Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Restoring community

The Budget today brought to mind some things which have been festering in my mind for a while. The Conservative party have made spending cuts and increased taxes in order to stabilise the economy and sort out our debt. Any responsible government would have done this - although in my opinion not in the way its been done, however, that's what's happened. Lower-income workers will be hit hard by the VAT rise, poorer families by the freeze in child benefits and child trust funds, and sure start. Many people, especially poorer or low-income families in the London area, will be hit by the housing benefit cut.

The reality is though someone was always going to suffer for the tremendous economic problems we have right now. The answer is not to debate the rights and wrongs of economic policy - and I can not and never will agree with cuts that hurt the poor more than the rich - the answer to the problems, however idealistic, lies in, believe it or not, the Bible - the book of Acts, Chapter 2 v44-47 :

"All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.."

Check out the highlighted line again. 

They were all together, 
they had everything common, 
and if people were in need they sold property and possessions in order to meet their needs. 

In other words, they made sacrifices from their own plenty to give to those in need. Now this idea seems counter-cultural today, and one reason often given for ignoring this concept of sharing things between each other is often dismissed as something that people did 'in those times'. Now obviously, in case you hadn't noticed, there are cultural differences between now and 2000 years ago.However, this concept that the early church had in place wasn't cultural. It was counter-cultural then as well. The idea of everyone being in community and sharing food and possessions was counter-cultural at that time too.

Now I'm not saying we all sell all our possessions and give to the community. But what I am saying is have a different attitude towards what we own, towards our money, indeed, towards other people. We need to be more willing to give of our own time, energy and money for the needs of others. There needs to be a cultural shift - which brings me to my main point.

You see, the sharing of possessions isn't even the biggest deal.

The biggest deal is the concept of community.

This is a concept foreign to people growing up today. I remember growing up in a time when everyone knew everyone down their road, especially people of a similar age. We knew our neighbours, shared food with them - extra fruit from the tree, extra cakes we'd made - and we all used to go out and play down the road and no-one worried. You could leave your front door ajar when you went out to play (as long as someone was in the house), and you knew it was safe. As a child you could go and round your neighbours house to play and feel totally safe. Parents trusted neighbours to keep an eye on their kids, they all knew each other and trusted each other. If there was a problem, an emergency there were people there.

Yes, it was really like that.

For example, the many times my Mum was rushed into hospital, we didn't need to panic about a babysitter. A neighbour was always on hand to help babysit or anything else that needed doing.


In fact when my mum was really ill, there was almost a rota of mainly neighbours - but also church people too (who all lived locally anyway) who volunteered. One neighbour babysat so often I got to know them quite well, which is quite an achievement at 8 years old.

The point is there was real trust between people. A real sense of community.

Indeed, I am still in touch with several of the people down who lived down my old road - some still do - and the ones I don't see I always seem to find out the latest on.

There is so much fear in our culture now.

We live in a culture run by fear.

Advertisers market through a form of fear - its not obvious of course,,its not scary fear, but its fear nevertheless. More than ever people are concerned about diet, healthy lifestyle, and making yourself look as young as possible as long as possible, avoiding ageing, avoiding death as long as possible. The number of laws regading political correctness in every area of life is testament to a fear of offending someone, a way of avoiding something, not standing for anything and keeping things private. Our culture is less and less about community and more about individualism, entitlement, personal 'rights', doing what's best for me, taking care of me as no one else will take care of me - no one can be trusted.

The natural assumption is not to trust, rather than to trust. Cynicism is alive in our culture more than ever. Faith and religion are to be kept private, whereas new atheism -which is not a religion or belief system according to many - gets allowed to behave the same way because its basis comes from 'facts', which are more important than faith (forgetting the gospels and Acts are all a telling of actual historical events witnessed by many people).

The message of Jesus has been lost amidst the divisions in the Church of England, the many issues surrounding the Catholic church and people's general perception of church - as well as many Christians' own dissolusionment with traditional church.

So there are multiple problems and our culture needs to shift. Consumerism cannot go on forever - with the new financial reality we simply won't be able to consume as much. People are going to be compelled to find new solutions, to find new realities, to start being less individualistic.

There is an opportunity here. 

A chance for followers of Jesus to reclaim what the message of Jesus really means, to change the perception of what church and following Jesus really means, to even grow the church. 

But not just that, there is an authentic chance, maybe once in a lifetime chance, to redefine our culture. A chance to bring sense out of all the chaos and deal with the wider issues facing our nation and the world right now, to restore trust, hope and rebuild communities. To build relationships between people, a sense of togetherness in the communities we live and work in. To bring people together. And this has implications not only for meeting need, but for tacking social problems, issues of crime and violence. 

All through the pracitice of relationship.

How do we do this? 

By modelling community in our churches, by emphasising the importance of relationships in what we do inside and outside of church meetings. Through being community, being family in the way Jesus intended, and the early church modelled. Meeting each others needs, serving one another, working to meet the needs of our community, coming together to face the bigger problems in our culture, being outward looking, providing a safe place for people - a come as you are culture of acceptance, grace and love - but which is engaged with the real issues and problems we face, involved in our experiences, and that engaged with the bigger picture of what is happening in the world and not separate from it. That means working with local government, social services, MP's and organisations or charities at work within our area to help build local communities. By using our church buildings as resources for the local community, by joining together in nationwide but localised projects like the Foodbank which meet needs in our communities. 

We need to bring the people of our communities together and build that community spirit, we need to encourage relationships between the people in our communities, which can be done through community projects of various kinds meeting people's different needs, projects which encourage people of the community to get involved and where we can show them the value of community, but also show them practical, living faith in Jesus.

When it comes to our own church communities, there needs to be a community, family, discipleship emphasis in how we approach church, how we run our home groups, how we do outreach and mission. There needs to be a missional focus, and a discipleship focus. Our churches need to seek to become communities of people who are seeking to live out their faith where they live and work, not just within the confines of church meetings and activities, a community where there is authentic Christian discipleship taking place. Many churches are already doing this - ones like my own one in Sutton - and in my opinion these are the type of churches that are going to be most engaged with the world, the ones that will grow, the ones that will attract non-Christians. Its largely through actions that the church is going to change the perceptions, change the adjectives which are used in relation to church and the Christian faith. In a world where people find it hard to believe anything any public figure - including religious ones - say anymore, its our actions that will speak loudest.

However, having said that, in a thriving, growing, true Christian community there needs to be quality teaching about Jesus, and it needs to be in the language and experience of the world we live in, not cheesy religious jargon, teaching which is creative and innovative, teaching which confronts reality and helps people to find the Jesus in their own circumstances, in their everyday, and encourages a sense of community and family. Teaching which challenges us to live a Jesus-centered life but at the same time speaks of the immense love, grace and mercy of God, and the restoration of all things which is made possible through the cross of Jesus. Teaching that doesn't use the language of religion, that opens people's eyes and changes the perception of church and the Christian faith, and points people towards true authentic Christian discipleship. And when we talk to people about Jesus, lets not use cheesy jargon, lets tell our story, lets show people what Jesus has been doing in our lives, lets be honest about our faith. Forget the jargon and the cheese, lets really be real about our faith and why we believe what we do, and how its impacted us.

We can show people we live our lives according to a bigger story, a different agenda, and one that can meet all our needs. Something people can put their security in and where people can find their true identity. Where love, community and relationship is valued more than money, status or possessions. 

In doing that, we can change our culture, we can reorder our culture on a larger scale to something more like the kind of culture Jesus intended. It starts with all of us in our church communities, each reaching out and looking out to meet the needs of the communities we are part of and seeking to engage with them. 

Now I'm not saying we will all become Christians, or we will do it perfectly, or that it will be easy. I know, it does sound idealistic, and redefining culture is not a short-term process, it takes time, effort, commitment, vision and prayer. There may be setbacks on the way. Indeed, this vision is only really being birthed in my heart and mind and I am sure that over time experience, knowledge and reflection will allow me to articulate it better and more practically, and to explore it in more depth. In time what I say now might turn out to be a bit niave. But I have always been someone who likes to see the bigger picture, believe in hope and try and cast a vision, so here I am.

I believe it can happen, if we reclaim the real heart of church - authentic Christian discipleship in authentic community - and look outwards to try and make that reality true wherever we live and work, both as individuals and as church communities. If we capture that vision of community and the values of Jesus, spreading out into the communities we live and work in, it can be done. 

Ultimately though its not about what I say. Its about action. Its about the hard graft, the nuts and bolts of doing it, the sheer effort and slog of working these things out and making them happen, the tough journey of discipleship, where this will all be played out. Its a process that will be tough, but will be worth the effort. It's a process that will go on and on, and never end. There will always be more challenges, struggles to overcome and difficulties to face. There will be setbacks. 

But we need to grasp this vision, because more than any government policies, this has the power to change communities. By resurrecting community in the world at large through building authentic Christian community. By rebuilding community through modelling it ourselves.

Bill Hybels once said 'The local church is the hope of the world'. Rarely has a truer word been spoken, and rarely have those words seemed so appropriate.

Posted via email from James Prescott