Had a good ministers' conference - lots of stimulating conversation. I also celebrated my 50th birthday on the second day.
Birthdays are always a time when you think about how life's going. That combined with the conversations at the conference have had me thinking this week further thoughts about our identity as Christians.
If we're right that Paul stresses to the Romans that our identity has to do with our call to be holy people (understood in the Old Testament sense of set apart), our adoption as children of God and our entry into a new family that we label 'the church' - and I think we are - what does this mean 'the church' should look and feel like.
I came away from the conference with the nagging feeling that ministers are still seeing themselves as CEOs of complex religious service organisations, that their role is to get all the pieces in place to ensure that 'church' maximises productivity in the form of making new converts and using everyone's gifts efficiently.
Now don't me wrong, both of those things are vitally important. But it strikes me that Paul would find all our talk of structures and programmes, groups for this, that and the other really rather puzzling.
Reading Romans again, I was forcefully reminded that Paul says almost nothing about how to do 'church', nothing about structure, organisation, leadership or strategy - even though, he does suggest that his ministry over the previous few years has been based on a strategy of reaching the major cities of the Eastern Med (though sometimes I wonder whether we are reading modern business-speak back into Paul's words in Romans 15:15-33 which have a much more confessional, liturgical and theological tone than most corporate annual reports!)
Even more, I was struck again by the fact that Paul doesn't tell those outseide 'the church' how to live their lives. Of course, he talks about the consequences of human sin and fallenness - only so that he can show how God in Christ has dealt with sin as a destroyer of creation as well as a personal character trait of individual people. But there's no pointing the finger at neighbours who are living together or governments who allow anti-Christian propaganda free-reign in the media.
Rather Paul talks about community, family, beloved friends and co-workers and welcoming all in the name of Christ. Paul talks about our identity in Christ as God's redefined people and speaks of us living out of that identity in a competitive empire. Paul talks about our community life being inklings of the new creation God is making through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. This is a challenge to Christians living in the rich west, living at the heart of an empire that seeks to impose its values on the world by economic clout and military might.
What would our 'churches' look and feel like if we focused on being community and left it to God's Spirit to use our life together as the means to infect the culture around us?