A Church is a Body is a Network

I grew up as the world was getting smaller. Dirt cheap air travel was a thing, communities became less homogeneous, and the Digital Revolution networked us all, a wider world emerging into our lives through our phone line. Nowadays even that phone line is less important.

The funny thing is, churches were always ahead of this game, at least theoretically. ‘The Global Village’ may have been the iconic phrase, but the idea of the Church as a worldwide, universal, interconnected body is baked into the New Testament. It’s a different metaphor but it’s no less powerful.

Powerful. That’s an interesting word, because I think we lost some of the impact of that metaphor. Some of our churches got too powerful, too comfortable, too safe. We remembered that we were connected, but we lost a sense of being interconnected.

Maybe that came out most clearly in our approach to mission. We would go out to countries with fewer resources, with pressing needs, and contribute time and many and support. None of this is bad, as long as it’s done in the right way, but too often it can be a one-way street – we’ve got it all sorted, so we’ll go out and help those who aren’t so sorted. And while that gets walls painted and bills paid, I’m not sure that does much for our humility. We see ourselves as doctors fixing someone else’s body and lose the idea that this is actually self-care,  that the body that’s being healed is our own.

And so we have a one-way network, a radio transmitter more than an Internet. And so we support missions, but the relationships aren’t always there, we aren’t always learning from each other, photocopied newsletters are pinned unread to our noticeboards because they don’t represent relationships that are integral to our community – to our Body.

So how do we make this a two-way street? Maybe more people need to go on mission trips with learning mindsets than fixing mindsets, but that still feels more transactional than relational. Maybe this is about budgets – spend some mission cash on bringing people to our churches and yes, learn from their experiences and knowledge and expertise, but also build relationships, have meals together, pray together, then talk about how our kids are doing. We’re a body, a family by blood,,but that blood is not our own and we should remember that every time we take the bread and wine.

So, while this isn’t always possible, and I know this is a privileged thought, why not think about how to Skype in mission partners to preach or do readings or for their children to take part in the nativity or share communion (or vice versa)? Are there connections that can be established via diaspora communities? Are there implications for our politics? What can we do to make our interactions relational rather than transactional?

Because the church is a body, is a network, and if we don’t act like it, the church will be weakened. We need to see ourselves as connected. We need to see ourselves as interdependent. We need to see each other as family, not just relatives. We need to see ourselves as one.

Listen To The Stories Of Which You Are A Part (Amos 9:7)

Who is your church’s historian?

I don’t mean the person who accidentally wrote a thesis on the Council of Nicea on their holidays. I mean the person who remembers the first minister, who knows why the stained glass window has a dodo on it, who can tell you the stories behind all those dedication plaques, who knows why everyone got so upset when you unilaterally threw that old lectern in a skip.

Now, this probably isn’t a formal role – after all, we’re normally too busy trying to find cleaners and worship leaders and guitarists – but I’m willing to be that person’s there. They’ll be the one who starts telling tales of the church in a corner of the coffee morning, a little old lady who doesn’t hold a formal role in the fellowship, but who knows all the stories. And sadly, when she passes on, the stories will pass with her.

(Of course, there’s an opportunity for an intergenerational relationship building project here, if you’re interested…)

There’s an importance to this, as knowing the history and the story of a place helps to anchor our current identities, while also rooting the story of our congregations in that of their local area. Too often we travel to a commuter church and we don’t appreciate how that church relates to the houses and shops and factories we drive past on our way, nor do we know exactly how the church got there in the first place. It’s not always clear how a church even got its name.

There’s also humility in all this. We’re often told to think about our story, our journey, to the exclusion of how we fit into the stories of others. you know, we’re not always yhe hero. Sometimes we’re the supporting cast. Sometimes we’re an extra. Sometimes, just sometimes, we’re the villain.

There’s a moment in the Book of Amos when God turns to the Israelites and points out that he’s also been at work in Ethiopia and Crete and Syria and no-one seemed to appreciate that as they weren’t listening to the stories of those around them, weren’t paying attention to how God was moving in the world rather than among a specific church council meeting. And that’s a humbling lesson we could do well to learn.

So listen to that little old lady who knows all the stories. Write them down, put them on your website, pass them on to the next generation. God may be saying something through them.

Can Anything Good Come From Nazareth? (John 1:43-51)

People seem to have an issue with my accent.
See, I grew up in Dudley, but I was born in Derby, and so everyone feels the need to comment on my accent as if I’ve just descended from the icy moon of Europa than 40 miles down the A38. And I’m hardly the victim if some horrendous hate crime here, but when people start dissing my accent in Dudley then, well, it gets a bit frustrating.

There are echoes of this is Nathanael’s response to the suggestion that he should go and meet Jesus of Nazareth: “Nazareth?! Can Anything Good Come From Nazareth?!” He’s soon shut up by an encounter with Jesus himself, but the point still stands – this boy from Cana has issues with folk from a neighbouring town. Maybe that tells us something about Nazareth itself – was it a town of hicks and hayseeds? Was it the sort of place from which characters in a Springsteen song would plot their escape? Did people mock the Nazarene accent? Did people mock Jesus’s accent?

There’s a harsher angle on this though. Nathanael’s attitude reflects our modern attitudes: can anything good come from deprived neighbourhoods, deindustrialised cities and shanty towns, favelas and barrios? Or are they simply havens for poverty, crime, despair and hopelessness?

Our answer to this will affect how we respond to places like Nazareth, whether or not our churches seek to emigrate to them or simply colonise them with an attitude of superiority and supremacy. And in doing so we forget that this is the sort of place in which Jesus grew up, in which he spent 18 years on building sites and in workshops, in which he hung out with friends and neighbours and aunties and uncles.

And so Nathanael’s comment, and Jesus’s incarnation into the margins rather than into the heart of Jerusalem should lead us to ask where the good already is in the places we may have write off, where the Holy Spirit is already at work, where the Kingdom is already built.

Because when God walked the earth in human form, he didn’t ignore the impoverished places, he grew up there; he didn’t mock the one-horse towns, he lived in them; he didn’t invade or colonise, he inhabited. And that should be our attitude as well, because otherwise, in our snobbery and our privilege, we may miss all the good that emerges from the Nazareths of this world.

And leave my accent alone!

When a Community Hurts (Luke 13:1-4)

There’s a moment in Luke’s gospel when Jesus has to engage with the recent murder of pilgrims in Jerusalem and the aftermath of a tower collapsing in Siloam. And it ends up being a theological discussion, but it got me thinking – the people killed when the tower fell, the people slaughtered by the agents of state oppression, left behind children and partners, parents and friends and a community with wounds that may not have become scars. And the people of faith living in those communities would have to deal with those.
We only get a snapshot of Jesus’s three years of ministry. We can read through all the gospels in a few hours, and we know that things were left out. And so while we know of Jesus’s response in terms of the righteousness (or otherwise) of those involved in recent current affairs, we don’t get to see any ‘pastoral’ conversations he may have had about these same things.

But in our localised congregations we need to be able to deal with collapsing towers and sudden death. And we’ve not always been good at this in a communal sense – we work with individuals and relatives and friends,  but do we always tackle the wounds that rip through our communities as a whole?

An example. Years ago, Princess Diana died early on a Sunday morning. Only the person preaching at my church hadn’t heard the news and so didn’t mention it, meaning that it felt like there was a gap in the service. Days later, the streets were full of flowers, catching everyone unawares. A friend from university would later suggest that this was only partly our grief over Diana – it was also about Jamie Bulger and Dunblane and all the other horrors of the preceding years, all the things we hadn’t been able to process, flowers flooding the streets to heal open wounds. I think my friend had a point.

So.

What do our sermons sound like if we live in communities dependent on over-stretched food banks? 

What do our sermons sound like if a factory shuts down and a few hundred middle-aged workers suddenly feel dropped onto society’s scrapheap?

What do our sermons sound like when children are killed, by gangs, by classmates, by cops?

What do our sermons sound like when people feel threatened by immigration or by racism?
I’m not saying our preachers should become pundits, but we need to be able to speak into the wounds and the scars and the self-harm of our communities before fear and despair and hopelessness and grief and abandonment metastasise into cancers that will slowly and painfully kill us.

In a recent interview with NPR, Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales pointed out how we need to be able to offer public theologies in a range of different contexts – in black communities dealing with white privilege, in working class neighbourhoods facing profound economic changes, whatever – and figure out how to speak God’s word into a situation. Because the Good News has to be good news in church, in the queue to the food bank,  at a police call out and down at the job centre. And in the midst of this our churches should be an immune system, not an isolation ward.

Ability Sunday 2016

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It’s Ability Sunday 2016, a time to recognise gifts and abilities within our church, specifically gifts and abilities that may otherwise be ignored. It’s also a great opportunity to reconsider how we unleash those gifts into our communities.

This isn’t a post that aims to convince anyone that people with disabilities have gifts and talents that can find expression the Church – that’s a given, and if you need to be convinced, well, ask yourself why. No, this is a post that asks our churches to embrace this reality and stop leaving people on the margins. Because this happens far more than it should, and it needs to stop.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the church as a body, and just as a body is made up of many parts, a church is made up of many individuals, all of whom have their own gifts, talents and abilities. Those gifts all work together to build up the church, and with it the Kingdom of God – we call them gifts for a reason. And if people are prevented from using these gifts, if the doors are closed and the barriers are down, then the Church misses out.

The Church is, well, disabled.

This isn’t just about putting out pleas for volunteers and shrugging when no-one comes forward. This is about community – the sort of community that gets to know people as individuals, the sort of community that talks to people with disabilities, discovers their passions and ambitions and hobbies and interests and finds a way to bring these into the life of the congregation, not out of pity or the sense that we’re doing someone a favour, but because that person is a beloved child of God and our community will be enriched and empowered and strengthened as a result.

That may mean changing how things are done. It may mean that chairs need to be laid out differently, it may mean that someone needs to go on a course, it may mean that our church budgets need to be reprioritized, but those are just opportunities to embrace. And yeah, it’ll be messy, and we’ll make mistakes, but that doesn’t matter because it’s better to screw up than perpetuate a culture of exclusion.

But we need to be intentional about it. It’s no good thinking everything’s sorted because the church had a wheelchair ramp installed eight years ago, because that just means we’ll fail to see the barriers that are invisible to most of the congregation but that are painfully evident to those on the outside, the barriers that push people away from church. That’s why this is all about community – get over your fear of sign language or wheelchairs or someone not looking you in the eye, just make contact, make a connection, start a relationship. People with disabilities aren’t extensions of their families or carers; dignity and identity and self-determination are important. Relationships are important.

So on this Ability Sunday maybe it’s time to pray and think about who’s not represented in our church communities, about how we let ‘disability’ override ‘ability’ and shut people out in the process. Because everyone’s unique, everyone’s loved and everyone’s got something to offer. And when we discover that truth as a lived reality, our churches will start to be healed.

(There are more posts on this subject here.)