Community is challenging because, quite frankly, it involves people. I want something different from you; you want something different from me; and we probably all need something different than what we want.
How do we meet the needs and expectations of individuals while maintaining the interests of the whole group? As Christians, we look to Jesus as our example. He laid aside his own interests—even his own life—for the sake of others. But in practice, this can be very difficult. How are we to get on in our churches when our churches are filled with so many different people?
In this special episode of our podcast, we share with you the audio from our recent live event, “Can community be good for you, me and everybody else?” CCL Director Chase Kuhn was joined by Moore College Dean of Students, Paul Grimmond, as well as Moore College chaplain and chair of EQUIP Women, Isobel Lin, on Wednesday 3 March 2021, and together they discuss biblical and theological principles for community, practicalities of this for community, and audience questions and answers.
Links referred to:
- The Centre for Christian Living Annual 2020: A selection of the year’s best essays, articles and podcast transcripts
- The Centre for Global Mission event, “All Nations, All Ages, All In?” (Wednesday 28 April)
- Our next event: “Dealing with sin” with Chris Conyers (Wednesday 19 May)
Runtime: 1:26:57 min.
Chase Kuhn: Community is challenging because, quite frankly, it involves people. I want something different from you; you want something different from me; and we probably all need something different than what we want.
How do we meet the needs and expectations of individuals while maintaining the interests of the whole group? As Christians, we look to Jesus as our example. He laid aside his own interests—even his own life—for the sake of others. But in practice, this can be very difficult. How are we to get on in our churches when our churches are filled with so many different people?
In this special episode of our podcast, I’m pleased to share with you the audio from our recent live event on “Can community be good for you, me and everybody else?” I was honoured to be joined by my colleague, Paul Grimmond, as well as to have Isobel Lin hosting the event. The event is in three parts—the first briefly covering some biblical and theological principles for community; the second, an interactive conversation on some practicalities of community; and then finally, some questions and answers.
I hope that you enjoy listening and I pray that you benefit from this material.
Isobel Lin: Welcome to the Centre for Christian Living. We’re at the event “Can community be good for you, me and everyone else?” My name is Isobel Lin. I’m a chaplain here at Moore College and an assistant to the Dean of Women Students. I’m also a minister’s wife of about 25 years, and I’ve been the Chair of EQUIP Women for about 22 years.
Centre for Christian Living is about taking biblical ethics to everyday issues, and tonight is the first of four events that we’ll be doing this year based on community. So tonight’s event is thinking about so many competing issues, different tastes, different wants, different needs. How is it that a community can be good for each and every person?
Tonight’s presenters are Chase Kuhn and Paul Grimmond. Let me introduce Chase. Chase is the Director of the Centre for Christian Living. He’s a lecturer at Moore College in theology and ethics, and together with Amy and his family, they go to St Thomas’s North Sydney.
Our second presenter of the night will be Paul Grimmond. Paul is also a lecturer here at Moore College, and he lectures in Christian ministry, and together with Cathy, they go to St Matthias Centennial Park, Paul tells me, since the last millennium. Is that correct?
Tonight will happen in three parts: the first part, we’ll be discussing the principles of community. Part 2, we’ll talk a bit about some practicalities. And Part 3 will be a Q&A.
Well, let’s begin tonight. How about I pray for us as we start.
Heavenly Father, thanks for our community here tonight—the presenters, listeners and questioners. Father, we pray that our discussion will be an encouraging and fruitful one, as we talk about the joys and hardships of community. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Chase Kuhn: Amen.
Paul Grimmond: Amen.
IL: Well, why don’t we begin and I’m going to throw to Chase: he’s going to kick us off: “What is good for us?”
Part 1: What is good for us?
CK: Thanks Isobel! And thank you all for tuning in. We’re grateful to have you online. It’s a privilege to be able to meet this way, and we’re hoping that our next few events, we’ll be able to have people back in person. So we’re looking forward to that.
What I’m going to be speaking to you for a few minutes about is what is good for us. And the alternative title that I was going to give to this is—I’m going to be speaking about selfishness tonight, so I was going to say, “You’re so vain. You probably think this paper’s about you”. Or perhaps “The stories that we have in here, if you feel the story’s about you, I’ve not anonymised it, because the narcissist in you will be pleased to hear your name read out”. So …
Paul said that would work, but it didn’t work for me. [Laughter]
The rubbish we hear (and sometimes believe!)
The rubbish that we hear and sometimes believe: “You do you”. A friend of mine actually said this to me recently, and I think he meant to encourage me with it. He said: “You do you, man”. And he had caught this in the common vernacular—just like so many of us have: we hear it said and we’ve all it learned it. “Be yourself” is what we mean when we say this. “You do you”: it’s one of many tautological phrases that we use to reassure ourselves that we’re fine. It helps us to “rise above it”, in other words.
Similarly, one might say, “Haters gonna hate”. So in a 2015 New York Times article, Colson Whitehead writes of these phrases,
Like black holes, they are inviolable. All criticism is destroyed when it hits the horizon of their circular logic, and not even light can escape their immense gravity. In a world where the selfie has become our dominant art form, tautological phrases like “You do you” and its tribe provide a philosophical scaffolding for our ever-evolving, ever more complicated narcissism.1
Narcissism may well be to blame. But I’m not sure it’s always as dramatic as a personality disorder. Culturally, we’ve been on a hunt for some sure footing for morality for quite some time. And when we gave up any belief about God or a higher power ordering our world, our culture had to find a different foundation. The quest has failed miserably. Having nowhere else stable to turn, we’ve turned to ourselves, the most “stable” place of all.
We have highly individualised senses of morality, and yet we desperately want something to agree on as a society. So we’ve turned individual expression into a virtue: “You do you”. We’re told “One ought not to challenge another’s values. That is their concern, their life choice, and it ought to be respected.”2 So morality has been relativised. We’re all authorities unto ourselves, and no one’s allowed to challenge us. In fact, if they do challenge us, we simply retort, “Haters gonna hate”. In other words, “No one can tell me I’m wrong. And in fact, if you do, I’m going to shame you. Shame on you!”
A friend of mine shared how silly this was in a recent interaction that he had. He was asked by a relative if he would be taking the COVID vaccine. And my friend said, “Yes, of course I am”. And he then turned the question to his relative: “How about you?” And his relative, with no specialist medical expertise, replied, “No I don’t think so”. “Well, why not?” my friend said. “I don’t trust it,” his relative responded. My friend then challenged him: “But you realise that leading scientists and medical experts around the world have been working tirelessly to find an effective and a safe vaccine. They’ve put it through a number of tests and they’ve passed incredible amounts of government regulations.” To which his relative replied, “Oh yeah, I still don’t trust it”. My friend then asked his relative, “Can I fix your lawnmower? I see that it’s broken.” “No,” said his relative. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Selfishness and the dissolution of community
Being authorities unto ourselves is a highly problematic thing for community. Typically we decide what we believe is right based on what we believe is good. But when we all have our own ideas about what’s right, does this mean that there is no common good, except the acceptance of everyone else’s self-expression? This is a very atomised existence. In fact, Charles Taylor noted this, saying that
the dark side of individualism is a centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, [making] them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society.3
I suspect many will question whether or not it’s a problem “out there” or if it has any significant bearing on our discussions for our churches. I believe Carl Trueman is correct when he writes, “expressive individualism is something that affects us all. It is the very essence of the culture of which we are all a part. To put it bluntly”—he says—“we are all expressive individualists now.”4
In many ways, if not most, of our churches, people decide what is good in a relativistic way. That is, what I want most is “just to be me”, people would say. Even worse, I think, in our churches, this gets baptised into gospel-sounding language: “You do you to the glory of God”. In this way, God becomes servant to our self-fulfillment—our self-actualisation. God helps me be a better me. But this sort of pop-evangelical message isn’t actually gospel. The embrace of society’s individualism works against true community, and is incongruent with the gospel message. The call of the Christian life is to die to self: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Jesus said (Matt 16:24).
Sharing a common love
So in order for us to appreciate what we have as Christians, and to properly participate in the community to which we belong, we must recapture a sense of what community actually is. And Augustine, a very famous voice in the history of the church, wrote on community, saying that a community or a people is
an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love … [And] in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love. … it will be a superior people in proportion as it is bound together by higher interests, inferior as in proportion as it is bound together by lower.5
Let me try to put that simply for you: Augustine’s point is that a community is a group of people united by one common love—something—a common object that they fix their love upon. This, of course, means that there’s nothing particularly Christian about community: community can exist in all different ways and shapes and sizes and places, and amongst different kinds of people. But notice also that Augustine says that the higher the interests of the people, the more superior the community. So what is unique—what is unique about Christian community—is that it is bound together by a common love for God. Specifically, Christians together know and love the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Or in the words of Ephesians 4, we share “one Lord, one faith [and] one baptism” (Eph 4:5). This, then, means that we have the highest form of community available to human beings!
Now, I love saying this, because I find that this actually grates against our experience. And there’s a bit of a shock. So I say to you, “You belong to the highest form of community at your church”. And you say to me, “You’ve not been to my church”. You say, “We’ve got issues”. Or actually, let me put it more specifically in your expressive individualism: “They’ve got issues!”
But this is where the truth shines through so brightly.
The good for all
Christian community is founded on the ultimate good: we commonly love God. But we do so only because he first loved us, 1 John 4:19 tells us. So our common possession—our common love—is established on a love that has first reached us. It’s a love that’s overcome every barrier—every individual’s issues—every sin. What is this love? Well, 1 John 3:16 tells us, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us”. Jesus gave his life for us. That’s true love.
So in the gospel, our goodness is not in ourselves, but in fact, in another. And the focal point of the church is not my personality. It’s not my interests or my wants. Nor is it your personality or your interests or your wants. Instead, together we look at Christ. We cherish him. We find our life in him. We find our acceptance by our Father in him.
So therefore, our community is based upon participation in the Son of God. This means that there are real grounds for us to experience true goodness—ultimate goodness. The charge given to Christians in 1 John 4:7 is to love one another. In other communities, love often amounts to competition—a giving for the sake of getting—my wants over yours. But our love for one another actually flows from the place of ultimate satisfaction. We’ve been given all we need in Christ. Our love for one another is an extension of God’s love for us.
So when our communities fail, it’s because we’ve failed to appreciate what we have in Jesus. Instead of living out our faith, believing we have all we need in Christ, we actually act in fear, pursuing some selfish gain. In these moments of failure, we turn from a pure enjoyment of what is there—Jesus and the people of God—to using people—or even worse, trying to use God—for some other purpose. This is not true community, nor is it Christian.
Therefore as a conclusion to this brief section of introduction, let me just say this: I offer you a litmus test. As you try to find out how this bears on you practically, let me ask you these questions: what is the measure of your idea of a “good” church? Is it about how well you get on with others—how much they are like you—how much they contribute to your sense of worth and purpose in life? What about your measure of a Sunday service, for example? When you go to Sunday and you’re driving home, or walking home, and you’re thinking, “Hmm, how was church today?”, is it how well the sermon related to your experience? Did the service fail, perhaps, because it wasn’t the music that you like, or because the person leading was a bit boring and didn’t keep your interest?
Notice that all of the answers that I’ve offered to you to these questions—all the ways that I’ve teased them out—are self-referential. They all refer back to you. The problem is, “You do you” simply doesn’t work in Christian community. Our measures are often so wrong for what is “good”, because our standards are our own. Instead, we are called to fix our eyes on Christ. As contrary to this as it may feel—as contrary to our culture as this may feel—the position of faith recognises that the more he is our treasure, the more “good” we will know. And the more that we together—all of us in community—treasure Christ, the better our community will be, because our love for one another will be in direct proportion to our love for him. And I think that’s the call of 1 John 4. I’m going to finish by reading you a few verses from 1 John 4 verses 7-12:
Beloved, let us love6 one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
That’s all from me.
Part 1 continued: Our need for one another (1 Cor 12)
IL: Thanks, Chase! We’ll be going to the second part of our presentation, and Paul Grimmond will be talking to us about our need for one another, based on 1 Corinthians 12.
PG: Thanks, Isobel. So Chase has just kind of raised for us this question, “What is good for us?” and in a sense, the answer to that question is “Jesus”, right? God has loved us in Christ, and as we know God’s love for us in Christ, we in turn love him and learn to love one another.
What I want to reflect on now is just some of the implications of what it means that our community’s formed and founded in Jesus, looking particularly at that little section in 1 Corinthians 12 that talks about our life together as a body.
Membership in Christ is membership in the body (our faulty application of grace)
And the first point that I want to make is that you cannot have Christ without community. Now, for some of us, our evangelical Reformed Protestant background makes us feel slightly uncomfortable about that as a phrase: “You can’t have Christ without community”. And there’s a bunch of reasons that we feel that. But you see it worked out often in the discussions that we have about church.
So all through my Christian life, whenever the question of church has come up, one question that people seem to always ask is, “Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?” Okay, and that’s a question that we debate backwards and forwards, and we have a particular form to the answer of that question: we have a particular love for the doctrine of justification and for the Book of Galatians, which says, if you have the gospel plus anything else, you lose the gospel entirely. You know, so if you have the gospel, says Paul, and you have to be circumcised, then you’ve lost the gospel. If you have the gospel and you have to obey the law, then you’ve lost the gospel. And so we feel like, if you’ve got the gospel and you have to go to church, then all of a sudden, you’ve lost the gospel. And so church feels like it’s in danger of being one of these kind of “gospel plus” heresies.
And our love for grace and our desire to say that relationship with God is all of grace and none of our works pushes us in the same direction: do you belong to Jesus? You belong to Jesus by faith. And so, of course, by the grace of God, you don’t need to meet with others in order to know Christ by faith, and you can have life in him without it.
The problem is that what we’ve done is we’ve actually formed a question that is, quite frankly, utterly weird. If you had ever asked the Apostles, “Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?”, they would have looked at you like you had three heads and fourteen arms, ’cause it doesn’t make sense within their worldview.
And the reason is that if you think all through the Scriptures, there is one head who has one body. And at the point that you come to belong to the head, you belong to the body: you have no other choice. Jesus has one body, and if you’re united to him, you’re part of the body.
So 1 Corinthians 12 describes it like this:
just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (vv. 12-13)
You become to belong to the head by the work of the Spirit through faith, and at that same moment, you’re actually bound together into the life of the body. You have no choice. You can’t call Christ “Lord” without the Spirit, and if you possess the Spirit of God, then you belong to Christ and you belong to his body.
And so, as we seek to protect grace by asking questions like, “Can you be a Christian and not go to church?” or etcetera etcetera etcetera, we’ve actually formulated the totally wrong question. The Apostles’ question would be, “What is the relationship between Christ and his church?” And the answer is, “If you belong to Christ, you belong to his body”.
I was talking to a friend this week, and he said to me, “Yeah, it’s kind of like, ‘If I marry her, do I have to live with her?’” It’s a question that has that kind of weirdness associated with it when we say, “Do you have to go to church in order to be a Christian?” Because if you belong to Christ, you belong to the body, and you cannot separate those things. So this is not like an optional extra or something that you do as an add-on to the Christian life; this is just fundamentally who you become if you come to belong to Jesus.
You can’t opt out, and you can’t excise the other
Now Paul, as he wrestles with that truth in 1 Corinthians 12, says that means that there are a whole lot of implications for you in the way that you live with one another in the Christian life. So he says—two things: he says you can’t opt out and you can’t cut others out.
And actually, the body’s a really helpful image for you at this point, right? Say that this is my hand, ’cause it is, and then this is the rest of my body, and the hand decides that, for whatever reason, it’s going to depart the life of the body. So at the point that my hand tears itself off and pulls itself away, the hand actually hurts both itself and the body, right? And yet, Paul says, there’s a temptation for some of us to do that: 1 Corinthians 12:14-16:
the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
Even if you don’t feel like you’re part of the body, if you belong to Christ, what God says to you in the most gracious possible terms is, “You belong and you are part of this”. And indeed, verse 18, God has actually arranged all of the members of the body, “each one of them, as he chose”. So in whatever space that you’re in, as you express your belonging to Christ, each of you is made different and put together, and if you choose to separate yourself, you actually wound both yourself and the body.
But of course, Paul, then, turns around and he says, “Look, there’s another group of people. Their problem isn’t separating themselves; their problem is separating other people”. Right? So there are some of us who go, “I don’t belong”; there are others of us who go, “You don’t belong”. But Paul says you end up with exactly the same problem. So verse 21-22:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable
That’s God’s word for it! And you think, again, of the conversation, right? So the head goes, “Well, look, feet, I don’t need you. I’m just going to lop you off.” Now at the point that the head lops the feet off the body, the head is actually affected its ability to move and engage, and it’s hurt itself at the same moment that it’s removed the other person from the body. Removing yourself from the body or the body choosing to remove parts that belong to the body, both of those things are detrimental to absolutely everybody that’s involved. Because if you remember, God declares—do you remember what he says? “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). Whoever you are, in all of your wholeness and imperfection, with all of your gifts and your quirks and all of the things that make you you, you are God’s good gift to the body and the body is God’s good gift to you. And to take those things apart from each other is actually to deny the very work of God in Christ, and to undo what God’s trying to do in Jesus.
The value of shared experience
And so, as Paul talks about what it means to belong as a member of the body, he says whether you like it or not, your job is to share the Christian life with one another and to share all the experiences—the highs, the lows, the joys, the suffering of the Christian life.
This verse I just think resonates so deeply: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). Now brothers and sisters, that’s both a description of reality, but also a challenge to think about how we live with one another. Are you comfortable for everybody to share their suffering with you, or are there some that you’re happy to suffer with and others that you don’t want to suffer with so much? When Paul says, “One part suffers, everybody suffers”, he actually means it: at a deep level as we’re connected to each other, the suffering of one belongs to the many. And on the flip side, if one member is honoured, all rejoice together. Now, again, I want to ask you whether that is actually reflective of your own experience in church: do you sometimes feel when someone else is honoured a jealousy, or disappointment that you weren’t honoured in the same breath? But Paul says all of those things, they’re actually expressions of a reality that we’re creating, rather than the reality that God’s creating. And so, I guess one thing I want to ask is “Are you sharing the experiences of your brothers and sisters in Christ?” Do you have a space where, as you hear of people suffering, you experience that in some way and you bring them before the Lord in prayer, and you just do the little things that suffer alongside them, even if it’s just to sit and weep with them? And likewise, when your brothers and sisters are honoured, do you genuinely delight in the gifts that God’s given them and rejoice that, actually, the whole body delights in the praise of the body?
You know, when you get a prize at school, it’s not like your head walks up on the stage and gets the prize; the whole body walks up on the stage and gets the prize, because you are honoured as a person because of whatever your body does. And that’s how our life ought to be in church.
Commitment to life in the body
So biblically, when we think of community, what I want to say to you is that it’s not an optional extra; it is just fundamental to belonging to Jesus, and we’re called to live it out. So I just thought I’d finish with a couple of quotes from church history—one of which you will feel is incredibly wrong and the other we—you’re sure is wrong, but it’s been said by the right guy.
So in the third century AD, a bishop of Carthage—a guy called Cyprian—said, “You cannot have God as your Father unless you have the church for your Mother”.7 And if you have any kind of Roman Catholic background or anything like that, or you’ve thought about kind of that monolithic church idea, that quote will fill you with horror, because we want to say, “No, I don’t need the church! I just need Jesus.” But what he was actually trying to do was express that you can’t have one without the other; they belong together. And just to prove it to you, Calvin comes along and this is how he describes the church as your mother: this is Book IV of the Institutes:
But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. (Institutes IV.I.4)8
What he’s saying is unless you live as a member of the church and are nourished by the church all the days of your life until Jesus comes to take you home, you won’t actually belong to Christ, because if you belong to Christ, you belong to the church. And if you belong to the church, you belong to Christ. I reckon that undoes so much of the way that we think materialistically and personally and stuff about church.
Anyway, that’s enough from me for now. But next time someone asks you the question, “Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?”, the answer is, “If I marry her, do I have to live with her?” The answer is “Yes!” You go to church if you’re Christian, because it is your delight to live out what God has given you as the body of Christ.
IL: Thanks, Paul! I’m definitely going to use that line the next time someone asks me that question about whether you need to go to church as a Christian! That’s fantastic. “If I get married, do I have to live with them?” That’s great!
Part 2: Practicalities
IL: We’re going to spend about 20 minutes now talking about some of the practicalities. I’m going to ask these guys a few questions to see if they can flesh out some of the principles that they’ve just shared with us.
Getting over our selves
IL: Chase, you talked about Carl Trueman—the idea that our society’s developed into expressive individuals. You sort of say that this is what’s around us. As a church, we live in this culture. How do you think that impacts us in the way that we relate to each other?
CK: I suspect in many ways we don’t recognise. So, I mean, thinking about this event, a lot of people that I talked to said, “What’s the big deal?” You know, we’re in community; what’s the big deal? Until you look around our churches and you realise the way that we are constantly pursuing our own preferences, our own comforts, our own wants, and then we watch as churches sometimes get heated because some of those things don’t align so well.
So very obvious examples: we see our churches often are split down music preference styles. Well, that’s one way of keeping us all happy. I like this kind of music; you like that kind; let’s just sort of take different times in the building, if we can, or let’s blend it together and we’ll get enough for you and enough for me. That’s actually a better compromise, in some ways.
Or I like to be around people like me, and so, I’m going to join the young marrieds under 25 but older than 23—you know, very select group at my church. Or I want people like me that like to play golf on the weekend, so I’m going to go to the Christian golfers group. I mean, we get very specific in the ways that we like to see church happening for us that caters to our preferences. But it’s partly because we live in a consumer-driven environment: it’s just the air we breathe. It’s the kind of soup that we swim in, and most of us just don’t even know that it’s happening.
I don’t know: maybe you two would have other ideas about where this rears its ugly head?
PG: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that it’s made me think about is just, like, if I’m in church, and I’m sinful, and other people are sinful, why do I presume that church will be always nice and easy, and never be lumpy? [Laughter] Do you know what I mean? I’m expecting my church experience to be kind of fantastic. But actually if I’m real about it and honest about it, I’m not going to expect that. That means living through life in church is going to mean sometimes disagreeing with people and learning how to love them, even though I disagree with them. Or I might even disagree with my minister about something, and am I supposed to pack my bags and leave and move onto the next place at that point in time? How do we learn to love each other through the disappointments and the frustrations and the difficulties? I just feel like our culture tends to be that we pack up and move when things get hard. I’ve felt that tension and pressure myself at various points in time. Like, it would be easy to move on at this point to avoid this or that, and etcetera, but it’s a hopeless way to live life, I think.
Social media and the way we think about ourselves
IL: Kind of keeping in that vein, just of things that we’re talking about—our current culture—do either of you have any ideas about how, maybe, social media has laid into this kind of development of the way that we think about ourselves, the meeting of our own wants or preferences?
CK: The quote that I gave from The New York Times article in 2015 talks about, you know, “we live in a selfie age”. So everything is about self-expression. And so, it’s almost as if I want to be able to tell my own story of who I am and whatever way I wish I could be. And so, I’ll invent myself the way that I want to be, I’ll tell you a story about who I want to be, and you need to accept whoever that is.
Now, I think we see that creep in in some ways into the church in the sense that all of that social media environment is just the normal for life. And so, the bragging, the showcasing—it actually translates in the ways that we relate to people on the ground, and in some ways, we’ve lost how to relate, because we’re always putting on our best pictures.
I don’t know. Do you have other thoughts on this—social media—either of you?
IL: It just was something that was in the back of my mind, I think. Last year I’d read a book, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, and I’m not particularly a techie or social media person, but it did make me just stop and think a little bit. He raised this point of our curated community online, and how the way it works is that we attract people who think the same way as us, who like the same things we like, and so when we then move into the real world of our church family, that sometimes makes it very hard for us when people don’t appreciate the things that we appreciate, or don’t like the things that we like.
So, yeah, it just made me stop and think about how all these things might be affecting the way that we relate to one another.
CK: That’s helpful.
IL: I don’t know. Like, you used to work in a university, Paul.
IL: Any kind of sense of that?
PG: I mean, it’s hard, isn’t it. I mean, we’re all different and we all have individual experiences. I think one of the things that strikes me is really the fact that everything that—I’ve almost stopped using Facebook, ’cause I thought it was bad for me.
PG: So I just found it made me relate in superficial ways. I got agitated about certain things, respond in other ways—but you respond online differently to the way that you respond in person with a person that you’re disagreeing with. So people do things to each other online that I think they would never do to each other face-to-face.
This is going to sound like ancient history: 2008, I actually managed a blog for a while.
CK: What’s that?
PG: Yeah, yeah. I know. Look, okay. [Laughter] And one of the things that I just noticed was the level of conversation and the way that people kind of conversed there didn’t match my experience of the way that people talked in real life. Because you can shout at each other or disagree with each other, or say things about each other at a distance that you can’t say up close and personal. And so I just keep wanting to say to people, actually, you’ve got to go to church with each other. [Laughter] You’ve got to share the same building. You’ve got to be in the same physical space. You’ve got to look at each other in the eyes and actually have those conversations and work out your differences and that kind of stuff. Yeah.
CK: And it does cater to ourselves as well, because if there’s somebody that bothers me, I just unfollow them or unfriend them. Or if you’re dating online, which seems to be the only way that people date these days, you just swipe left or right. [Laughter] And it’s all about you and what you like in a very, very superficial way. And I think that actually bleeds into the ways, then, that we lose touch with reality about how people actually interact face to face, that you’re saying, Paul. And it can actually be unhelpful for our church, because everything ought to be catered to me, as it is in a social media environment.
IL: And it is about how we learn to relate to each other, isn’t it.
Moving beyond self-interest
IL: I’m going to move us to the next area that came up in your talk—the idea of selfishness. I mean, as Christians, we do know that we’re selfish. But I guess we’re trying to work against it. How do you think that we—like, some practical tips for us: how do we get beyond just this self-interest that we’ve been talking about that really is our current culture?
PG: Yeah, I think it’s a really good question, Isobel. One of the things I’ve been trying to work on in myself is working out how to try and be thankful when I feel like it doesn’t fit. [Laughter] You know, when you walk out of church and you’re a bit disappointed or whatever, I’ve been trying to say to myself, “Okay, let’s just stop and think about what should I be thankful for this morning?” So rather than just my interaction was “I was disappointed with that or I was frustrated with that. Oh, that didn’t work”—it’s one of the curses of being an ex-minister who now sits in a church that somebody else runs. And by the way, they do a fantastic job [Laughter] and I’m really thankful to be there. [Laughter]
CK: Nah, no one does it right!
PG: Ah, but there—
CK: No one does it like you, Paul! [Laughter]
PG: But there’s this weird thing for me, where I’ve been in charge of churches and now sometimes they choose to do things different ways, and sometimes I go, “I wouldn’t have done that!” or whatever. And I’ve realise that’s okay! Actually, even the way that they do it might be better than the way that I would have done it, because of the people who are here and the things that are going on. So trying to catch myself when I find myself getting grumbly or grumpy about things, and trying to put it into perspective a bit.
CK: That’s great advice. I mean, the thankfulness one is a hard one. I find that it’s just asking that extra question. So when I get grumbly, I have to be, like, “Oh, it’s driving me nuts, but it’s just because of me”. And I have to think, “What is it about me that’s actually making me upset here?” and I realise how quickly it is about me and what I wish I had, or wish was different. So that’s a very tough thing to do.
IL: We’re thinking about, as Christians, we follow Christ’s model. So I guess one of the places that we classically go to is Philippians 2: “Now have the mind of Christ”. Any other thoughts about how to kind of rein that in? ’Cause it is hard to actually get out of your own headspace and think about doing stuff that may be benefit someone else, although you’re not always sure of that, but you definitely know that it doesn’t suit you.
CK: Yeah. I find Philippians 2 so confronting, because we read over it so quickly, we see the example of Jesus, “think of others interests as much as your own”—or “before your own”, and you think, “Okay”. I find different relationships prime this for you. I think church is one of those ones that really is sanctifying, because it exposes your own wants and desires over against the community. A small group is really helpful for that.
But it also happens in close friendships. It happens in a family. So if someone gets married, they immediately realise, “I have to think about somebody else now”. Or if you have children, you know, there goes your weekend, right? So you got to think about a lot of other people—a lot of other moving parts—that are competing interests, in one sense—often competing needs, not even interests. And you’ve got to learn to serve others. And I find that very difficult.
I think Philippians 2 gives us some good help. But, yeah, that’s a very tough passage, I think, for applica—it’s a very confronting passage, I should say.
PG: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. I mean, for me, humility’s always the word that captures that passage. And so, I think the ability to say, “I might be wrong here”. So … Or even just to experience difference—
PG: —and to kind of go, “Okay, you’re different from the way that I am. Is that bad? Is it good? Is it—do I have to squash it? Do I—” [Laughter] Like—
PG: —there’s all those things that we do in response when we experience people who are different. And realising—like, I haven’t—there are days when I have to discipline myself and say, “No, actually, I need to go and talk to that person over there and not that person over—” like, the way that we are attracted to the people who are like us or to the person that I will have a really easy comfortable conversation with versus the person that I think, “Oh, gee, this is going to take more effort from me”. But actually, in God’s kindness, as you talk to all sorts of different people, you realise how rich the life of God’s people are and how, actually, amazing people are that you don’t think that you will even engage with or whatever. I can think over my own life of different people who have come over time to really impact me, although they never would have been the first person that I would have chosen to talk to.
PG: The—the patient sitting with them and listening to them and realising, “I have lots to learn from this person about what it means to love Jesus”.
IL: It’s just amazing, isn’t it. I think that is one of the blessings of community being forced to do things that you wouldn’t normally choose to do yourself or getting to know someone that you’re not initially attracted to or have something in common with.
One of the things that I’ve found, like, that that’s come up over and over again in the years that I’ve been running women’s Bible Study is that often we come to Bible Study with it in mind that this is “me” time [Laughter]—that I come here so that I can be refreshed and I can be fulfilled and I can get what I—like, it’s sort of godly, as in I want to learn from the Bible and I want to be encouraged, but the minute something doesn’t suit you—so, you know, when the child carer’s sick and so you have to actually take a turn minding the children, it really shows that it’s your own self-interest in your thinking about how to spend your time. It’s been something that, yeah, has come up again and again in women’s groups that I’ve been part of. But I think, actually, more widely: you kind of feel like church is for us, and not think about how we can contribute and give to that space.
The gift of others
IL: Which I kind of—moves me on a little bit to the next bit. You gave us that beautiful picture of one head and one body, Paul: so that if we belong to Christ, we belong to the body. You kind of raised it a little bit that everybody has different parts—feet, hands, eyes. How do we think about the differing roles that we have to play in the body? I think Chase might have mentioned up front roles or, like, we obviously come as one body, but of many parts. How do we help each other with that?
PG: I think it’s a great question. But my first response is I don’t know what you think of “church” as. So is church from the bit where we sing the first song to the bit where we sing the last song? Or is church the bit where you get in in enough time to listen to the sermon and then listen to the last song? Or, like, how long does church last?
My old boss used to say, “Youth group’s the best church in the world, because you come and you plan to be there for the whole night, and just kind of hang out with people and open the Bible and do life together”, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And I think that that’s really important.
So if you think of church as the formal bit, then there are—some people have roles: there’s the person who gets up and reads the Bible or does the prayers or does the preaching or whatever. But actually, if church is the whole thing, then our role is to encourage and to build one another up in Christ. And so, even how I sing might encourage the person beside me to sing. Or who I talk to after the service and if I sit and pray with them about whatever’s been going on in their week. So at one level, I want to say, I’m realising that we all have lots of different gifts and roles, but keep seeing church as the whole experience, and working out how do I participate at each point in that experience in a way that’s healthy and helpful—not just for me, but for the people who are around about me as we take part in that space? Yeah.
CK: And Philippians 2, going back to that for just a moment, I mean the anti-community things in Philippians 2 are rivalry and conceit. And you can see those two dangers in the kinds of roles that we have at church.
PG: No you can’t!
CK: That’s right! [Laughter]
CK: So if you’re doing something and you’re doing it well, well, I could be really jealous and I could want to rival you, because I see you getting attention or appreciation or people being grateful for you, and I wish people were grateful for me! Or if you know you’re doing something really well and you know you’re the boss or you’re the leader, well, it’s very easy to be conceited and think, “Everybody needs me. I’m great!” And I guess—I don’t know—the remedy, I think, is what you said about humility. But also that interdependence that we’re constantly experiencing—learning that if I’m doing something, it’s for you, not for me. And if I’m receiving something from you, it can’t ever be in jealousy; it has to be in gratitude. So, I don’t know; that’s a very difficult dynamic, though, because of how insecure I am, and I suspect so many of us are.
IL: It’s really hard, isn’t it, because it’s a hard one to get our brains around the idea that each part is needed. And yet, there does seem to be some priority of roles in the church. Without flattening everything, try to work out—which I think when you were talking about the different bits of the body, you know, in 1 Corinthians 12, it talks about some parts—the more humble parts—having greater care—
IL: —and I was thinking that, like, pushing apart from just roles at church, you know, there’s some people that everyone would love to have in church, right? They’re like—they attract people, they’re gregarious, they’re fun to be with or they’re really wise. And, you know, there is—
PG: Yeah. Don’t you find Chase annoying? [Laughter]
IL: Yeah, and then there’s other people that, if they didn’t come this week—
PG: That’s right.
IL: How can we think better about that?
PG: Yeah. I mean, I want to say part of it, you’ve just got to preach the gospel to yourself and discipline yourself and stop yourself from being so stupid. This is a slightly different context: all of my children have loved playing sport, from the time that they were very young. And I used to go and spend particularly winters on the sideline of the soccer field, howling gale, it’s about 5 degrees, it’s painful. And week after week, I would just pray for rain: “God, please let it rain this week. Please don’t make me turn up!” And one day, I just realised I’m going to do this for the next decade—probably 15 years—of my life—so I can either resent it every single time I go, or I can try, under God, to change my attitude. So I started thinking, “Okay, why am I going? I’m going ’cause I love my kids. And I’m going because I want to get to know the other parents on the sideline. And I’m going because there’ll be some fun stuff that we do in the car.” And so, even the way that you talk to yourself about going to church and about the other people at church—like, what do you tell yourself in your head about the other members of your Bible Study group or about the other members of your church, or whatever? And actually make it your job to go out of your way to relate to the people that you find hard. And so—I mean, that’s kind of weird, isn’t it: ’cause if your minister gets up and does that, then the next Sunday, everybody’s wondering, “Why are you relating to me?”
CK: That’s right! [Laughter]
PG: But nonetheless—
CK: You never talk to me.
PG: Yeah, that’s right. [Laughter] Do you go to church in order to talk to somebody who’s not the regular person that you talk to in order to encourage them and be encouraged by them?
CK: I encourage what Isobel said before: I mean, get honest about the ways that you feel, which I think is what you’re hinting at as well.
PG: Yeah, yeah.
CK: So ask yourself the ugliest questions: who do I really wish was on my team? And who do I really think is dispensable here? And then when you answer that quest—don’t tell anybody the answer, by the way.
IL: No! Keep it to yourself. [Laughter]
CK: Don’t ever tell anybody those answers. [Laughter] And once you answer those questions, obviously the answer is repent. That’s the idea. But expose that ugliness in you and realise, “Wow, I’ve been really negligent of these people”, or I’m really put off by them because of x reason. Now I probably need to do something about that. Or I probably depend too much on these people. Or I—I like them too much.” It’s not a bad thing to appreciate them, but maybe it’s for my own selfish gain that I’m really drawn to them. And—and I need to be thinking about rounding out my experience here and appreciating a greater amount of people. So the ugly question can often be very telling.
PG: Here at college, every year at orientation, there’s a thing that I say to all the students: I basically say, “Over the next few months, there will be at least one person in class who drives you absolutely nuts”.
IL: Only one?
PG: Only one. [Laughter] Well, one or two. And I say, “So your goal by the end of four years is actually to be able to explain how they’re God’s gift to the body, and I want you to work out how to be in the best relationship that you can be with that person and be loving them”. ’Cause I think we’ve actually got to force ourselves beyond our own experience and to force ourselves in the spaces that make us feel uncomfortable, and then deal with our own stuff. The problem’s not with the other person; the problem’s with me, I think.
CK: That’s a great challenge.
IL: Yeah. I think that’s right, isn’t it. It’s actually believing 1 Corinthians 12—
IL: —that that person is needed. And in God’s kindness, it is often such a surprise to us: the person that we think that we don’t need, we actually do need. And it’s hard to judge what they bring.
I was just thinking, some people think they’ve got nothing to give, right? And so you need to say to them they’re needed. And, like you were saying, you can’t cut anyone out either: trying to see how you need certain people, even the people that otherwise you might say they’re draining or they take all your church’s resources.
I was telling these guys at dinner that when we started at church, a lady came to church who’s very different from me—very different social demographic, you know, nine children, two of them in prison. And she’d bring the three little ones to Sunday School, and honestly, they looked like they hadn’t been bathed for a week, they did look like they might have hair lice, and it was really confronting, thinking about welcoming them into Sunday school and welcoming her to bring her kids to women’s Bible Study crèche, where my pristine little child is. But it was so good to be forced to think about what she could bring to our community, in terms of learning to love, what we could offer her and, in particular, her children. But—very very hard.
Sadly, she didn’t stay too long, so I feel like maybe we didn’t do that good a job, actually, of making her feel that she was really wanted. And I do think about that sometimes—what opportunity did we lose—what did we not learn in terms of love and Christlikeness, because she wasn’t there.
CK: One of the things I’ve found—I mean, that’s an incredibly helpful story, because I think one of the challenges for us in community—Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about this in his Life Together—is that my temptation always as a human being is to make you into my image. So I think that I’m somehow a superior—or I maybe want to be in your image, whatever it may be. But actually appreciating Christ between us—and us fixing our eyes on Christ and allowing Christ to do work in us, according to the gospel, and us both being found in him, then, puts us in a very different zone, if you will. And learning to appreciate one another and the growth that God is bringing in them and us together is a very tough task. But it is very hard not to want to make a foot or a hand or, you know, an eye—an ear. Just ’cause I’m an ear doesn’t mean an eye should be an ear too. Or just ’cause an eye’s there doesn’t mean that I’m an ear and I should be an eye. It’s a mess.
IL: I mean, it comes out all the time, doesn’t it, when you think, “Oh, that person would be a great”—like, you know when you have your non-Christian friends and you think, “That person would make a really good Christian!”
IL: Or “This person? They’ll never be saved.” Or, like—
CK: [Laughter] That’s right! [Laughter]
IL: —and you have this very odd conversation in your head that actually totally doesn’t reflect the gospel truth that we know.
CK: Yeah, yeah.
IL: And I often have a joke with some of the other wives: it’s often the person that comes to church that you think, “Oh, I don’t know how they’ll go” that ends up being your next Bible Study leader, because God’s work is in them, right?
IL: His Spirit works. I mean, we don’t always know what’s going on.
CK: While we take a brief break in our program, I want to tell you about a few resources. First, the episode that you’re listening to is from the first of our four live events this year on the theme of “community”. Our next event in the series will be on “Dealing with sin”. The Apostle Paul warns us that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor 5:6), and Jesus is clear with his disciples that it would be better to lose an eye or cut off a hand that causes you to sin than to go to hell (Mark 9:42-48). So it’s unmistakable that sin is a real threat and problem to our lives and our communities.
But how are we supposed to deal with it? We hide it in our own lives and we are quick to judge it in the lives of others. But this only makes things worse. I am delighted that my colleague Dr Chris Conyers will help us to think about how the gospel enables us to deal with sin together. We’ll spend an evening exploring how we can practically continue to grow in our Christian lives, putting sin to death.
The event will be held on May 19th and we’re planning to have an in-person audience once again, which we’re very excited about. But for those of you who have been enjoying tuning in from afar or, perhaps, joining in with your church or Bible study group, we’ll also continue livestreaming the event.
All details and registration can be found on our website at ccl.moore.edu.au. I hope that you’ll make it a plan to join us.
Another great resource that I want to recommend you checking out is our 2020 CCL Annual. This is a collection of highlights from last year’s essays, podcasts and events. I encourage you to download the annual and read the short and edifying articles. The 2020 Annual is now available through our website and ebook distributors.
Now let’s get back to our program.
Questions for community members
IL: We should keep moving on. I did have another little question here about—just thinking about us as all community members: so do you have some, I guess, practical questions, maybe, that we should be asking ourselves about the way that we interact with people—things that might help us think more clearly about what are the things that are difficult for us?
CK: We talked about this the other day. I thought you had some winners, Paul. I’m not going to through you under the bus, but [Laughter] I thought you had some great questions that you—I thought—
PG: I feel like I’ve—
CK: —“Yeah, I don’t need to ask that question.”
PG: —I feel like I’ve used all of them so far! [Laughter] But anyway—
CK: Yeah, well, repeat. Repeat.
PG: Maybe. [Laughter] So I think I want to say to you one of my questions would be, “Am I there from the beginning and am I there to the end?” So my children, because they’re my kids, are used to kind of being the last people at church, and they’ve spent their whole life like that. When we go to CMS Summer School, they joke that CMS Summer School is the place where all the people in the world who are the last people at church are. [Laughter] And so they stay for hours and hours and hours, and that kind of stuff. But actually, do you go longing to be with the people of God and you’re going to be with the people of God for as long as you get to be with the people of God? So what do you go to do on a Sunday, I think.
I think—the one that I said before about “Who am I avoiding?” and “I want under God to pray that he will help me to learn to love that person”. And genuinely love them, not just … crunch up my insides [Laughter] and bear with it. But be genuinely able to say, “I’m so thankful for the way that they do this and for their gift to us in God in this” and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
So I think those are things that I think are really helpful for us in terms of challenging ourselves. And I think my other one would be “Do I expect church to be always comfortable, or do I expect it to be lumpy?” [Laughter] “And when it’s lumpy, am I going to stick with it and make those relationships work—as much as I am able?”
PG: That is, you can’t force the other person’s hand. But I’m going to persevere with the person that, maybe, there’s been a disagreement with or an argument with or whatever else, and say sorry for the things that I’m responsible for and I’m going to try and hang in there.
I think leaving church should really be the option of last resort.
CK: I think as well, I mean, learning to ask better questions that we’re talking about here, we ask questions of ourselves. But learning to ask better questions of people at church too. So I was reflecting with someone this last week and they were having a hard time, and they said, “I’m so sick of getting asked these questions, week in and week out”. And you think about it: the ways we tend to relate to people, what questions do we ask in church that are any different than meeting your co-worker at the bank or something, wherever you’re working? I mean, are we asking richer, deeper, meaningful questions of people that aren’t just the superficials of life? So the kinds of things that we ask communicate the kinds of things that we value very often.
Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ask basic, mundane details; that’s important too, because that is the stuff of life as well. But learning to ask richer questions—or even listening to answers and asking better follow-up questions, and not just putting somebody in a box because of where they might be finding themselves in life, or things that may be have been hard for them in the past might be set off quite easily by certain kinds—so learning to be more intuitive in the kinds of questions we ask as we’re engaging people around church is a very hard thing to do, but an important and necessary thing to do.
And you can start by asking yourself that: “What do I wish somebody else asked me more of?” Or “What do I wish people would stop asking me?” And is it that you want them to stop because you think it’s superficial, or do you think it—you want them to stop, because it’s actually pushing a nerve? And what does that say, then, about you? Why does that set you off? Why are you annoyed with them? Why are they annoyed with you? All these questions are about the relational details of being together in life and learning to actually serve one another, even in these simple ways of correspondence.
IL: Yeah, I think going to church, it’s one of the few communities that we don’t choose. And I think the thing that I’ve found so helpful is thinking about God’s choice of those people—that he’s chosen those people to be there with me at that particular time, and so, I guess, I’m just like everyone else: I find it so easy to talk to people who think the same things as me, who like the same things as me, who are just easy people to be with. But I think, you know, every now and then, I keep saying, “I need to challenge myself. I need to look for the person that I think that I have the least in common with”. Because, actually, they’re probably the person that’s going to teach me the most. And hopefully as we relate together, because we do have this really unifying thing—Jesus—that we can actually help each other to grow in godliness.
IL: But, yeah, it’s pretty hard. [Laughter]
CK: It is hard. It is hard. The temptation’s always to want to use people, rather than to enjoy them. So we think about them almost in terms of capital: you will be useful to me in my circles for this or that or the other. But actually just learning to enjoy them and appreciate them as a gift is a very different experience. So it doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from them in enjoying them. But if you’re only in it for what they can do for you, that’s a very different thing. And you’re right: we’re putting this whole group of people, and immediately we just kind of sift through, don’t we. We do: we sift them out.
PG: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting, just—I don’t know why it’s triggered this thought—I’ve been reading a book recently called You’re Not Listening. It’s written by—
CK: What’d you say? Sorry?
PG: Yeah, thanks. [Laughter] But written by—you’re a funny guy! Anyway, written by a journalist, but she’s gone and interviewed a whole bunch of people whose job is listening, right? So she talks to a CIA interrogator, for example, about his job. And he said, “Everybody thinks that your job is to beat the information out of people”. He said, “You never know, if you’ve done that, whether you’ve got the right information. The best way to get information out of people is actually to listen really carefully and ask really good questions.” And the book’s full of little just interesting pieces of advice like, “Stop thinking about what’s the next thing that you’re going to say. Try and listen to what’s going on and try and work out, ‘What’s the next question that I want to know, now that they’ve given me that piece of information?’” So how do you carry on a conversation, because I’m listening deeply to what they’re saying, and I’m interested in what they’re saying, and how do I think about other angles and ways of asking questions? It’s a—just a fascinating little book—really really helpful, I think.
CK: One of the best ways to care for somebody is listen to them.
IL: Yeah. I was going to say it’s a very practical way of expressing that they’re a gift to you—
IL: —to learn to listen.
Part 3: Q&A
IL: Moving on to our Q&A, I can see that the first question is already here. So if I look at my phone, I’m not looking doing anything; I’m reading the questions.
PG: You have to love everybody, Isobel! [Laughter]
IL: Thanks, Paul!
Overcoming difficult experiences with church
IL: The first question is how do we approach helping those who have had some very difficult and traumatic experiences with church? How do we help them see the necessity or importance of church?
PG: Oh, that’s a … that’s a really tough—I—sorry. I think for—we have to realise that for some people, things have either happened to them in and through church, or they just live in a particular space. If you’ve ever suffered from social anxiety, you will know the discomfort of walking into a room full of people and what it does to you internally. And it—it’s hard, in a sense, ’cause we’re inviting people to overcome really deep wounds and hurts. And so, I think a lot of grace and patience is necessary.
I have a dear friend who has struggled with anxiety for a long time and, at various points, she knew that coming to church was a good thing to do—found it almost impossible personally to do. She got a friend, they would walk in the back of church, sit in the back [Laughter]—like, we’d—we’d leave the back seat basically free—they would come in and walk in the back and sit down at the back during the singing of the first song so that she could be there and experience church, and she would often have to leave straight away afterwards. So part of the thing is realising, like, some of the things that we’ve said generally for most of us, you know, get over yourself and do it. For some people, they’re just taking little steps—baby steps—trying to express what community looks like, and you’ve got to help them celebrate the good steps in the right direction, and be really gracious and give them lots of space to move, I think. Yeah.
IL: I think the question particularly is trying to, in addition to that—particularly people who’ve had a really bad experience at church—I mean, bad things do happen in church—
IL: —and how do we restore that idea of community when their only experience is actually being dreadfully wounded?
CK: I guess—I mean, careful listening to them and their experience, and recognising that their distance from the church and their feelings about the church, even some of their knee-jerk reactions, may be—are grounded in past experiences, and learning about those hurts: why those hurts are so painful, and I think as Paul said, being very patient and gracious.
Like Paul, I’ve had people that have had bad experiences with church, and have also just sort of slowly had to wade into that water. And one of the things I think we can do is talk to them and almost try to go to them, rather than have them come to us. I don’t mean that, necessarily, physically, but I mean reaching out gently—saying, “How can we help your experience? How can we care for you now?” Maybe even setting up where there’s a few trusted people that come around them physically to just begin to initiate that community and that trust again. But very, very delicately, I think.
PG: I said—the other thing that—that just occurred to me, I think, Isobel, too, is in that space, I think we need to be really careful about compulsion. So allowing the person to feel a sense of agency and to take those steps as they feel able to take those steps, and—like, we can talk about things like the way that the Bible talks about the value of church or whatever, but realise that for them to start to grasp those things means overcoming massive hurdles in order to do so. And so, letting them slowly be persuaded and make their own mind up about what timing and pace and stuff—
PG: —is going to take place there.
CK: I don’t want to reuse your illustration before, but if I marry her, do I have to live with her? That actually really expresses—there may be pains in a relationship of someone that had a really bad experience, and learning that trust and that coming together is a very very very tough time. And likewise, I think, with church, we talk about it—I mean, yeah, you really want to live with your spouse. With church, if you’re a Christian, you really want to be a part of a church. And yet we have to be very careful not to just shout down “Sinner” or something else, because people are distant. And again, seek understanding and appreciation of prior hurt.
Church size and community
IL: I’ve got a question from Anna: how do we build community in a big church, where there are some core friendship groups that many other people feel a bit disconnected or on the fringe? I was just going to say, it’s not only a big church problem. I mean, I think we’ve all experienced that, haven’t we—that you come in and there’s core groups. How can we—
IL: —build community?
PG: I kind of want to say something to both sides of the fence. [Laughter] If you’re in the core, you don’t often realise it, or you just don’t think very much about it; it’s just natural and easy and neat. But actually coming to church and making the effort: if I know I feel comfortable here and I’m at home, you particularly need to make the effort to talk to the people who aren’t part of that in-crowd. So becoming aware of the in-crowd, and if you’re a part of it, and working against that.
I want to say if you’re coming in as the outsider, I think—it’s miserable, right, but I think it does take perseverance. All human relationships are a function of time and depth—particularly in a big church where you can meet one person one week and another person the next week, and another person the next week. It’s going to take time and effort to actually—
PG: —get to some depth and space in relationship. So obviously a small group ministry, I think, is really really vital in terms of overcoming that.
CK: Yeah, and breaking up close friendships for the sake of diversifying the body isn’t the answer. In other words, we don’t want to discount or try to diminish good friendships; [what] we want to do is open them up. So exclusivity is the problem, not closeness.
And I guess, just because other people are close doesn’t mean you won’t necessarily be welcomed; there might be history there that, that Paul said, has been ten years of friendship, and you’ve known them for ten months. That’s very different. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to know you. If they don’t want to know you, then they probably need to think about that.
IL: I think relationships take time, too, don’t they? I think someone told me that it takes about two years before church starts to feel like you belong. And I think my experience is most people don’t realise how long it takes, because it’s not like everyone has empty lives that they can just pick up new people straight away and quickly, and I think for my own part, having been in some groups where there’s people that have basically grown up together and done school together and got married together—like, you can’t really compete—
IL: —with 30 years of friendship in the first week that you’re there.
IL: Or, actually, not in lots and lots of weeks. So I think it is a really tricky dynamic in terms of thinking about—but Serena’s question relates to this, because she, then, says, “So do we think that smaller churches are more conducive to fostering community, because it’s impossible to avoid those that we don’t naturally gravitate towards?”
CK: I mean, you could have three people in a room and one person’s going to be lonely. [Laughter] I mean, I don’t know: I think it’s an issue no matter where you go. Some of the best communities that I’ve seen formed have been in larger churches, and some of the loneliest places have been in smaller churches. So I can see it in all different ways.
I don’t think size necessarily means that—it would be more obvious who is missing in a smaller context, or who’s left out, that’s for sure. So if you’re in a bigger church, I guess, be more heads up.
Church being inclusive to non-believers
IL: This kind of relates to what you were saying about exclusive/inclusive. So perhaps you can help redefine this for us. If, by definition, Christian community is exclusive, as in we belong to Christ, I think, is the question, how can churches and Christians balance this with the call to be outward-looking—that is, inclusive to non-believers?
PG: Yeah. Miroslav Volf has a book which is called Exclusion and Embrace, where he kind of describes—there’s two things that, in a sense, work against each other, both of them at the same time, in terms of the gospel and Christian community. So at one level, God, in the gospel, calls all people who are sinners into relationship with himself, and he is forgiving and gracious and overlooks, and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So there’s that kind of movement that welcomes and loves everybody. But at the same time, the Christian community is not a community that says you can believe absolutely anything you like, and you can do absolutely anything you like; Jesus actually says there are things you need to believe and do as people who follow Jesus. And so, there are all sorts of levels of exclusion that go on, I think.
I suspect, though, that we probably apply the wrong move at the wrong time, [Laughter] is what we often do, I think. So we tend to exclude when we ought to embrace, and we tend to embrace when we actually ought to exclude. So just to give you an example of that, if someone is not Christian is willing to walk into church, I don’t need as they walk in to tell them all the things that they shouldn’t do and how they shouldn’t behave, and what’s wrong with their life, and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. That’s just a moment to welcome and to listen and to engage, and, “What did you think of what happened?” and “What did you think about how the talk went?” and—there’s a posture of openness and welcoming that you feel that someone wants you to be there and they’re thankful and glad that you’re there, and you really want to get to know them. So there’s that embrace and welcoming thing.
And, in fact, if you think about how the New Testament talks about exclusion, the Bible says, if you exclude all the non-Christians, you can’t live in the world, [Laughter] because—I mean, that’s ridiculous. But someone who is claiming to be Christian and says, “I belong to Jesus” and etcetera, etcetera, and then wants to deny fundamental truths or live in ways that are antagonistic to the gospel, that’s actually where exclusion should take place in terms of the Christian community.
So perhaps it’s thinking about who it is that’s coming and how our exclusion or embrace is being expressed. I think that’s really significant. Chase, did you want to add anything?
CK: I think it’s great.
IL: I think I’ve experienced that principle also in school communities. So—especially in Christian schools. It’s really tricky, isn’t it, ’cause you want to create this whole school community that includes believers and unbelievers, and yet, if there’s not the sense that there’s something different about being a Christian and being a member of this school, then no one actually understands that they need to come to Christ. It’s kind of a tricky balance—
CK: It’s very tricky.
IL: —to maintain.
CK: All are welcome to come to Christ. But when you’re in Christ, I mean, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
IL: That’s right.
CK: I mean, I am in Christ.
IL: That’s right.
CK: I have to die.
CK: So come and check it out. We want you to check it out. In fact, Jesus is saying, “Come to me. Find rest.”
CK: “You are welcome here. But when you come, it comes at a cost: that’s the cost of your life. And I will give you life forever.”
CK: And when you find your life in Jesus, that’s the grounds that we are embraced. And I think that’s the most important part. So …
IL: We’ve got another question. So the way that we often set up churches, compartmentalising in youth services, family services … can I say women’s ministry? No. [Laughter] I’m not going to say that. Do you think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot in terms of this idea of community?
CK: I do. Yeah. I do. [Laughter] Full stop.
IL: Straightforward! You do.
CK: I’m not trying to say that all specific ministries are bad, right. I mean, I’ve been to women’s ministry, and I appreciate what you do there, actually. [Laughter] I’ve been a few times. I’ve been forced to go a few times, in fact! But I think there can be real advantages to targeting specific groups. But I often think that we sell ourselves short. So when we prefabricate our churches to be age-specific, demographic-specific, stage-specific, whatever it may be—all we’re doing at that moment, then, is conceding points that the culture around us says. So it’s low-hanging fruit: we can build on commonalities that are there.
Now, that might be fertile ground for opportunities for the gospel. That’s what I think a lot of people have capitalised on. But it also inherently can undermine the message of the gospel—that is, that Jesus is bringing together all nations, all stages, and bringing them all in, which is the question of the CGM event coming up. So I actually think that the gospel gets a richer showing, in some sense, across ages and stages and ethnicities and all of that, as they come together in Christ. But I do recognise that there are some advantages.
The best advantage that I see is for language barriers: if you can’t speak the same language, that’s very hard. And I actually think that children’s ministries fall, to some degree, in that category—that it’s great that we cater to children who can’t necessarily comprehend the messages that we’re putting forward in the all-in services, if you will. But apart from that, I think that there are a lot of questions we should be asking ourselves about why we are segmenting ourselves the way that we are.
PG: Yep. I’m going to just push back a little bit.
CK: I’m happy for you to.
PG: Yeah, sure.
CK: For now.
PG: One of my questions—well, one of my questions, though, is like, we talk about language, right? But language and culture are not completely unrelated to each other. And one of the things is when we—I say in the—my church is genuinely welcoming, but we all are a particular socioeconomic group and we all like two sports that are the two sports that we talk about all the time, and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. To realise that there is something that kind of defines the culture of who we are that gives some people a sense of exclusion, right? And so, I can say all I like, “Everybody’s welcome”, but that’s not the message that everybody gets all of the time.
CK: I agree with you.
PG: And so, sometimes, actually, for example—and this is partly a language thing, but on the campus when we were thinking about doing ministry with overseas students who are coming from different cultural language backgrounds, rather than just saying, “You have to come along to the white guy’s service and do what we do” and—there are genuinely different issues that they’re engaging with and thinking about Christianly and whatever. And so, they actually needed space to be able to talk in their own language, but also address issues that were very different from the ones that we engage with.
For example, talking about honouring your father and mother: to the Anglos, I want to say, “You are such individualists, and you don’t realise what your parents have done for you. You need to work out how to honour and obey your parents.” For the Asian students, coming from that background whose parents were telling them, “You’re not allowed to be Christian. If you get baptised, you’re being cut off from the inheritance”—etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I mean, you got to help them to work out what does it mean to honour their parents in a space where Jesus actually stands over them? But sometimes those messages are quite different from each other.
PG: And our challenge was trying to work out how do you do enough ministry with individuals to help them work out how to follow Jesus in their own cultural space, but also to express unity together? So we would do some stuff together and apart.
PG: But realising in every space, there’s a dominant culture—
PG: —and being aware—
CK: I appreciate that.
PG: —of your dominant culture is, I think, really significant.
CK: But I guess what you’ve just articulated, in some ways, is part of what I’m saying. So the Asian students and the Anglo students actually needed the outsider, if you will—the outside culture—to help expose their own blind spot, and actually being able to listen to one another and then take those different cultures into the thinking it through from the gospel, rather than just the cultural norms—
CK: —really is fertile ground for discipleship together and growing up in Christ together. So I take your point, though. And I think—
CK: —the cultural barriers—
PG: I agree
CK: —are not insignificant.
PG: The point that I would want to push on is to say for the outsider coming in, if you share the culture of the group, it’s much easier to come in.
PG: If you don’t share the culture of the group, the group can think it’s welcoming—
PG: —as it thinks that it is—
PG: —but it’s not aware of how foreign it is for the person who’s coming in from the outside, particularly from a different cultural space.
PG: And so, I think we have to be really thoughtful about that and aware of that as we try to do ministry and invite people in from different cultural backgrounds.
IL: That would be my experience. So that’s my lived-in experience. I think that kind of what you’re saying—whether it’s by age or culture or whatever it is, it’s really good for catching people. So as a child of migrant parents, growing up and being the only Chinese girl in my primary school—until my sister came—when I went to a Chinese church that was full of kids like me who went to school in Australia, spoke only English but whose parents were very Chinese and had very Asian values, I suddenly just found this whole group of people that I could really relate to, and it was so helpful for me in terms of a group to belong to. And I saw that that worked really amazingly evangelistically, because it was a really easy place to fit.
I think the thing that was really difficult was as we grew in the faith and grew up, it really took me leaving that space to actually have a richer view of what it means to belong together and to expose some of the cultural norms, which are not necessarily biblical norms.
But yeah, I feel like it’s really good for catching. But then it needs to go somewhere else to kind of—
IL: —get a growth.
PG: So Ray Galea, I think, and I’m quoting you wrongly, brother, please tell me, but I think would talk about, for someone coming to Christ, that first initial contact, it’s great, but our job over time is actually to train them to leave church and be willing—
PG: —if you’re going to grow in Christ, you ought to be willing to go and meet with God’s people anywhere, no matter who they are and what cultural background they’re from. But in that initial contact phase, it’s often very helpful to feel like there’s some sense of at home-ness—helps me to listen better and appreciate what’s going on, I think. Yeah.
IL: Yes. I mean, and growing up, like, their parents didn’t let them go out late at night either. So that made going out with those [Laughter] people a lot easier.
Needing every part of the body of Christ
IL: Callum’s got a question here: we know each part is needed, but often don’t know how. Do you think that we’re stuck in that task/roster mindset? As we think through this, how do we break out of that?
CK: Yeah. I do think it’s a real—I mean, we used to do these spiritual gift inventories. Did you guys have these in Australia?
PG: Yeah, we did. Yeah.
CK: Yeah, we had them in America, definitely. So you know, you join a church, and as you’re joining the church—
PG: Well, we—yours—used yours from America, that’s right.
CK: I’m sure we gave them to you as gifts to you.
CK: Might have been a gifts survey, we could say—
PG: Yes, we could!
CK: —that we gifted to you.
PG: Yes. Thank you.
CK: So, you know, you’d do this inventory, and what it ends up being, actually is, “I really like this and I really want to do this, and therefore I’m going to join this roster”. Whether or not you’re actually skilled for, I think, is a question to be determined later down the track. But what happens when I don’t necessarily gravitate to any of those things?
I think sometimes in our churches, we’re very fixed in the kinds of ways that constitute service and what service actually looks like. I mean, “service” might be, in fact, kind conversation. Service might be a very simple act of hospitality—of offering somebody something that’s really going to give them a break in a key moment in time. So I think there’s a whole lot of ways that we’ve fixed in what it means to be a part of the body. And I—I do think you’re right, Callum, that the ways that we do think are programmatic.
Those aren’t necessarily unhelpful all the time either, though, because when we want to give expression to our gifts, order is actually a very nice thing. So working in teams is actually very helpful thing to do. And so, if I know that there is a hospitality team that I can join into, it gives me a great way to belong in the body—to actually offer service and to do that with others. So I do think it’s that balance, though, of if I don’t immediately fall into one of these teams, how, then, can I think about what service looks like and even what ways I am gifted for service, without necessarily some kind of categorical gifting?
Is that getting beyond the biblical language? Do you think the biblical language supports categories?
CK: Okay. That was [an] easy answer.
PG: Yeah. [Laughter]
IL: I thought about something that Paul was saying about seeing someone as a gift beyond what they can give. So, okay, my story’s actually not about church, but I think it does work in principle, and it’s probably easier for me to tell this one than one at our church. So my daughters grew up with a little girl in their school, and she was very unwell and often didn’t attend school, and really needed a lot of help. When she eventually passed away, I remember saying to her mum that this little girl was a precious gift to all the children in her year at school, because those children, even though they were only primary age and I felt my daughters were very blessed, they actually learnt what it was to have a friend that needed them—that was all one-sided—that they had to take care of her—that they did what she wanted—that they did only the things that she was able to do, and I actually think that those children became kinder and more thoughtful and empathetic at a much earlier age, because she was their friend. And so, I kind of want to say I feel the same about church: we don’t think that way about people. But I think that’s what it means for them to be a gift to us in God’s body—that they bring us things that we wouldn’t otherwise have without their midst. And I think the world would not think of them as a gift. But I think that even though my story’s not about church, I feel like that that does capture the idea of—
IL: —everyone being needed.
CK: So helpful.
Love when it’s difficult
IL: We are really running out of time. So I have one last question: how do we do community well being careful of not burning out when caring for people who may take an unlimited amount of energy and emotion?
CK: I think this is for you, Paul.
PG: [Laughter] Thanks! I think that we need to see that, in the end, that love is about the best interests of the other person. Love does not necessarily mean just doing everything the—that the other person wants me to do. So there are times in spaces in relationship with people where, actually, for their good, you’ll put limits on contact, or you’ll put some boundaries around things. I just want to say that there’s a right moment for doing that: it’s not always wrong. So the exclusion/embrace idea is actually really significant: church isn’t just—and love is not just—“Whatever you want, I’ll do it for you”. Love is actually defined externally by God and by the truth that he speaks. And so, in some relationships, love will look very different from the way that it will look in other relationships. I just think that there are times and spaces.
If you become completely avoidant of that person and you think that that’s the solution, that’s not the solution. But to be thoughtfully engaged with them—but to put healthy limits around that and to encourage others to be engaged with them and that kind of stuff, that’s a growing long-term process. But that is part of what love looks like, I think.
CK: Yeah, and hopefully not journeying alone.
CK: You’re doing it with others. And you’re doing it into Christ our head, together—growing up in him. So he is the one that saves us. He is the one we belong to. He’s the one we need. And therefore, we will never be the saviour or the one that satisfies everything. And therefore, I think we have to be able to take rest in that.
IL: Thanks, Chase and Paul. Thanks, all of you for being with us tonight. There’s actually heaps more good questions that are coming in, and I’m really sorry that we don’t have time to keep on answering them. I’m sure, like me, you’re very thankful for all the things that Chase and Paul have challenged us with tonight. And can I encourage you to keep on talking with each other about that—think again about looking at 1 Corinthians 12 and thinking about what it means to be a body of Christ. Can I remind you to keep on going to our website to look at the podcast and previous CCL events? You might even want to re-watch tonight with your Bible Study or someone who missed it. But let me pray for us to close our evening together.
Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for Christ our head. Thank you that he has redeemed us and saved us, and washed us clean. Father, we pray that we would remember that we are his body. And just as a body functions together, every part needed and each part needy, we ask that you would help us to value one another. Give us the humility, like Christ, that we may love and serve each other—not our own self-interest, but putting others ahead of ourselves. Thanks for our discussion tonight, and we pray that by your Spirit, as we listen and think some more, that you would help us to live this out—that we may bring you glory. And we pray this in your son’s name. Amen.
IL: Thanks for joining us tonight!
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please subscribe to our podcast and also be sure to visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you can discover many articles, past podcasts and video materials.
You might also like to stay current with what’s happening through the Centre by signing up for our monthly enewsletter. We always benefit from receiving questions and feedback from our listeners, and if you’d like to get in touch, you can email us at email@example.com.
As always, I’d like to thank Moore College for making the ministry of the Centre for Christian Living possible, and to extend thanks to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for audio editing and transcribing. Music provided by James West.
1 Colson Whitehead, ““How ‘You do you’ perfectly captures our narcissistic culture,” The New York Times, 31 March 2015: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/magazine/how-you-do-you-perfectly-captures-our-narcissistic-culture.html. Accessed 2 March 2021.
2 Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (London: Harvard University Press, 1991), 13-14. Taylor is not advocating this position, but taking stock of what has culminated in a societal moral relativism.
3 Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 4.
4 Carl R Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 24-25.
5 Augustine, The City of God, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 2, Augustine: City of God, Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods (Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson, 1994), XIX.24, p. 418.
6 Chase mistakenly said “serve” on the night.
7 Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886). Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050701.htm. Accessed online 22 March 2021.
8 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles. 2 Vols. Library of Christian Classics 20-21. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), IV.I. 4; trans. of Institutio Christianae religionis, in libris quatuor nunc primum digesta, certisque distincta capitibus, ad aptissimam methodum: aucta etiam tam magna accessione ut propemodum opus novum haberi possit (Geneva: Robert Estienne, 1559).