May 24 • 16M

Can we just hang out?

Some sharp questions about community and belonging

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This is the audio version of a regular weekly email journal from Tony Payne, that seeks to apply the liberating truth of Christ crucified to every aspect of life and ministry.
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“I think you are a purist”, a friend said to me after I’d just given a presentation on ‘community and belonging’ at last week’s Reach Australia conference.

“Who me?” I lamely chuckled, but then immediately wished I’d said something more witty, like: “What would you prefer? An impurist?”

My talk at Reach was an expanded version of last week’s post, and majored on the same point—that Christian ‘community’ and ‘membership’ and ‘belonging’ is created and built by one thing only: the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst through his word.

It was a fun seminar, filled out very ably by Tim Clemens’s practical wisdom on what those theological themes mean for how churches can welcome and integrate new members, and disciple them to be part of a rich Christ-centred community.

When my friend expanded on his ‘purist’ comment, it was really to explore a question that had been raised in the seminar, as follows: granted that Jesus is the centre of our community, and the head of the body of which we’re members; granted also that this makes the word of Christ ‘dwelling richly amongst us’ the vital factor—how then do we think about the place of our actions in building Christian community? What about just going out to dinner with people, or playing board games, or painting the front room together? Don’t these sorts of things do anything for our ‘sense of community’? Would it be okay with the purist if we just hung out?

The first thing the purist would say is that human friendship, togetherness and relationship are good things in themselves. They don’t need any further justification or purpose. There’s no need to question our consciences about whether ‘hanging out’ is really okay if there are no Bible verses present.

This is especially so because many people today, sadly, are starved of the joys of human friendship and togetherness, particularly in the dislocated, isolating life of the modern city. To provide those simple pleasures (by hosting that dinner party or games night) is an act of real kindness—on the same level as helping an elderly neighbour with their lawns. In itself, it doesn’t create Christian community as such or build the body of Christ (as we’ve defined it), but it’s still an act of goodness and love.

However secondly, hanging out together in smaller informal settings creates a context in which Christian community can flourish. Tim Clemens fleshed this out very helpfully during our seminar. He pointed us to research that showed how people relate differently (and gain different things) in groupings of different size:

  • In ‘public’ contexts (100+) we normally gather to engage together with something outside ourselves, like at a sports game or a concert or a church meeting;

  • In ‘social’ contexts (20-70), we interact with an affinity group of some kind, sharing snapshots of ourselves—like at a party or at morning tea after church;

  • In ‘personal’ contexts (4-12), we reveal more of ourselves, and likewise get to know others at a deeper level—as at a dinner party or a small Bible study group;

  • In ‘transparent’ contexts (2-4), we can be open and vulnerable, and share our innermost thoughts and experiences—usually with our marriage partner or a close friend.

We can build the community of Jesus Christ in different ways in each of these contexts or social spaces, because we can share his word in various ways with different benefits at each level—from the sermon that challenges us all, to the series of conversations afterwards which teases it out, to the more personal conversations where we grapple with our own personal weaknesses.

So it’s not that hanging out with ten people automatically creates Christian community, and we shouldn’t confuse the joys of just being with other people with the unique thing that is Christian community. But unless we hang out with ten people, and create the trusting social space in which we can talk to each other, how can we have the opportunity to fellowship around the word of Jesus Christ at that more personal level? How can we have all the different kinds of conversations we need to have about understanding and believing the word, and living it out?

As I mentioned in last week’s post, we can facilitate community-in-Christ by creating “the optimum number and variety of contexts where people can be together as those who share Jesus Christ”.

Including just hanging out.

This leads to a second insightful question that was asked at the seminar about our actions in community: What are the benefits of people actually serving each other for building Christian community? Surely loving service and action for the sake of others is a genuine expression of our ‘community’ and ‘membership’, and increases our personal experience of it?

Hard to argue with that. In fact, on this basis, many churches work hard at getting as many people as possible involved in serving each other. The more people start to exercise the muscles of practical service, and take an active part in community life, the more they tend to experience a genuine sense of being part of that community. And this includes newcomers who are seeking to join that community.

However, there’s an important caveat. If my practical service is not framed, motivated and directed towards the word of Jesus Christ—if it is just doing a job that needs to be done, and which makes me feel good because I’m useful—then it won’t express or build genuine Christian community. In fact, it might even lead to false or ‘fleshly’ community (to use Bonhoeffer’s term), which is based on my longing to be needed and recognized.

Bonhoeffer explains this well in Life Together. He is very sharp about the poisonous possibilities of those who long for community but don’t long for Jesus Christ, including those who act from the need for self-justification rather than from the freedom of justification by faith.

However, he also says that while the mutual ministry of the word is the ‘highest’ form of Christian service, and the one to which the others lead and are directed, it is not the only form of mutual love in a Christian community. He identifies three other forms of service: ‘listening’ to each other, ‘forbearing’ with each other, and what he calls ‘active helpfulness’. This last form is what we are usually speaking of when we talk about ‘practical service’.

We mustn’t despise this form of service, he says, as if it is beneath us, or in some ways less worthy:

Nobody is too good for the lowest service. Those who worry about the loss of time entailed by such small, external acts of helpfulness are usually taking their own work too seriously. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest—perhaps reading the Bible—passed by the man who had fallen among robbers.

The one who is focused on the ministry of the word shouldn’t despise the opportunity to help others practically. Nor should the one who feels comfortable in practical service rest content in doing something ‘useful’, and leave the sharing of the word to others.

All Christian practical service is motivated by the word, directed by the word and has the speaking of the word in prospect. As the morning tea team serves coffee and washes dishes, those involved are not only motivated by the gospel, but are helping to create one of those social contexts in which the congregation can speak with each other. It’s a word-motivated and word-directed service, even though it is hands-on and menial in nature.

This leads to a final point. How can we ensure that this ‘practical service’ is indeed motivated by and directed towards the word of Jesus Christ?

By teaching and training. This was my mantra in answer to many of the questions that were raised during the seminar.

If we want our people to understand what Christian community and membership really is, and to live it and practise it, we need to teach them about it, just as the apostles themselves did on numerous occasions to their hearers in the New Testament (such as in Rom 12 and 1 Cor 12-14 and Eph 4-5).

This is a statement of the bleedin’ obvious if ever there was one, but I am often struck by how meagrely and haphazardly we teach about such subjects in our churches. We do the essential work of expounding the Scriptures week by week, and we also study Bible passages in our small groups (often the same ones). But the integrative work of applied theology—that is, the task of drawing the Bible’s teaching on a subject together, and showing what it means for our lives … this is something we do much less often, and less effectively.

How could we do it better?

I have thoughts. But given that this post is already quite long enough already, I’ll return to those thoughts next time.


PS

As always, please get in touch with your thoughts, observations and questions. Just hit reply to this email, or make a comment on the website.