Recently as part of a leadership workshop, we were presented with a number of challenging questions to ask, when an organisation is considering a change of direction or policy. One of these, to paraphrase it a little, is: What if we just abandoned the whole thing—stop this now? This confronting question leads us to the heart of why we are doing what we do. We are confronted with such questions when we face trauma, or the sudden onset of an illness, or the death of someone very close to us. What, actually, is our life about? What is of meaning or of lasting value? What if it all ended, now?
These are deeply disturbing questions: they cause what is called existential anxiety. This goes to our most basic levels of security and comfort, and may make us very concerned indeed.
Every organization needs to ask such questions, from time to time. In a major strategic review, one way of doing this is to ask: If we were starting it all today, would we build what we have? Would we be doing things this way?
Beginning with the ‘clean slate’ thinking is very helpful, to a degree: but only if we then work out what we do with those ideas or answers. How do we get from where we are, to where we might have preferred to be?
Perhaps a less difficult way of doing this is to ask: What if it all stopped now? In other words, what would be lost, if we ceased to exist as a local group, such as this particular soccer club, children’s group, or (as I am now thinking) local church?
I was once caught up in a situation of civil unrest and riots in Sri Lanka. Our hosts literally (and rightly) expected that at any moment a bomb could be thrown into their house, or a rioting mob threatening to attack. Already all their relatives had experienced such attacks. They had a 6 weeks old baby, and did what they could to prepare for such an event. They had a small bag of belongings packed, and were ready to go out the back door and over the fence. Thank God neither of these things happened, but it was a very scary situation, and our friends were eventually forced to leave their own country to survive.
If you had to leave your home, at short notice, what would you take?
If we had to cease being a local church, what would be lost?
I have found value in engaging in what philosophers call a ‘thought experiment’. Imagine that after two more weeks, our local church would cease to exist. What would be lost?
First, I think the gathering itself is something that would be a loss: the people coming together. It is easy to undervalue this simple reality—people gathering. Many years ago at Whitley College, all classes for a week were cancelled, when Athol Gill died suddenly. The interesting thing was that people just kept turning up at the College, every day. People needed to be there, to share their grief and shock, to affirm the value of this community. Gathering together is a value, and it is worth affirming. The writer to the Hebrews, in the New Testament, urges that they do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but keep meeting and encouraging one another. (Heb. 10.25). Even introverts need to do this! Especially introverts need to hear this!
From this first element comes the reality of relationships. Again this may be something we do not easily value or recognize, especially amongst a group who have known each other a long time. So easily we take these relationships for granted: but that can mean we take each other for granted. It’s worth considering: so what if we never saw each other again?
Crucial to the life of a local community are its stories. When someone new joins our community, they find there are many stories of what happened when …, who did what or said what, or tried to do this or that. There’s a history of personal as well as group stories, and the interplay of all these stories is what makes the life of a community. We are at last realizing the value of oral history: the stories which live in our older people, and will never be written down. We need somehow to capture them, record them, hear them.
Most likely, it is when a group begins to hear its own stories, actively listening to them, that is will be able to affirm its reason for being. All kinds of management or leadership sessions today focus on things like our ‘mission statement’, which is about our reason for being. This is valuable, though it’s not really anything new. The church has known about this idea of mission for all its history. Yet, again, this fact alone can perhaps cause us not to value this factor. Why does this group exist?
For a local church, there are some specific aspects of this question. It’s one thing to name the ‘mission’ of the entire Christian church, universal, through all its history. But why does this group of people exist? Is it merely an accident of history that we are here, meeting in this building, with each other? Is it merely the individual choices and preferences of these individuals? If it is (and those are in fact important elements, for sure), then this group is more like a voluntary society, a club, than anything else. Its reason for being is indeed just that: these people choose to be here, for their individual purposes and objectives. That sociological analysis, and perhaps a geographical aspect as well, may be all there is to it. We come to this building because it is local, and to this kind of activity because it suits our lifestyle, preferences in music, style, theology, programs.
If that is all there is to it, then perhaps it is easy enough to answer the question: What would be lost if it all stopped in two weeks. We would lose what we have chosen, or fallen into, as ‘our’ church.
At another local church, some decades ago, we were considering the prospect of closing our building and moving into a new housing area close by. We decided to have a number of forums exploring possibilities and implications. As we did this, one insightful leader suggested that these forums should not be held in our own, familiar church building. Instead, we met in the hall of the neighbouring Anglican church, who graciously provided hospitality for this. What we discovered was that we could still talk to each other in a different place. We were still the same group of people! That actually helped an enormous amount.
Then, too, I find it fascinating to note how immensely creative church groups, indeed all kinds of established groups are, when they meet ‘off-site’ for a retreat, a camp or some such event. Somehow the change of venue releases creativity or opens channels of conversation, insights and contributions that we do not regularly or otherwise see and receive.
The ancient people of Israel experienced a long period of exile, taken into captivity in Babylon. Not all them were taken away, but their leaders especially were removed and they had to learn to live among strangers. Their worship, which was centred on the Temple in Jerusalem, which they had believed would be eternal, now faced a crisis. How shall we sing the Lord’s song, in a strange land? (Psalm 137 speaks of this.)
All of this is immensely relevant to the situation of local churches today. We are, far more than we realise, in such a strange land. It is not because the world has suddenly become all bad, as some seem to think. It is not because ‘secularity’ threatens. Actually, it is because we have lost sight of what is central to our being, our reason for being ‘church’. We imagined that it was all about us and our activities in our building.
What if it all stopped? What if we lost it all. Would it all stop?
I think not. I think the spiritual reality that is within and amongst us, which is both our faith and the source of that faith, the presence of the mysterious Spirit, would call forth something, something else by way of gathering, relationship, stories and meaning. It is these realities, spiritual realities, that are the church. We mistake the church for those other sociological and geographical and programmed things. They can all change; they have done, and will do again. But there is a spiritual reality among us and within us, which will take us forward. This, I think, is the most exciting thing about these ‘challenging’ times. it is what an ‘interim’ ministry is about: and as I have suggested before, it is what all ministry and church life is about, in its perpetual ‘interim’ situation.
The opportunities lie before us, to see and choose to follow where that mysterious presence is leading us.