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!