It’s funny how when you hear a phrase or are having a conversation and something just doesn’t seem right but at the time you can’t really explain what and why. I can find myself continuing the conversation, listening to the other person and agreeing with them but knowing that somewhere in my head I just don’t agree but can’t seem to collect the thoughts together enough in that moment to be able to express it. The other person is making good points, agreeable points, nothing wrong with points, but still I retain a feeling that I don’t agree, there’s something niggling me that means I am unsure of my agreement. The conversation ends and the other person walks away thinking I agree with them, probably because I just have, and I wander off to ponder why I just don’t like the phrase or the agreement seemingly reached.
So this blog comes from a conversation about church and this particular phrase; ‘you can’t just walk away from your responsibilities’– which I agreed with at the time but now I’m not so sure. I think whether you can or not depends on whether those responsibilities are rightly placed or based on a questionable structure in the first place. It has me thinking about what are these ‘responsibilities’ where do they come from and can you walk away from them with a clear conscience. I think some of the answers to that question lie in our understanding of what is a church and what is a community and where does being ‘responsible’ for the structure and its members come from and is it forever. Living in relationship with other people creates a sense of responsibility. Society has a collection of rules, which apply to everyone, dictating how to behave in the best interests of other members of the society. When people become linked by more than society i.e. work or club membership, the rules for behaviour intensify. These rules are usually well known, recognised, mostly agreeable and depending on how much you want to be in the specific group of people you will abide by the rules. Maybe this is where our thoughts on ‘belonging before you believe’ come from, because of people’s need to be part of a community we changed the rules of ‘church membership’ to be able to incorporate into the church community people with no belief in Jesus. We include people and whilst there is no consensus on belief there is a sense of responsibility for their welfare and their journey into belief.
The rules and responsibilities between friends and partners can be more intense, rules/obligations relating to honouring, caring, respecting, being the shoulder to cry on, being the person who will get out of bed in the night for you. It is perhaps true to say the closer the relationships, the more responsibilities there are to each other. There are some relationships that you cannot walk away from, there is a depth of love that means you don’t want to stop being responsible for each other. A parent never wants to stop being responsible for their child, the sense of being needed for something, having an input in their lives, doing what is possible to ensure their well-being. Sometimes such depth exists between friends, where regardless of distance or time there is a tie that looks covenantal.
Here’s a dictionary definition of community: - a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage / a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists. A couple of points from that definition; shared government is an interesting concept and has the implications of government of others, a sense of leadership and submissiveness, agreement and consensus to rules. When moved across to understanding church community we can see that there is governance in church structures. Based on our interpretation of biblical principles, our culture, and depending on the style of church, the government is either very clearly established, easy to identify and traditional or has the appearance of being more vague but in reality it is still strongly established. The leaders make the decisions based on their interpretation of the scripture and sometimes, but not always, with the mandate of the congregation. There perhaps lies one of the reasons for a clergy laity split, somebody has to be responsible for the governance of the church and our interpretation has led us down the path that the governance is specific men/women who have either applied for the job, been to seminary or have been seen to carry the qualities of leadership. As a leader in a church how can you walk away from this governance responsibility? I would suggest that it is possible if you also walk away from the style of church that requires a style of governance that dictates the beliefs of the group and governs from a place of platform/pedestal. Jesus’ leadership comes from a place of submission to God, servant-hood and certainty of his identity and his church leaders should come from that place also. I don’t think it is a church leader’s responsibility to lead like a king, to sit on a pedestal and dictate what God is saying to the congregation today. I believe we have one king and all believers are his priesthood. Church structures might need people who will be administrators of the finances and the schedule but not leaders in the place of Jesus. I don’t believe this is one-sided; congregations love their kings (aka strong leadership) and being consumers, (only contribute when asked specifically and usually by manipulation). It is much easier to be told what the bible means or what God is saying and much easier to lead when you do it all yourself and stop trying to equip people! What would happen if all the leaders in all the church decided they were stepping down, (an interesting phrase) and instead left the meeting open to everyone to bring what God is saying to them, perhaps a song, a good news story, a prayer, a prophecy, a teaching session, a need, would it still be church? What if only one person brought a talk to encourage others in their journey, would that still be church? What if all you did was drink tea and share lives, would that still be church? In these scenarios I don’t see the need for governance, administration and organisation perhaps but not the governance in the sense of one person/s over the others. There should be only one person over our heads and his name is Jesus.
Back to the definition, ‘distinct from the larger society’ and I think this one is a whopper for our social engagement and our understanding of responsibility - ‘in the world but not of it’.
The word 'church' in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word 'ekklesia' which comes from two words 'ek' meaning 'out' and 'kaleo' meaning to 'call.' An ekklesia or 'calling out' was not just an assembly. The word ekklesia was a political term, not a religious term. The New Testament writers could have chosen other words for church that would represent a group gathering together but they chose a political term, one that had the added element of coming out of the established system. Something about this gathering of people that was to be distinct from other gatherings.
Today our churches are set apart from the local communities and this has led to a massive call to re-engage, to re-emerge, to be seeker-friendly, make our meetings much more attractive and accessible to the unbelievers. Let’s give away prizes and make everything excellent and this will encourage people into church, once they realise we are ‘fun’ they will want to join. This is great for church numbers, it may work to get people through the doors to hear the gospel from the pulpit, it may help people belong to a community and help people once ‘in’ to journey into belief. Another shape of emerging church is to engage with the community outside of ‘church’ hours and move away from the central focus of the church meeting. We’ve done teaching relating to being Christ where you engage with community, in your sphere of influence, being outward, and kingdom focused rather than trying to attract folk into the church meeting.
Perhaps this leads to the ‘called-out’ local community being torn between their desire or vision to be good news to the community in which it resides and the distinctive nature of being a church, the called out community. The phrase ‘in it to win it’ would suggest that we stop being ‘called-out’ because we want to be seen to be the same, not too different, not too weird, to fully engage with our communities on their level. (Not to be confused with 'in it to win it' on a personal level where that is the calling for most christians on a daily basis). The shift in emphasis means there is a shift in perceived, but not necessarily agreed, responsibilities. The rules start to change, the responsibilities widen from those in the church to the whole community outside the walls. Tension arises on the basis that people are no longer fulfilling their responsibilities to the church structure. The cry of ‘what about my needs’ ‘who will be looking after me now’ starts to filter to the surface. It is now more than just sending out the evangelists on raiding parties now the rules have changed and we are all evangelists, all carrying the message of good news. It is part of who we are – go and make disciples, preach the good news, heal the sick and raise the dead. How can we walk away from this responsibility? The church is the bride of Christ, it declares the manifest wisdom of God, it is Christ’s body, and once we believe that, it will affect how we respond to our responsibilities to the church and the community. Perhaps we have misunderstood the meaning of the word ekklesia, it was not to be a closing of the doors and cultural separation, a fear of being contaminated by the world outside and perhaps not even a blending in to the community so we can’t be seen. Perhaps instead it is to be a distinct group of people who know Jesus to be their saviour, called out from darkness into the light and nothing to do with structures and meetings and everything to do with our relationship with Jesus and humanity..
So back to the reason for the blog - ‘responsibilities’, which ones can you walk away from? Certainly those that we were never meant to carry in the first place and one of the biggest in the church structure is the responsibility for other people’s relationship with God. We have confused leadership/discipleship roles with that of becoming somebody else’s priest. If I step into the role of being responsible for a person’s relationship with God I am becoming their mediator and that job is already taken. I can teach, I can disciple but the ultimate responsibility is the individuals and I do them a massive disservice if I don’t teach them to access God personally, to learn from God independently from the church and its leadership, to have a dependency on Jesus not on the leader of the church. This is a responsibility we should all be walking nay running away from!
There is the responsibility to each other that goes beyond the structure and here I think is the core responsibilities that you cannot walk away from. We are in relationship with the people in our churches and it is here that if people become responsibilities rather than relationships we’ve lost the plot. Our responsibilities flow from our relationships and this flows from our relationship with Jesus. As soon as we forget our relationship with Jesus then we forget our identity and we forget to see people. We forget that Jesus works from a place of restful relationship with his father and we too can work in complete restfulness where people are a pleasure and a privilege to be around.
The Science dictionary states a community as: - A group of organisms or populations living and interacting with one another in a particular environment. The organisms in a community affect each other's abundance, distribution, and evolutionary adaptation.
A good definition of the church perhaps; the living organism that is more than its meetings and structures, the living entity that affects people’s abundance. The place where we are responsible to each other for well-being, goodness and love. A community where the structures and the meetings are secondary to the relationships and where the responsibilities are based on loving relationships rather than historic or governmental rule keeping.