to expect people to put up with stuff they don't like or people they don't get on with, and to judge them as not committed enough if they don't. Our Western culture is fragmented, in the sense that it encompasses countless sub-cultures within it, but one uniting facet is consumerism. Christians often start talking about consumerism very critically as if we've managed to escape it, but the truth is that we are all consumers, me included! It follows that in a fragmented consumerist society people will tend to only engage in voluntary activities that they want to be a part of, activities that they enjoy or get something from. We generally don't chose to do things that we don't enjoy unless we're paid to or have to.

If then, we want community to be missional - if we want to encourage people to identify with and belong to faith communities, these communities have to, first and foremost, be ones that people can relate to and so want to belong to. Gone are the days (thank God) of people rolling up to church because someone says they ought to, and enduring it because they have no choice in the matter.

It's true that at work or when shopping (two examples raised in last night's discussion) we may encounter and tolerate annoying people, but at work we are paid and have no choice but to get on with the job regardless (apart from resigning that is), and when shopping we're either shopping for essentials and so have to put up with the inconveniences, or our desire to shop in that particular store outweighs the inconvenience so we simply try to avoid the nuisance. Work and shopping for essentials are not really voluntary activities and the leisure shopping we do because we enjoy it - if we didn't we'd likely stop shopping in the places where the annoying people were.

In the case of church we have a very different dynamic - it's generally a community where we can't avoid people (except in very large congregations) and where we have to put up the things that annoy us. My (educated) guess is that many people simply vote with their feet when they encounter uncomfortable differences, thinking 'why should I go to church to put up with stuff and people I don't get on with?' Of course, in all this we must still hold on to the ideal, but we can't engineer it and if we only operate in that model we're unlikely to engage anyone new, especially people with no previous church background. The level of selflessness needed to be committed to a community 'warts and all' is probably a fair distance down the discipleship path for most people - indeed many people who have been 'going to church' for decades have still not reached that point and hold out for what they prefer above any missional concerns. So why insist that people newly engaging with a community should be at that point immediately, and should 'shut up and put up' if they're serious about following Jesus.

So maybe this becomes an apologetic for culture specific communities, at least as a place of first connection with followers of Jesus. I guess the introduction of 'clusters' in some church models (e.g. "here') is an attempt to provide such spaces of belonging. These are not intended as end points with respect to engagement in Christian community, and are certainly not seen as exclusive 'clubs'. The intention is to allow the organic growth of safe and attractive community in which people can engage in the journey of discipleship with others, because they actually want to be there. At some point on the journey they may well begin to realise that they do actually need the 'warts and all' after all.

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 10:34 AM


Hi Malcolm,

Haven't posted here for a while, but I wanted to play devil's advocate and counter your call for culture specific communities.

The great commission is a call to make disciples of all nations. We've tended to equate nations with the lines drawn on maps - the institutions of men. It's empire- driven church and we are still shaped by it in many ways.

But science tells us we are all unique - Genetics that our DNA is (bar twins or an accident of fate)unique; Linguistics that we all use language differently; Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology that our culture and mindsets are ultimately unique to ourselves. Nations, and the collective cultures that exist within and across them, are accidents of history. Church, if there is any truth to it, must operate at a deeper level than these.

You know I am advocating a 'universalism that hurts'. It goes hand in hand with the idea that a church that seeks to embrace disciples from all tribes and tongues must therefore, according to science, include everyone. Church is therefore decentralised, all are members. Local manifestations of Church may use institutions to achieve their ends, but they may not.

And my provocative stance would be that just as the age of empire is past, so too is the age of mono-cultural institutions. A church is a tool, a gadget. Do we really need gadgets before we can preach the gospel?

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 12:15 PM  

Hi Steve

thanks for commenting here - believe it or not, I pretty much agree with what you write! I guess my one question would be... if church is a tool/gadget that is not needed to preach the gospel (which I agree with) what is 'church' and how is faith-based (read 'Christian' for want of a better defining term) community manifested? It seems to me from a reading of the New Testament and church history that fundamental to Jesus discipleship is engagement ('Communion') with others. A 'Christianity' that allows us all to be lone islands in the great sea of humanity is somehow lacking in its faithfulness to the call of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

I suppose my post was an attempt to grapple with how we manifest this community such that people are able to connect with it at various stages of the journey of discipleship. In contemporary culture, a requirement to sacrifice self-interest for the common good, though gospel at core, is counter-cultural and not immediately attractive. Maybe the question should be "does mission require us to enable places of belonging that are attractive?"

I think it comes back to this tension between the 'ideal' (which I believe you are expressing) and the 'reality' which we have to pragmatically address if we are not to simply have our heads in the clouds.

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 12:38 PM  

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