by the Reverend Andrew Sempell, President
It is National Church Life Survey time and church-goers across Australia are filling out forms about what they like and don't like about church, along with what they want and don't want.
In a mission-oriented Church, I would have thought that we would have put a higher priority on finding out what the people on the fringe of the church want—or possibly those of good-will but who are not participants. Sometimes our surveys are far too self-interested and self-justifying and therefore fail to help us to have an outward vision. A good book that might help us understand the emerging group, who describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious' is Hugh Mackay's Beyond Belief. Hugh is one who has surveyed the people on the fringe and discovered something of what is important to them. Moreover, Keith Mascord's book Faith Without Fear raises several intellectual and moral issues currently facing the Church and asks if it has the capacity to change. In an era when church participation has hit an all-time low church professionals who are interested in mission would do well to listen to those who are searching for spiritual meaning but do not find it in the church.
Church participation is clearly not attractive to many people, and this is a spiritual problem for the church. To be sure, what drives our personal spiritual lives will tend to become evident in our corporate life. In other words, for good or ill the things that motivate us (including what we believe and the things we do) find a greater expression through the life of the wider community of faith. If we are to be an effective representation of the kingdom of God, our personal and corporate motivations need to be grounded in the life and teaching of Jesus, as revealed in the gospels.
It is said that people in western cultures are losing a sense of 'belonging' because of social fragmentation and alienation. That is, there is growing individual isolation as people disconnect from their neighbours, families and social institutions, which leads to increased emptiness and loneliness. To address this, people often contrive a new 'tribalism' based on social affiliations such as class, belief, politics and even sporting activities. These sometimes lead to the shadow side of 'belonging', which is 'exclusion'—a means of defining ourselves based on 'what we are not'.
The Christian faith has much to say about community and belonging, yet the church has not always been welcoming - especially to those whom it declares 'do not belong'. Indeed, churches have often been havens for hostility rather than hospitality and have reflected more the aspects of 'worldly institution' rather than 'heavenly communion'. Unsurprisingly, institutions are often engrossed with issues of power and authority, thereby demanding submission and obedience from their members. Jesus, on the other hand, taught that the nature of God's rule is love and service; which remains a continual challenge for organised religion, even today. Nevertheless, Christianity affirms that all things belong to God—that is all creation. Moreover, people have a special relationship with God, not only belonging to him but also being the objects of his love. Our faith, therefore, turns belonging on its head by affirming God's sovereignty over all things and proposing that human beings find their ultimate meaning, purpose and life in the creator and sustainer of the world, rather than in social constructs. We therefore make a universal claim by affirming that all things belong to God and that all people therefore ultimately belong to God's kingdom.
The kingdom of God is not a passive thing, and it is also not a place for smugness or arrogance. As people encountered Jesus, they recognised their need for something better than what their current circumstances allowed; and many found healing and/or deliverance from those things that stopped them from being the people that God intended them to be. The conceited, such as the Pharisee praying in the Temple (Luke 18), saw no need for change and therefore found no justification before God.
As Christians, we are called to participate in the kingdom of God. A significant part of that participation is worship; but it also involves caring for one another, teaching the faith and evangelism through sharing the good news of hope with others. This is the work of God's people, seeking to bring transformation both to individuals and society. Yet, it is common to hear people say that 'I don't have to go to church to be a Christian'. Logic might say that this is true because being a Christian is about having a relationship with God rather than being a member of a church institution. On the other hand, there is disingenuousness in this claim because it is a position that is not congruent with the life of Jesus.
Being a citizen of a nation entitles one to many benefits such as residency, protection under the law, the opportunity to work and so on. However, it also brings obligations such as to obey the law, pay taxes and participate in the political process. There is no privilege without obligation. In a similar way, being part of the kingdom of God brings obligations to participate in its life. If we are to perform the work of the people of God, then participation in the community of faith is vital.
We are called to be bearers of the image of Christ to the world, and this is not done for our own benefit but for the benefit of others. Participation in Christ is therefore done in the context of the people of God, which is the Church. It is for this reason that we cannot be 'lone Christians', disconnected from each other, as this would be a denial of participation in the mystical 'body of Christ'. As St Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth: 'For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.' (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)
T S Eliot wrote in his poem Choruses from the Rock:
What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community, and no community not lived in praise of God.
Back in the 1930s Eliot could see the disintegration of much of western society and argued that this was a spiritual problem because people had rejected God, not for other gods but, to worship aspects of human nature such as reason, power, wealth and status. Humanity therefore became estranged from God, which in turn created a process of alienation from each other, ultimately leading to meaninglessness and isolation. The rise of nihilism, the destructiveness of the First World War, the atheism of Communism, and the effects of the Great Depression had opened Eliot's prophetic eyes to the problems emerging in society since the Enlightenment. His critique was that life had lost its spiritual balance; in worshiping reason, we lost sight of the importance of love, beauty and justice; in worshiping power, we ended in war; in worshiping money, we found economic misery; in worshiping status, we achieved social alienation and class conflict.
To appreciate the nature of community is to understand the interconnectedness that exists between all people, and creation itself. 'Everything is connected with everything else' is a popular quote of our times that says something about community, because a well-functioning community understands that all people have an important part to play within it. This is what creates social cohesion and commitment to the well-being of the whole, and may be contrasted with a club or association that has sectional interests.
Nevertheless, a community does need an underlying meaning and purpose if it is to provide cohesion. Eliot, drawing on his Christian faith, understood that cohesion is to be found in God and that a true community is based on its spiritual commitment to praise God. We therefore need to be careful not to confuse the clubs, classes and tribes of our own creation (especially within the church) with the context of community in which we 'live, move and have our being'. (Acts 17:28).
The Christian faith talks not only of this world but also of the world to come, arguing that the kingdom of God is both now and more fully in the future. Theological study of the future state of things is called 'eschatology' and often focuses on the ideas of death, judgement, resurrection, heaven and hell. These are not very popular dinner-party topics these days, yet they do remain ultimate concerns. An important factor in this is the idea of justice. It is easy to see that all is not right with the world and that humans are inclined to act badly toward each other if no restraint is placed upon their behaviour. God constantly acts to draw humanity back to righteousness, which is revealed in the person of Jesus. The message is that justice will prevail in the end and that there will be hope and new life for those who seek to be faithful. The Christian community is therefore both now and more fully in the future, and we discover a foretaste of that future community through the experience of a loving community in the present.
Being an active part of the community of faith has many dimensions to it, but in general, it is about being transformed, both individually and corporately, into the likeness of Christ. An image of this new community is that of the 'heavenly banquet', which is prefigured in the Eucharistic banquet that we share in our present worship.