We have a new church!
Well, there’s no building, and no official organisation. There are people, but not many. We have a leader. We don’t have a regular meeting time, but we do meet.
The primary focus of this group of people is, I suppose, two-fold: loving God, and loving our neighbours. We meet together to worship, to pray, and to learn. But we are also heavily involved in the local community, and most of our “notices” when we meet are about how we can use the things that we have to help that community; not by having “church” events, where we invite people in, but by going out and helping people and spending time with people.
And you know what? It’s amazing!!
Since I started following Jesus about 10 years ago I’ve had a sense that the traditional, meet-in-a-big-old-building-every-Sunday church wasn’t quite right. It fosters a great community of people, but takes up lots of time.
I heard an interesting talk by a guy recently who had this idea of “third place”. He said that we only have time for three places: our home and neighbourhood, our place of work or study, and a “third place”. Perhaps this is a football team, or your surfing buddies or your knitting group or just friends you go for nights out with. He said that for most people in churches, the church is their “third place”, and they don’t really have room to be committed to another regular activity or group of people.
That’s certainly my experience – being in a traditional church meant being on rotas, meeting in smaller groups, preparing for the Sunday service in some way, and being involved in other, less regular church activities too. Most of my “spare” time was spent with people from the church. And this makes the church very insular.
We try to follow the way of Jesus, and the way of Jesus was to meet and help the poor and outcast from society. In my experience, church leaves little time for a guy like me to do this.
Jesus usually upset those who had “tradition” too close to their hearts by disagreeing with them or breaking their overly-pious rules. From what I read, his life wasn’t well planned around temple and synagogue times, though he went there to worship. No, he met people’s needs as and when they had them.
The early church was like this too. They were generous, pooling resources to help the needy; they were spontaneous, dealing with people and talking to people that they met as they journeyed, not just amongst themselves.
Where mid-week activities with our old church were things like practicing the music for Sunday, planning talks, or running small study groups. Now we’re planning community events and parties, organising games with the young people of the area, cooking meals for people in crisis, and meeting with council officials to work out how to get people involved in caring for the environment or using sustainable forms of transport.
Don’t get me wrong. The traditional church holds an enormously important place in the community. I love it, I value it, it’s been a huge and incredibly positive influence on my life and I’ve seen it be a huge and positive influence in the community too. The church worldwide has a huge army of people who volunteer in soup kitches, community projects, with children and young people, with people with disabilities, with the elderly, with the homeless, with the poor. The church contributes millions of pounds and hours to local and national charities and to overseas aid. It campaigns on climate change, international justice, human rights, fair trade, water and sanititation. The church has its struggles internally and externally, with politics and squabbles, and it has bits of crappy history, bits of often-still-crappy present, and probably plenty of bits of crapness to come in the future. But I can guarantee you that without the traditional church this nation and this world would be a lot worse off.
[I’ll add a note here acknowledging that the church isn’t the only source of good things…there are many, many people of other faiths, and of no faith, that work tirelessly for good causes too. The world would be worse off without Islam, without humanism, and without people who love and serve just because they feel they should too. These people and groups should also be praised and respected.]
But my PERSONAL experience of traditional church was that I spent more time doing things for the church than for the community. Most of the community work was done by the elders and ministers, or by people not holding down full-time jobs or running families who could volunteer. The need for people to serve on a Sunday meant that most of the people didn’t have much time to do stuff in the community – the stuff that Jesus did!
The “services” at the church we’re in now require very little planning and involvement from the “congregation”, and we are therefore free to use more of our spare time actually doing good stuff.
And doing the good stuff in the community gives us reason to worship, and to pray. When we come together we give thanks for the positive things we see happen in the community, we pray for those in need, and we talk about how we can bless others – not because we want them to like us, or to become part of our group – just because we value each and every human life.
There are said to be 4 stages of working together: forming, storming, norming and performing. We’re still probably in the storming phase. As our little gathering grows and changes we will need to “norm”. We will need more structure and direction in what we’re doing. One challenge will be finding a balance between structure and freedom.
But I’m convinced that this is how the church – the followers of Jesus – should be. OK…I refine that…it’s how I think a growing proportion of the church should be. Not putting all their efforts into showing kindness to each other, but supporting each other and pooling resources as we show kindness to those outside of the church.
It’s exciting, it’s a little scary, it’s fun, it’s inspiring, and it’s great to be a part of.