Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Elusive community

Liz, Wulf and Anthony raise the key issue of community. There's been a lot of talk recently around elusive terms such as 'welcome' (what is it? how do we do it well?), 'hospitality' (how and where do we offer it? does the church receive hospitality from those outside it?), 'belonging' (what creates a sense of belonging somewhere?) and 'community' (how do you know when you're part of one?)

I'd love to see more of that research that Anthony talks about. Certainly the Gone but Not Forgotten study published in the late 1990s identified relationships (or lack of them) as a reason why people disengaged from church. A key finding was that in 92% of cases when someone stopped going to a particular church, no one visited them to find out why. Isn't that incredible?

Yet that seems to have been Liz's friend's experience - and I've no doubt we could all recount similar stories.

There are two responses to this, however. One is to set up a structure of pastoral care with everyone on a list, everyone being checked on if they are missing. It's efficient. it probably makes sure that if people do miss a Sunday or two, someone finds out why. But is it enough?

I think it's a big jump from 'a pastoral care structure' to 'a mutually supportive community' and that the former can prevent the latter from being created. I think some churches put a structure in place and invest all their energy in making it work, only to discover that they've no energy left for making relationships, getting to know people, building community. In these churches, we don't have relationships, we have dealings or transactions with other people, much as we do in a bank or supermarket.

I was at the barbers this morning having my pre-Christmas tidy-up. I conversed at a superficial level with the girl with the scissors - just enough to be polite (after all, it's hard to be that close to another human being and say nothing!) - but I do not think for all the banter that goes on, that my barbers is a 'community'; the chat is a by-product of getting a job done.

Church sometimes feels like that. We get the job done - everyone knows where everyone is. But we are not a community - no one really knows how anyone else feels.

It's an interesting exercise to ask members what others do for a living, how many children they have, whether they are married, have they always lived in the area, how long have they been a Christian. The answers tell you a lot about community - whether your church is one.

This is a particular problem for larger churches, I think. I'm pretty sure we don't have relational space for more than 30-50 people. In a large church we're on nodding acquaintance with a much larger number than that, but do we have any kind of relationship with 30-50 of them? And where are those relationships formed? I don't believe they can be formed in our current Sunday services and probably not over coffee afterwards - though that helps.

Perhaps we need to invest in community-building activities - meals, days out, coffee mornings, social events, small group activities.

Of course, there might be people from my church reading this wondering what planet I'm from(!) who could tell me that they are in community relationships with a good group of people, a community that they find fun and supportive - and challenging.

Go on, amaze me!


Jonathan said...

It occurs to me, looking at the discussion again, that some of the reticence about elements of the eapproach you're proposing, Simon, is around the idea that it makes the enterprise of the Kingdom of God a consumerist one.

I wonder if soem elements of consumerism might be an essential part of community amongst people who would rank consumerism highly amongst their leisure activities and features strongly in the makeup of the cultural subset to which they belong?

To return to Paul's self-identification with his target audience would he have said "to the consumer i became consumerist"?

One of the things that has fascinated, amazed me really since the move to Bromley is the level of affluence, I hadn't really expected it to have such a huge impact on people's identity as it seems to here. It would be difficult to define large sections of this community without including some reference to their consumer habits.

If we're dealing with people who expect to make preference choices in absolutely every area of their lives, why do we make the first step towards Christ uniform? I can fully agree that an encounter with Christ ought to make a person re-evaluate relationships, life, the universe and everything, but it seems to me that our desire to force a uniform approach presents a huge hurdle before folks can get on to the important stumbling block.

Wulf said...

At what point does "... to the consumer I became consumerist" shift to "... to the sexually promiscuous I became sexually promiscuous"? Maybe that is taking it too far but I think that elements of consumerism (eg. I must have what I want, when I want it) are decidedly ungody. When we are faithless, God remains faithful rather than sinking to our level (2 Tim 2:13).

And, to pick up something from Simon's posting, I wonder if setting a reasonable parameter for "relational space" at 30-50 is too high? Or, at least, that by the time you take away relationships with family, maybe some work colleagues and perhaps even some friends outside your church, if a significant proportion of those slots are already filled?

I certainly think time needs to be invested (good choice of word) in community building activities and I think some kind of small group structure is an excellent idea for any church that has a congregation larger than can meet in somebody's front room.

Jonathan said...

I'm not sure equating consumerism with sexual promiscuity helps really. There probably are limits on the "to the...i became..." formula. But, there were elements of what it mean to be jewish, or greek, or strong that also needed challenging and questioning. That didn't stop Paul from finding ways of understanding and in some measure embodying the culture, in order to speak from it and to it.

I wonder if the real fear around consumerism and choice is the fear that people will become empowered and choose to go elsewhere? Do we perpetuate this fake community with all it's blurred lines between kingdom mandated behaviour and cultural defined expectations because if people had their expectations raised, or felt free to make a choice, they'd go?

I wonder how many of the churches i've belonged to would, on some level, be fearful of the consumerist approach because they fear they couldn't cut it. Does fear that folks will go elsewhere inhibit us from empowering people to make informed choices?

Wulf said...

I think the problem in many churches is that their "shopping" model is the supermarket - everything under one roof, including cut-price (cheap) discipleship. Sure, there are flavours from all over the world and some quality lines but it's really about bringing in as many people as possible, spending their money under the aegis of one loyalty card.

I'm not against the idea of churches having distinct identities but I'm not so convinced of trying to bring all those identities under one roof, so you can worship at St X's in anyone of six different styles.

I would prefer the model of smaller churches, each with a distinct flavour - butcher, baker and candlestick maker, if you like - which co-operate together.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we need to invest in community-building activities - meals, days out, coffee mornings, social events, small group activities.

These ideas are fine but I would worry if I had to attend them.

In accepting that we are all different is there room for accepting that some people will be happy to be part of the community without having to be part of such organised events? I also think I, as a member, need to actively seek to be part of the community and for me, that doesn't mean that the first move or indeed the majority of the moves have to come from the church. Although I do appreciate that for some it will be important for the church to actively include them. That brings me back to the idea that we're all different and will act and react differently and therefore maybe require different size doesn't fit all........