Thursday, 22 September 2011

Ready to reach out?

I enjoyed a really great conversation the other day, talking about the Spirit, community, relationships and a missional mindset. One thing that surfaced for me at the time was the question of whether as communities of God's people we are sometimes jumping the gun in our outreach. I'll explain what mean -

Being a community of the Spirit is in large part about relationships. It would seem that relationship is about sharing ourselves with one another, bringing about a certain vulnerability, but also intimacy. This, it could be argued, reflects the Trinity - Father, Son and Spirit in mutual self-giving, sharing themselves eternally. As a loving "community", the Trinity then reaches out to incorporate others into that loving inter-relationship. A loving community of deep relationship overflows to others, bringing them into relationship too. 

Now, in some cases, it seems that churches or communities are not yet in deep relationship with one another. Yes, we have our identity together in Christ and we may meet together for worship; but, are we in relationships of self-giving? Do we really even know the people who sit next to us? Are we accountable to one another? If our community has little depth to its relationships, isn't this then a problem for outreach? If we are lacking in love for one another, then where is the overflow to go out to others, drawing them in? Surely outreach is not just about sharing the story of the gospel in words, but also demonstrating it - letting people see the loving community of God's people in relationship. So, if we neglect this then we could impoverish our outreach. This is what I mean by "jumping the gun" - trying to build relationships outwards, when the foundation of our community relationships is not yet in place.

I'm not saying that we therefore don't consciously try to spread the gospel or speak of God's kingdom until all our relationships are sorted out and functioning deeply. However, didn't Christ say that people would recognise his communities of followers by the fact that they love one another? Isn't it also true, as Lesslie Newbigin wrote ("The Gospel in a Pluralist Society"), that the best hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation that lives by it or embodies it? In other words, we reach out better when we are reflecting the God who reaches out, the God who is in loving communal relationship. If love among us is lacking, will our words be less powerful? I think quite possibly so. 

Perhaps, then, when we think about reaching out, we would do well to reach out to one another within the body of Christ as well, building a good foundation of relationships. How do we do this? There is no easy answer, of course. One possible thing to consider is how much space we allow for getting to know one another - this would also illustrate how much we value it as we prioritise what we value most! So many church programmes are full of activities and when we meet together we often think we always need songs, Bible readings, an "epilogue" at the end to remind us why we are here, lots of activities so that we don't have to feel awkward and possibly have to really chat (and not just exchange pleasantries). Maybe "fellowship" meetings (or whatever you want to call them) could be more about getting to know one another. In my experience, many people lighten up and chat over a pint in the pub or a good meal. How about next time we have a "fellowship evening" we do nothing more than eat together and let the conversation flow? Maybe then we'll get to know and love one another, pray more constructively for one another and begin to overflow outwards, showing those around us a community of love that will be attractive and an embodiment of the gospel.

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