Category Archives: community

A Sermon for Stocket Grange

Christian Care – Acts 6

Ian Aitken, February 17th 2013

One of the things that we’re thinking about as a church at the moment is how well, or otherwise, we care for one another and how we might do it better. As you’ll see from the notices we’re setting aside a couple of hours one Saturday to discuss it and I would love if some folk were represented from her to bring your experience, wisdom and perspective. This morning, therefore, I want to briefly think about what it means to be a caring Christian community.

The story we just read records an incident which raised questions about the new church that had formed in Jerusalem and how they cared for one another. As I read this passage, three tensions stand out for me. The first is the tension between the Grecian Jews and the Hebraic Jews, two distinct groups who should have been united in their faith but were divided. One group talks about “their widows”. In the very earliest days of the church there is already a them and us. There is a beautiful picture of the church at the end of chapter 4 where there is no needy person among them, but it has turned ugly by chapter 6 where one complains against the other.

Jesus had said, “They’ll know you are my disciples if you love one another” and already the world could say, “we know they are the church by their contempt for one another.” Which all goes to show that caring for one another as Christians is not easy. It isn’t easy because sin creeps in and brokenness causes a mess. We may not like it, but we are as likely to hurt one another as hug one another, simply because we are all broken people. How do we care for one another when there is so much to divide us? How do we love those who are different from us? How do the brash love the timid and the timid love the brash? How do the certain love the questioners and the questioners love the certain? How do we love and care for one another?

The answer lies in the phrase, Christian care: knowing how Christ has loved and cared for us we live in response to it. I’m not sure that Jesus expected us to be the nicest people around but that in our living together people would see mercy triumphing over judgement; forgiveness triumphing over hurt; peace triumphing over anger. That’s what Christian care looks like.

Which takes us onto the next tension in the early church and every church, the tension between Christian care and pastoral care. The response of the apostles to the crisis in the church has sometimes been caricatured and criticised as “we are above waiting on tables: we’re far too spiritual and important for that.” In fact what they say is that the ministry of the word of God must not be neglected.

Pastoral care is properly a ministry of the word of God. Pastoring, or shepherding, in the biblical sense involves guiding individuals and the church as a whole to take hold of the promises of God in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Pastoral care helps others to live as disciples of Christ. The danger that is flagged up by the apostles is that the ministry of pastoral care will become neglected: and it is a danger which has all too often come to pass. There are those who are charged in the church with providing pastoral care: in particular the pastors; the elders and the ministers. Their role is primarily the ministry of the word and prayer – it is a ministry of helping people take hold of the promises of God and grow in Christ. It is pastoral care in its proper sense. When we lose that true meaning of the word and begin to expect our pastors, ministers and elders to be the prime carers in the church, two things happen: we lose the centrality of the ministry of the word on the one hand and the church as a whole is disenfranchised from its responsibility, the responsibility of each one of us, to care for each other.

And that brings us onto the third tension: the tension between the church as a community and the church as an organisation. The issue facing the church was a community one: people who should have loved and cared for one another were complaining against one another. They were failing to be the body of Christ. One would hope that with proper pastoral care the community would come more and more to resemble Christ in their care for one another. In the meantime though some were going hungry and others were being hurt. And so the solution to the community being less than it should be was to change the organisation and appoint people with specific responsibility to do the caring.

This is a tension that occurs in the church all the time. The community are meant to care for one another but when it fails we look to organise things so that those who need cared for are looked after. If someone goes into hospital and no-one visits them; if someone is bereaved and no-one comforts them; if someone is struggling with their finances and no-one has the expertise to advise them; if someone is suffering from depression and no-one takes the time to understand them, then we as a caring community should address that issue and organise things so that the weak are strengthened, the sad comforted and the struggling helped.

But the danger lies in our relying on organising things well rather than becoming the people God call us to be. The problem someone else is facing in the church becomes someone else’s responsibility rather than our calling together. There is, in other words, a vast difference between being a place where people are cared for and us being a community of Christian care.

In some ways that difference can be seen particularly well in a community like ours: us as a group of people gathering for worship here in Stocket Grange. Are we a church? Part of a church? For some of us this is our church; for others it is this along with the congregation gathering at Woodhill Court or across at the centre; for others still we are also part of another church altogether with long associations there. It is one of the joys and strengths of our gathering here that we can bring together all these different folk, and it’s one of my great joys that, unlike so many similar services, both Stocket Grange and Woodhill Court gatherings welcome folk from within and beyond the respective sheltered housing complexes.

But there is a great danger in gatherings like ours that some of us are those who put on the service and perhaps provide a degree of caring, inevitably limited, and others are those who attend the services and are cared for. I say danger but perhaps that arrangement is OK. It is, after all, how most such services work. However, I think that the danger is that what we do here becomes less than the church, the body of Christ, where God is truly worshiped; Christ met with, the Spirit encountered and the gospel revealed to the world. Instead we become providers and receivers of some sort of spiritual care which is less than what we should be as equal brothers and sisters in Christ.

Unlike the church in Jerusalem, I don’t think that one group here is complaining that another group are getting more biscuits after the service. But, in a community like ours which, with all due respect is predominantly older with all the issues that brings, there is an obvious need for the church to organise its care. However, there is a greater need, indeed a call upon us all , to live together as the body of Christ, a community of Christian disciples, the church, so that the love of God is revealed and experienced in our love for each other. That is the challenge that faces us here.

The Problem of Belonging

One of the big problems that any work like NYNO will face is that of it being ‘second-class’ church.

Most work, I’d suggest, that is done to meet the needs of older people who find it difficult to attend their old church is admirable. Putting on a small, short service, once a fortnight or once a month is not a bad thing to do. A subtle problem that those who are running it face is that we rarely think of it as church, with all the spiritual significance that would go with that. It’s a service that we do (to God and to these people in front of us), not really church on its fullness. This is understandable. There are relatively few people there. They are older than our usual congregation. We have other things to do!

We have found that even if we want to take these small congregations seriously, it’s very difficult to do. Perhaps one way of summing up the problem is that we don’t identify with these people, we don’t belong to them. In our own minds, we belong elsewhere. The amount of time and effort we spend on other congregations rather than these small ones is an indicator of where our heart is.

The problem exists in another form too. Christian residents of sheltered accommodation will often have existing long-term connections with other churches and these connections must in no way be undermined by our work.

The answer lies, we hope, in those who lead any individual NYNO congregation committing to it as their primary place of Christian worship. NYNO congregations can’t be extra good works. To be different at all, they have to be ‘first-class’ church. They have to be places in which Christians can participate in Christian community, in sharing their lives together, in which younger people can be blessed by older people.

NYNO congregations cannot primarily be about more able people going into the accommodation of older people in order to be nice to them, or even to bless them with the word of God. That risks being patronizing. If we can’t recognize that older people are our peers, that it’s genuinely a privilege to be with them, that we belong with these people, we need to think again.


Mission and Culture

‘Culture is good’, so I was told recently. ‘Cultural diversity is part of God’s wonderful many faceted creation. You occasionally hear people claim that it’s a result of the Fall and Pentecost signalled a reversal of Babel. No, diversity is good. Those who heard the Gospel at Pentecost heard it in their own languages.’

The context of the discussion was one of missiology, chastened by criticisms of imperialism, applied to the Western situation of a shrinking church.

What we are to be, so the methodology goes, is incarnational. We neither impose our culture nor compromise the Gospel message but rather seek to inculturate it and so allow the Gospel to engage and challenge the culture from within. This is fine, of course.

A couple of points sprang to mind when listening to this. Firstly, to describe issue in terms of the problems of imperialism or syncretism works for simplicity’s sake but strikes me as potentially quite conservative, and not in a good way. It risks being conservative in an unhelpful way if it’s accompanied by an assumption that ecclesiology are necessarily culturally bound and therefore have to be set aside. Of course, everything we do is culturally bound but there is an implication here that the ‘Gospel’ is somehow more free than our ecclesiologies. Is this really the case? You could respond to this by setting aside the Gospel in the name of inculturation, but alternatively one could recognise that the Gospel cannot be separated from ecclesiology. This is not a plea for those within whom we mission to sing Wesleyian hymns or use Hillsong resources (although I don’t think an emergent form of Christianity should be expected to remain ‘pure’, untainted by ‘foreign’ Christian tradition but rather to make the case that the ‘Gospel’ has greater implications for ecclesiological form than is being given credit.

Christian practices, such as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the use of the Lord’s Prayer transmit to us the outlines of an ecclesial form and practice, I would want to argue. They also come to us within the context of the culture of first century Palestine. Perhaps what it is I want to say is that the Gospel is not mere words and if nothing else, the sacraments point us to this. The big challenge is not just to find a form of words, but a way of life.

And, briefly, this brings me to a second issue that I think needs to be embraced by this discussion. When we talk of inculturation and incarnation these are not trivial matters. Those engaged in these matters can’t dabble. This isn’t a hobby. And, if we’re talking of applying these matters to the West and particularly the UK, I’m tempted to say the biggest divides we face are socio-economic and class based. If all we’re actually talking about is ministering to the sub-cultures of the consumerist middle-class (Is this the case? I fear that exceptions may prove the rule), then it will be all the more important for these ecclesial forms to fleshed out. Criticism without personal engagement in alternative forms will just be heard as bare words.

We need ecclesial forms that challenge our culture and we should expect this to involve major life commitment.

Privilege or Patronize?

NYNO aims to privilege the elderly. We do this for two reasons.

Firstly, many of the elderly are segregated in society and the church. We could talk about this more, discuss the extent to which it is the case or not, and the reasons for it but perhaps not here and now. We’ll take it as a given.

Secondly, in the Kingdom of God, the poor, the oppressed, the underprivileged are to be blessed. In this time and in the place, because of our first point, some of the elderly should surely also find themselves blessed by the kingdom.

However, it’s the not Church’s job simply to serve or bless the underprivileged. To see things this way can lead to us patronizing others. It presupposes that we have something that others need, that we are in the position of power and that others need what we have. In the body of Christ, however, all have something to give.

It’s essential therefore, for NYNO, that while we seek to privilege the elderly in that we create congregations that are accessible to them, we don’t patronize them. These churches are not acts of service for the young and acts of reception for the elderly. They are places where all are equal.

The Church, Discipleship and Mission

It is the very nature of reconciled human community to become conformed to the image of Christ, to become his witness in the definite form of the church’s missionary service to the world. This determination of the human act is one in active correspondence to God’s very being …

The Witness of God, John G. Flett, Eerdmans, 2010, p. 195

The act of reconciliation makes humanity a witness. This is what it means to be a disciple. It is to be a witness. To be a disciple and learn from Christ is to mirror him, though without doubt in a cracked and distorted manner. Humanity witnesses to Christ in word and action individually and as follow him and so learn to as community.

Again, to be conformed to Christ’s image is to witness to him. In its nature, an image points to the original.

And how does this happen, this conformity, this mirroring, this reconciliation. It comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit. When? When the Father wills, yes, but perhaps the Father wills that our own witness, reconciliation, conformity to Christ, might be used by him to redirect others to God found in Christ?

But again, is there a key to the successful church, to the missionary church. Only that she should be herself, and not something else. There you have it. The problem was ecclesiology (enmeshed in a coherent theological whole of which one part can hardly simply be considered before another) all along. I told you so.

Starting a New NYNO Congregation

There will be heaps more to it than this, but one of the keys tasks will be forging a group’s own sense of its identity.

To this end, a standard worship service needs to be written. This is not necessarily a set liturgy in which the congregation takes part but rather a description of each part of the meeting in terms of its spiritual significance: what do we hope to happen here or there. This will also include set phrases and prayers that express this theology and that are used week in, week out.

As a whole, the service should encapsulate the theology of the group, which of course should be the Gospel. Every week we repeat the core statements of our understanding of the Gospel and why that makes us who we are.

Next, each week we take a portion of the service – a portion of what we do – and we preach on a Scripture that grounds this act.

Remember, whenever you think you’re repeating yourself you probably need to repeat it another two/three times before anyone will remember it!

Hating Church?

Why do Christians have such a record of falling out with each other over church services? Why do we demonise other churches and Christians, feel such deflation and anger over services we don’t like; why are our emotions so engaged over notices, music and sermons so that we fall so quickly from some of the most fundamental patterns of the Christian life?

[Aside: There’s a whole heap of words that have been written in the States about how the ‘Church’ has kicked individuals in the teeth, how people have become disillusioned by fundamentalist teaching, narrow-minded and insensitive church discipline or the abuse of power by church leaders. I haven’t read too much of it. My guess is that the complaints are often quite specific and don’t necessarily translate too well to our situation. Still, it’s something to be away of  and explore if opportunity arises.]

I think we get so tired and fed-up with church because we care. It’s an obvious point, but in the throws of a disagreement it’s not always appreciated. But I’m not simply going to advocate empathy and listening to one another. That goes without saying but doesn’t really address the something that seems to be underlying the whole situation.

My point is rather that we care because God and our faith underpin the core of a Christian’s personality and identity. If you confuse me about who God, if you make me frightened and doubt that God loves me, I will hate you. That might not make all that much sense, from one perspective, because surely we should be more interested in pursuing the truth about who God is than in getting people to tell us what we want to hear, but that’s rarely how faith works – for good or ill.

Let me give a couple of examples. A woman walks into a charismatic meeting. She’s used to a formal, liturgical service.  Testimonies are given from the front about how God has been experienced directly in that person’s life during the past week. The sermon speaks of the necessity of ‘pushing into God’ in prayer. Those sitting next to her seem lost in the music of worship. How will this woman react? She will either assume that these people have something that she needs and doesn’t have, or she will miss what she’s used to and long for the familiar words of the liturgy that remind her of who she is in Christ and perhaps feel that her own faith is not valued here.

The situation could be flipped. The Christian whose faith is highly experientially grounded might well come to a Catholic liturgy and feel the ‘words, words, words’ just go on forever and leave him cold.

Would either Christian be able to settle in congregations they visited? Possibly some might, but the very fact that these different churches exists implies that most wouldn’t.

The point is that this is not simply a question of acclimatisation but rather that God and faith matters to us in a profound way and we look for a church in which our identity can be strengthened and nurtured and it’s very difficult for us to handle uncertainty or contradiction in that place that we call our Christian home.

The way forward for disparate groups is not compromise, a bit of a service that suits one person and a bit for another. That way leads to universal dissatisfaction. Nor is the answer simply listening and understanding one another, as though all practices are ultimately of the same value and interchangeable. The answer lies in participation, in ownership. The model of the body insists that church only exists in diversity and that all must be valued with the history and experiences that in part constitute each one of us and so constitute the body. The Church will not progress by getting rid of ‘dead wood’ or by attracting ‘the right sort of people’. It’s our job to find the lost sheep, not lose them.

That doesn’t mean there is no role of correction or leadership but that such activities take place in the context of personal relationships. It also means that leadership must be able to navigate diversity while maintaining the personal.

Does this give us an answer to our dissatisfactions? Perhaps it’s a start, and enough for today!

Grace and Community

An Excuse

What follows is an attempt to work out two ideas that appeared to my mind to stand in conflict with one another. I’m still not doing huge amounts of reading to ground any of this historically or exegetically. Nonetheless, I still think it will prove useful to continue to thrash out what exactly are the questions that more detailed work will attempt to answer later.

Common Prayer

One of the most influential spiritual experiences that I have had has been within services from the Book of Common Prayer. The spiritual dynamic of these services involves the rehearsal, and by God’s grace actual participation in, the basis of an individual’s relationship to God the Father, through Jesus Christ – and in particular his sacrificial death for our sins, brought to us in God’s word by the power of the Holy Spirit. Approach, Confession, Absolution, followed by the enjoyment of peace with God in prayer and the hearing of his word or reception of Christ in the sacrament. All this is enjoyed with fellow travellers by one’s side but one’s own dealing with God are personal and private. This allows time to reflect and be honest before God in way in which we, almost certainly, would struggle with others.

Communion as the defining symbol of worship

Strangely enough, I’m not going to explore the Anglican Eucharist here. In NYNO. I’m starting from the standpoint that the central act of ‘worship’ is not music but rather, in it’s barest form, meeting together in Christ. Doing this, sitting by one another, acknowledging one another as siblings in Christ, receiving from one another and giving to one another the necessities of community life is more important than singing songs. Doing this reminds us of the one who makes us a people, who makes us one body through the gift of his own.

The Personal or the Communal?

I’m going to assume that the personal aspect of Christianity remains essential and that my experiences of Common Prayer were not merely emotional misdirection. But if we wanted to preserve this, what would a liturgy look like that incorporated this into a meeting in which communion/community was central?

At the heart of these issues may be the fear that other people – perhaps the laity – are unable to mediate Christ to me in the way that the Anglican service might.

Where is the grace in community?

Perhaps the way to resolve these doubts will be to clarify the relationship of word and sacrament to community. There is a temptation to think that word and sacrament must precede – in some sense – community because word and sacrament are places of grace, places where Christ comes to us and constitutes us as his, individually and corporately. And yet, if we go back again to the words of 1 Cor 12, surely the body is a place of grace. If only we could recognise it!

There must be different levels on which this can be discussed. There is a theological level of logic which might attempt to describe the precedence of one to another. There’s also a practical and liturgical level: we as a community need to be reminded that we are constituted so in Christ. When will this occur? Who will do this for us? Presumably this is the role of Christian leadership, of preaching, of eldership. And, it may well also be the role of the Lord’s Supper.

God can speak as and when he likes and his grace can be mediated by each one of us sinful and broken people. But we all need to be brought to Christ, need to be met by him whenever we meet. We need the word, and we need the sacrament, because we need Christ. This is logically and theologically true and liturgically sensible. But when we have heard and recognised that we are constituted as God’s people – how do we respond to this. Do we then put the kettle on and bring out the new baked bread? And where – if at all – does music come back into the picture?

Science …

In the the last post I began to pull together some thoughts with regard to NYNO’s form of worship.

But worship is only aspect of NYNO’s identity.

Worship, community, discipleship, spirituality and mission – and maybe others too – are all areas in which we need to experiment and monitor and report.

It’s going to be helpful – for ourselves but also for speaking to funders – to be a little more structured in our planning for our research. And research is a good word to describe what we will be doing: introducing new ideas or ways of being church, practising them and evaluating them. We want to be able to say at the end of a period of experimentation, ‘We wanted to achieve this end, so we tried this and it worked/didn’t work for the following reason.’

So perhaps I need to return to my first year aims and objectives document and begin to split out some of the different tasks that lie ahead. We can’t do them all at once, but to choose the best one to start with we need to have thought what the others might be.