Who are we? What are we to become?
It might be helpful to look at the definition of church in “Words of the Word” before reading this.
We are not just any group of believers called ‘church’. There are many such groups, they reflect varied beliefs and ways of following Jesus, and they organise themselves in different ways. We are a particular group of believers. Just as individuals differ in personality, temperament, talents, hopes, etc, so do local church congregations. We have to find the best way for us to be the church.
We have the New Testament ideal in Acts 2:44-47 to use as a standard for comparison:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRVS)
Whilst the Acts model clearly worked very well in its time, obviously it does not translate well to a western capitalist society. However, there are certain things that can be taken from the model; e.g. eating together regularly and spending time together in prayer and study.
A Model Based upon Koinonia
It seems to this writer, the aspect that stands out as the cornerstone for our understanding of church is the quality of interpersonal relationships we can infer from the description in Acts. The Greek word that describes this is koinonia, which refers to the state of fellowship and unity in the idealised church. Wherever I have lived previously, there has always been at least one small group within the congregation that has stood out as possessing the quality of koinonia.
Unfortunately, this quality is hard to manufacture. One might think that all churches and all church groups would possess it. If people really are part of the body of Christ, koinonia should come naturally; a gift of the Spirit. Yet, it seems difficult, at least in our culture, to replicate koinonia on a large scale. It seems to happen at some of the more enthusiastic, Pentecostal style of church, but does it really? I can’t say. In the churches of which I have been a part, it seems only to work on a small scale, and there seems to be no magic formula to make it work.
One very definite characteristic of koinonia is the depth of interpersonal relationships. People really get know one another, and for this to happen, at least three things are required: 1) a desire to know the other person, 2) the time and opportunity to do so, and 3) mutual vulnerability to let down one’s personal defences so that true communication takes place at a deep level. This kind of relating does not happen in a large group, simply because we do not have the capacity to relate to this degree with more than about a dozen people at a time. Therefore, Sunday worship by itself, no matter how friendly and welcoming and interesting, is just not going to work as a stimulus to koinonia. Yet, for many, if not most, of our members, Sunday worship is the only regular contact with other church members.
I suggest that a church should not be defined by its Sunday worship, but by the extent of its small group life. Real ‘Church’ happens in those small groups in which people meet regularly to get to know one another. Sunday worship is merely an opportunity for the small groups to get together to celebrate. Eating together should be given more importance than it is, for it seems to help people to open up and be vulnerable. It is no wonder holy communion became a sacrament, though the ritual meal does not have the effectiveness of the real meal table around which the early believers met, and after which communion was modelled.
Another characteristic of koinonia is the unity of purpose found in sharing the journey of personal growth, which is another way of saying, doing the will of G-O-D together. This is the kind of unity that is required. Unity of belief is unimportant. In fact, it doesn’t matter if one believes any of the religious tenets or not, only that one seeks to follow the way Jesus taught. (Matthew 7:21-“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”) This is what defines the Christian, not any creed or belief system. As one seeks the ‘way’ among friends who, likewise, are seeking, the depth of relationship grows, thus enhancing the likelihood of the success of the group and the success of the individual.
An added advantage of a small group is that it is much, much easier to bring a new person into a small group than into Sunday worship. Sunday worship is a rather alien and daunting place for someone who does not go to church. The biggest problem faced by a group characterised by koinonia is what to do with the growth.
A church characterised by true fellowship will grow. As described in Acts, ”God added to their number daily.” Why? In the first place, a member of a group distinguished by koinonia will find it one of the most valuable and life-giving aspects of life (I speak from personal experience) and, like a salesperson who truly believes in the quality of his wares, will want to share it with others and will invite them in. Second, when people on the outside have a chance to see what the church really is, they will recognise it as the answer to their own deep psychological yearning to become who they are.
But strong small groups can only remain strong if they stay small, so there must be a way to divide groups, just as living cells divide, when they become too large to remain viable. This is often the very thing that such groups find hardest to do, because their members value each other so highly.
Moving from Unity to Diversity
Another thing that is helpful in starting a group is homogeneity, i.e. putting ‘like’ people together: people with the same interest, same age, same cultural experience or anything else that will help them feel a sense of belonging and common purpose. Of course, we have an ideal of unity in diversity, but human nature seems to include a wariness of ‘otherness’. Groups start more easily with people who can point to a commonness of identity of some sort, but this unity allows diversity to evolve. Wariness of ‘otherness’ disappears when one gets to know the ‘other,’ but it helps to start with a bridge of ‘likeness’ to help one cross over to the ‘otherness.’
Other Models of Church
Personally, I don’t think there are any other models that will work well over the longer term. There are big churches that have many different programs that attract different kinds of people and do valuable work in the community, and they may do so without the energy that comes from a network of small groups, but unless there is something to add energy into the system, the various ministries run their course and burn out. In fact, churches follow a known life-cycle that predicts an inevitable demise once a church exemplifies this program-based model.
Ocean Grove/Barwon Heads Uniting could identify needs in its community and design various forms of ministry to meet these needs, and they may even result in growth, but what will power them? Who will do the work? We can motivate people by calling upon their sense of duty and responsibility, and some hardy souls will volunteer. They will do a good job for a time, but ultimately their energy will flag and, despite the best will in the world, they will have to give it up. Their ministries will end unless taken up by other persons driven by ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’.
The solution is to put people in touch with the Spirit within them, and encourage and support the ministries which flow naturally from them. I was once told by a wise mentor, “ If your ministry is not fun – if it is not something that energises you – you are not doing it correctly.” I have found this statement to be true over and over.
Bob Thomas, May 2019