September 5, 2015 by Worship, Community, Formation
I was not expecting to like Dave Andrews. I could tell even without doing any actual research that he was a hairy didactic Aussie; and I did not want to spend my birthday evening listening to a bossy old hippy from Down Under. My wife however thought it should be otherwise, and if you know anything at all about wives – or about mine, at least – you’ll know how that story ended.
So it was that I found myself in a hall with many others from my neighbourhood, listening and talking community. And, despite my insight and foreknowledge, it was a challenging, enlivening event and the rest of this post is a record of what happened that evening. Given his subject area – the overlap between faith, community and practice – I feel it just about belongs on this blog.
If you were there, you’re welcome to correct or add to my memory of the event in the comments, and to share it with others.
I’m not going to start with Dave, though: there was more to the evening than that. Dave gets to speak at a lot of places but this would have been pretty unusual, in that almost the entire audience came from within a mile of the venue. They were Christians from at least five different churches: free evangelical, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Church of England. There were about 60 people in the audience, and the aim was to connect a very local community, around the subject of nurturing goodness in their local community.
We sat cafe-style, in the Methodist church, around tables, and with a plate of fine stew and a couple of questions to break the ice. Someone had done their homework, because our tables were in fact ‘hyperlocal’ – not just from the neighbourhood, but from immediately adjacent streets. One woman on my table turned out to be someone I’d been praying for for the last three months; I’d forgotten her face and name, and she’d forgotten mine, but I’d remembered her essence, and her concerns, steadily through my prayers. Despite being at the same table, we only made the connection by chance. That was the sort of evening it was.
Dave gave three short talks, in between each of which he challenged us with three questions. The overarching theme was that if we want to engage seriously with our communities, we need to change our:
- idea of church
- image of church
- model of church
The rest of this post is about how.
1. Our Idea of Church: A part of, not apart from
In the first talk, Dave set about challenging the idea that ekklesia (church), used in Matthew’s gospel, really means what Greek scholars might expect, knowing that the literal translation is ‘called out’. He suggested that people in Jesus’ time were not called out to be separate from the community, but called out to oversee and work for the community. So Jesus’ view of the ‘called out’ would have been as a group of community elders, fully committed to the community; not a group of separatists who could do it better.
This took him to reflections on how we do church now, and he suggested – in terms that will be familiar to those with a bit of sociology under their belt – that there are two types of community connection:
BONDING – people you like and people you are like. Provide ‘thick’, strong trust. Church would be an example.
BRIDGING – connecting with people you don’t have much in common with. Provides only ‘thin’ trust.
He talked a lot about thin trust. Thin trust is hard to build because social rules govern when we can talk to strangers. On the whole we can’t, and only at certain moments does it become okay. Dave suggested that if we know when those kairos moments appear, we can take full advantage to ‘bridge’. The challenge that flows from this, for Christians, is what difference does it make if we know this, and that was the question he asked at the end of this session. Here, though, are the 5 kairos moments:
(1) Moments of Change…. when people’s curiosity is greater than their suspicion – but only for a few days. When someone moves in to the street, you can knock the door and introduce yourself – but you’ve got to get on with it, or the moment passes.
(2) Lifecycle moments… births, marriages, deaths
(3) Open crowds… arranged around ‘conflict‘. An example of this would be an open meeting, or a campaign, around traffic changes in the neighbourhood.
(4) Open crowds…. around celebrations. Street parties, New Years’ Eve on the square, the garden festival in the park.
(5) Chance encounters… ‘excuse me, did you drop your wallet?’ … ‘wow, what a beautiful baby’… somehow the mere fact that you couldn’t have engineered the meeting can make it more acceptable to break the ice.
Thin trust, says Dave, is exciting because it is less ‘likely’ than thick trust. But there is intentionality and skill involved. He reminded us that when Jesus sent out the twelve, to the villages nearby, he encouraged them to settle in one house where they trusted the person; not to go from house to house. You build thin trust with those who are open to it. You are bridging into other communities, not trying to build an entire network on your own.
2. Changing Image of Church
One again questioning whether Christians should spend so much time building up church – a place of thick trust – in the hopes that people would come and join us, Dave quoted ‘the shortest parable of all’ – Matthew 13.33: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’ The yeast here is the church; the flour is the community, and as Dave said, in this parable, ‘they’re so mixed up … that you can’t tell the difference’.
He outlined the difference between the two forms of personal connection, drawn, I think from Yiddish: schmoozing and maching (pronounced ‘makking’). Schmoozing is informal, social; maching is formal, through community meetings, structured affairs. A little graph with two bows in opposite directions, showed how opportunity for schmoozing faded as we got busier into adult life and middle age, before returning in retirement. Maching however is the opposite, being beyond the grasp of youngsters, and adult skill, but which may decrease in old age as ‘position power’ – the authority of a particular role – is lost.
Dave’s challenge here was that we need to intentionally reduce commitments during middle life, to get a better balance. He challenged us to think about downshifting, and to think about our relationship with our community. Every ten minutes you spend commuting, he reported, reduces your engagement in any of the communities you belong to. The challenge is how to bring the communities you belong to closer together.
The questions he posed for this section were:
- why is it so important for the church to mix with society?
- how do machers and schmoozers mix with each other?
- how can we, as machers and schmoozers, mix with people?
3. Changing Model of Church
This section was dominated by two long stories, one about Dave’s own sense of expectancy, drawn from his Baptist upbringing, where everyone prayed that he would one day become ‘a great man of God’ – not ‘a humble man of God’ or ‘a loving man of God’! He spoke of how long a shadow of expectancy that cast over his life.
Dave then unpacked Jesus’ own humble ministry, through Philippians 2 and made these five observations on Jesus’ time on earth:
1. Jesus lived among us – he didn’t commute from heaven
2. Jesus came ‘as one of us’ – he didn’t focus on the differences between himself and others, and nor should we focus on the difference between church and community
3. Jesus ’emptied himself’ – he may have had ideas about his minsitry, but he didn’t get to choose, as the Wedding of Cana shows. ‘My time is not yet come’ he claims. We may presume that his mother gives him a firm look, and he buckles, for shortly after, the expected wine is provided.
4. Jesus ‘became a servant (slave)’ – extending what’s said above, we will waste everything if we sit in our office filling in forms. In fact the gospels show that many of Jesus’ plans and intentions were interrupted and disrupted. We should expect not to succeed as Christians if we plan to our strengths, if indeed we plan at all.
5. Jesus ‘gave his life’.
To illustrate this last challenging point Dave told an extended story about his daughter, in her late teens, taking a woman who’d spent 40 years in psychiatric long-stay hospitals, under her wing, going regularly to the smartest coffee shop in town, and the weekly humilations she suffered in the name of being a friend to a broken person. If you were there, you’ll remember it.
That was about it. The evening wrapped up, with some or all of us, I know not, won over to the idea that the church can be something to the community – but only if it gives up some ideas about being church first.
UPDATE: more ideas about Thin Trust here.