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Ecumenism matters

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Ecumenism is a big, scary word. Like predestination. Like transsubstantiation. Which means we can hide behind it. In an infamous Father Ted episode, Father Jack is taught to say “that’s an ecumenical matter” to stop him from answering any question. At the heart of ecumenism, though, is a very important idea: Christian unity.

Photo: E Gammie, reused under CC license

At the heart is the idea that there is one catholic (little c!) and apostolic church. Any church that adheres to the Nicene creed should adhere to the idea of ecumenism.
Any organisation that holds to the Bible should adhere to the idea of ecumenism. Because if we don’t, we are creating a culture of “us and them”, a culture where the others are not in communion with us.

But here come a difficulty: ecumenism is generally understood as bridging the Roman Catholic/Protestant divide (at least in the West). But where do we draw the line? What’s to stop us from being ecumenical with, say, Christadelphians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses? Aren’t we drawing the same sort of line when we’re considering some as non-Christians?

To answer this, I like to look at the liturgy used for the induction of a Catholic chaplain last week. It goes:

Will you acknowledge the richness and diversity of your individual Christian traditions? Will you seek to be more fully united in faith, communion, pastoral care and mission, only doing apart what cannot be done together? Will you, in obedience to the Word of God, pledge yourselves to seek and make visible the unity intended by Christ for His people?

The stakes appear to have been raised. It is unity “intended by Christ”. No, Christ did not necessarily suggest there should be only one church organisation – the prayer in John 17 is that all Christians be one in Him. But what the liturgy says is that this unity needs to be made visible.

Indeed, one of the most mind-boggling questions people ask about Christianity is “why are there so many different denominations?” The multiplicity of churches to go to, the multiplicity of the details in doctrine, etc. impedes mission quite heavily. Because it means people look at the details* rather than at what is at the core of our being.

Don’t get me wrong, ecumenism should not be just in order to show that we are together – it should stem from a real desire for Christian unity! That unity is between individual Christians, who are all one in Christ – and then moving up to organisations; rather than the opposite. But ecumenism does have a visible part. It is, beyond a nice fluffy feeling, something that we “do”. The rest of the liturgy tells us more:

  • it is not an erasing of differences between different denominations. It is not being “non-denominational”. Rather, it is embracing those differences and celebrating them – and beyond that, celebrating our unity around these differences.
  • it happens in all we do: mission, faith, communion, pastoral care. Only things that cannot be done together should be done apart (basically, holy communion rites or celebration of the saints). But in that way, ecumenism looks no different from what we normally do. That’s probably what throws people who try to “do” ecumenical things – they are not special things to do; just normal things to do together.

This is where we can start to answer to the question of where ecumenism stops. Because in all we do as Christians, God is central. We do all these things not in our own strength, but relying, giving thanks and worshipping God. In order to be able to do so, we need to be worshipping, basically, the same God: the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As long as this happens, ecumenism is possible – more than that, it should happen and be visible. Just because we do things a bit differently, is no excuse for not being ecumenical.

That would be an ecumenical matter” becomes, then, no excuse – rather, it turns into an impressively important matter, but also one that should flow naturally. After all, we do things together with people who believe in predestination – why not with Catholics too? ;-)

* Details can be important. Far be it from me to play down the importance of free will, or of how we see the Bible, etc. But doctrine is not at the centre of what we do – God is. (And yes, I realise that sentence is doctrinal in itself :-P )

The awkward middle

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Churches have to cater for, roughly speaking, two populations: the newcomers, people who have never been to this particular church before; and the established congregaion, who need perhaps more challenging than welcoming. Of course, the picture painted here is very sketchy: it doesn’t consider the nuances of visitors or occasional worshippers. But even taking these into account, there are roughly two groups: the new faces and the familiar faces.

All the churches I’ve been to embrace their mission to welcome all. I remember walking alone into church many times (as a visitor in many cases, but also as a first-time visitor) and every single time, I was introduced to many people, including more often than not the pastor, and feeling that people were taking a genuine interest in me. Tea and coffee after the service was also always appreciated. Especially with biscuits.

All the churches I’ve been to also have a lot of activities going on for their members: lots of ways to serve, midweek groups, community action, etc.: the church is not a continually repeated welcome. A good church spurs individual spiritual growth, and does not start over from scratch every week.

Of course, there is a tension for church leaders between serving newcomers and serving regular faces: how much should they explain, say, the structure of the service? Plug mid-week groups? There’s a danger of boring the regulars with the same information every week, and a danger of newcomers not knowing what to do. There are many practical ways of solving this: print the information – and, first and foremost, encourage the congregation itself to be welcoming to new faces, etc. It shouldn’t all come from the top!

So far, so good: we have churches that manage to cater for two distinct populations fairly well. The problem is: you don’t suddenly change from new face into regular face. There is an awkward middle: one where you haven’t, for instance, decided to get stuck in in that particular church, but no longer get the welcome you did as a “new face”. One where you’re neither an old face nor a new face. My experience is that most churches are in denial about this awkward middle, probably because they don’t know how to address it.

There are churches that outright try to skip the awkward middle by making newcomers sign up to a wealth of activities on their first day. Or at least to the mailing list, which then gets indiscriminately used. For all intents and purposes, once you’re on that list, you are no longer seen as a newcomer. This strategy works with a very limited population: those who (a) know they won’t be going to a different church, and (b) have a passion for church life that is burning enough for them to unreservedly sign up when offered. But there will be a large-ish number who will not want to sign up straight away. I tend to fall in that category. And for us, it is damaging, because we feel a certain guilt at not having signed up when it was first offered, imagine we have missed the train, and end up disengaged with church activities.

There are churches that fall on the other end of the spectrum. The awkward middle is simply an extended newcomer phase, and there is a definite shyness in sharing either opportunities for service or mid-week groups. Transitioning from newcomer to known face becomes, then, frustrating.

As far as I can tell, there is no magic formula that will sort out the issue of the awkward middle for everyone at once – simply because when that awkward middle happens is very much dependent on the individual. But here are a few ideas:

  • most importantly, know and care for all individuals coming to your church. Remember what they tell you, but don’t let that stop you from going and talking to them – there is always more to say! Only ever offer further involvement in the framework of that caring relationship. This means that you should know at least a few things about whom you’re inviting.
  • as a church member, be transparent about your extra activities. Invite newcomers to non-threatening, one-off (even if repeated one-offs!) events: do not call them “small group”, or anything that would suggest that once you go there, you must continue to do so.
  • remember that small groups, or whatever other activity you get involved in, is not an end in itself: community and growth tend to be the purpose. If that is clear,
  • as a church/team leader, make it easy for people to help out “on the day”, without commiting to further service on further weeks. This could be a slot on the rota that is deliberately left empty (help with tea, or with welcome, etc.)
  • periodically ask for help in various specific teams. Do not limit the notices to the “big jobs” held by one person only, and that feel out of reach!

Any other ideas?

Are you a shoes off church?

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The other day, a friend came over to watch a film. As he got in, he saw a shoe rack, and naturally took off his shoes. Our house doesn’t operate a shoes off policy, but seeing all these led him to, naturally, take his shoes off.

Every place has its own set of rules as to what is acceptable or not. And that’s fine – Biblical, even. But if we’re trying to be welcoming to people wherever they are, we have to also let them feel that they can be themselves. That they can, if they wish to, keep their shoes on – within the limitations we have had to put in place for everyone to be able to enjoy church and fellowship. To do that, we need to make sure that we don’t look like a sanitised, sterile place, where mud is to be kept out at all cost.

That means that churches and chaplaincies alike have to be places where people are comfortable with the more personal aspects of sin, and visibly so. And for that to happen, it means that those at the top should show themselves as people who sometimes struggle (without, of course, exalting sin!) and that the congregation should do the same (without, of course, turning the competition for who’s the holiest into a competition for who’s the most sinful!)

That is important in order to be welcoming – in order to offer people a place where they can embark on their own process of sanctification from the place that they are at, rather than having to double their own efforts to catch up with the rest of the congregation in order to come fully into the church. In order for their whole persons, sins, warts and all, to embark on that process of sanctification, rather than leaving that muddy shoe on the doorstep.

It is also important even for someone like me who already feels welcome in the church or the chaplaincy, because if I leave that muddy shoe on the doorstep and then pray for forgiveness, am washed clean, and then go back out the doors of the church, I will put that muddy shoe back on. Only by taking full stock of my own sin can I feel the liberation of redemption. And I can’t do that if I’ve left my sin at the door of the church – whether willingly or not.

But it feels like, although we know we can come with our muddy shoes, and that anyone is welcome to come and worship, regardless of where they’re at – although we know this really well, we are complacent in how we make that known to others. Our first message should not be “You are forgiven”; it should be “Come as you are.” The exhilarating feeling of forgiveness can only come afterwards.

What are you doing to reassure people they can keep their shoes on, regardless of how muddy they are?

My greatest fear

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My greatest fear is that I end up doing church.

Scarecrow
Photo: jcookfisher, under CC license.

Regardless of the number of activities I partake in on weekdays, of how involved I can get in church life, the risk is still there: that I consider church, small groups, Bible studies, etc. to be something that I do. Because there’s a fine line between that and those things being what I do. But also because it is much easier to constrain specific actions to specific settings. And finally because it can lead to dissatisfaction with myself and others, as there is always more that I, or they, could do.

And none of these are desirable prospects. What I want is for my faith and my belonging to the local and global church to be part of my identity. For these things to seep through everything that I do and that I am, but not to be the object of my actions. It may sound like a pedantic difference to make, but it is important to make it, because church is more than the sum of its parts: it is more than all that we do there.

That can be used as an excusenot to go on the rota. But it shouldn’t, because that in turn could lead to a reluctance to get involved – and the death of the excitement felt at first.

Rather than avoiding doing stuff for church, rather than simply trying to be¬†church, here’s the key: remember that what you do is about, for, with and from God:

  • when you read the Bible for the congregation, don’t simply “do the reading”, thinking you have to get it done for the rest of the service to go on. Remember what it is you’re reading (it is from God). Remember why you’re reading the Bible (to tell the congregation about God). And with the help of the Holy Spirit, proclaim boldly the Word and make it alive. Take the time that is needed, because it is for God.
  • when you’re leading worship, don’t let the technicalities of keeping rhythm, etc. (I have very little clue what I’m talking about here!) overwhelm you. Remember who you’re singing about. Whom you’re praising. Where the songs come from. And that the worship is, again, with the help of the Spirit.
  • when you’re serving tea, remember what hospitality is about and whom we’re trying to emulate. Remember where the love you’re showing comes from (that, and the goodness of tea). Seek the presence of God and let it shine through you.
  • when you go out of church – keep on reminding yourself of that throughout the week, in all that you do. That way, what you do will never be about what you do.

When I remind myself of God’s hand in what I do, the words of Philippians 4 come alive:

the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guards my heart and my mind in Christ Jesus.

10 reasons I don’t wash (or go to church)

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YOUCAT recently made this video, in German:

It’s quite good, so for those who don’t speak German, here’s a translation!

  1. When I was a kid, I would be forced to wash.
  2. People who keep washing themselves are just hypocrites who want to show that they are cleaner than everyone else.
  3. There’s just so many types of soap! How am I to know which one’s right for me?
  4. The water companies are just after our money.
  5. I tried washing once. But it was always boring and just the same stuff over and over again.
  6. In the bathroom it’s always so cold and sanitised.
  7. Oh, but I do wash. At Christmas and Easter. Surely that’s enough!
  8. None of my friends think washing is necessary.
  9. Right now, I just really don’t have the time to wash.
  10. Maybe I’ll try washing someday, when I’m older.

Sounds familiar?