Recently I went out to dinner with a small group of people. While some of us were already known to each other, some in the group had never met. We had a great night, and as I drove home I reflected that we had just been ‘church’ in a very profound way.
Even though there is much conversation within the Church about ‘new ways of being the church’ in practice many of us still only see the Church as that thing we do, usually on Sunday morning, worship.
For far too many church members, ‘church’ is still conceived as the place where Christians gather for worship and to manage the business of the church.
If we need any persuasion to accept this, take a look at where the majority of time and energy of ministry leaders is spent.
But we are ‘the people of God’, called to continue the work of the Christ through witness and service in the world. And if we are ‘the people of God’ then we are the church wherever we are, whatever we’re doing.
So what does ‘being the people of God’ look like today?
Overwhelmingly missiologists are urging us as followers of Jesus, to follow Jesus into the neighbour-hood, there ‘to join with other followers of Jesus and allowing the incarnation of God form our imagination for faithful presence.’
We are to be a tangible expression of God’s love in the real life of our neighbourhoods and communities through acts of kindness and generosity. One of the most obvious ways of being a tangible expression of God’s love is through hospitality. There is no greater admonition to the people of Israel than the frequently repeated law of hospitality.
Again and again the prophets and lawgivers, including Jesus, exhorted their people to exercise hospitality toward the stranger. Later, Paul seemed to regard hospitality as a qualification for leadership in early Christian communities.
The sort of hospitality they were referring to was much more than entertaining family and friends. It was about welcoming strangers into a home and offering them food, shelter and protection. For most of the Christian church’s history, hospitality required not only responding to stranger’s physical need, but also a recognition of their worth and common humanity.
In our individualised world, this broader expression of hospitality is subversive and counter cultural. Because of that, practising hospitality like this can transform lives, not by imposing a false religiosity, not by demanding that certain rules be kept, but by allowing love experienced to flow through their lives and the lives of those around them – in the ordinariness of life.
Hospitality is not the only way we can express God’s love to others. But the table is rich in possibilities. It is not surprising that Jesus urged his first followers to remember him in shared meals. The story of Jesus is the story of the table, its meals and rituals – he ate all kinds of food around all kinds of tables, in all kinds of places, with all kinds of people.
When crowds gathered, Jesus’ main concern was their being fed and watered. “I really want to say to the Church that we can ‘be church’ in any number of ways beyond gathering in a church building for worship.”
When he ate with 5000 plus people by the side of the lake, all of them became his ‘family’ and the hillside became the table. When he ate with the disciples in the upstairs room they were his new family – male and female disciples. It was around the table that he formed his disciples.
Then and now, the table is necessarily communal. Whenever and wherever we break bread together, Jesus is present at the table. At the table, sitting together, facing each other, passing food from one to another, talking to each other – we learn the good news of God by enacting it. It is around the table that we hear each other’s stories and share memories. It is a place where our identities are made and shaped. And when you share a meal out with friends where stories are shared and love is honoured, Jesus is present among you.
The dinner I spoke about earlier was all these things. As we faced each other, passed food from one to another, we talked with each other, openly and honestly. We shared our diverse stories, including our diverse experiences of God, received and held each other’s stories with compassion, care and generosity. And in the sharing of both food and ourselves, the Christ was present and we got a glimpse of God’s reign on earth. It was ‘church’.
I really want to say to the Church that we can ‘be church’ in any number of ways beyond gathering in a church building for worship. Around the table is just one. Wherever and however people gather, share their stories, care for one another, welcome the stranger, Jesus is present.
We must accept the reality that many people in our community no longer experience the presence of God in our worship services. That is one of the reasons for the decline in congregational numbers.
Rather than mourning that loss, let’s embrace and encourage all the other ways that people experience the divine – in nature, caring for others, in group activities and so on. Let’s release our ministry leaders to create opportunities for connection with and in our wider communities, turning the focus from ourselves to those who could benefit from experiencing God’s good news. Let’s shift our focus from those things that tie us to what worked in the past to see where our energy, our resources and our faith might take us now and into the future.
We are the Uniting Church in Australia. We have committed to being ‘the people of God’ on the move, not bound by the past but open to constant reform and renewal in response to the gospel in our time and place. Let’s have the courage to do as our forebears did – to put aside tradition and our own preferences in order to join God’s mission in the world.
The Rev. Karyl Davison, Kippax Uniting Church
This piece first appeared in Canberra Region Presbytery’s newsletter, Viewpoint
Image by Aleksandar Nakic