It’s been some time since I offered any reflections on the work I am doing as an Interim Pastor with the Box Hill Baptist Church, in Melbourne. Nine months into that role, I think some issues have become much clearer. They are questions about what is central, and these I want to suggest are instructive as to the nature of faith itself and thus what it means to be ‘church’.
I’m writing this whilst overseas, in the USA for other tasks I have to fulfil, and aware that the life of the Box Hill church goes on without me. That’s my first point here. So much continues without the pastors, because it arises from the talents and contributions of the people. It is owned by the people and they want these things to continue. They do it. Yesterday , for example, the service was planned and led by the young people of the church, in creative and stimulating ways. So whilst there has been a sense for much of the year that many things have ceased or are ‘recess’ since the previous pastors left, it is now clear that many other things continue.
That leads to my second observation. It is true that many other things are not happening, because the previous pastors are no longer around. They did things and people depended on them to do these things, unrecognised until it becomes clear that these things are no longer happening. Much physical maintenance was done, unpaid and on his own initiative, by one of the pastors. The consequence of this situation is that now we have to find a process for addressing these tasks. This is a good thing. I see the temptation for me, too, to just do some of these things. But that will not resolve the issues. I happily type minutes for the leadership meetings, as a stand in.But now I need to refrain from that and press for the group to take responsibility for these tasks.
The major observation I want to make, however, is that exploration of issues of identity is very difficult for a local church community—but this is the task I have been given. My role is to lead them to engage with this question. What does it mean for us to be ‘church’ in the present context and situation? Most people are more directly focussed on activities. The question I have just asked is only understood to mean, ‘What are we doing?’ or at best, ‘What could we be doing?’
When people are tired, however, and coming to terms with their failing physical capacities; when they are aware that some of their former church members have moved away or are no longer attending this community, their focus is directly upon what is happening, who is doing what, or who is going to do what they used to do. That’s both natural and understandable.
There is a lot of easy talk about the importance of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. I affirm the ideas and the ideal. But to embrace this challenge requires genuine working through the concerns of people just mentioned, not sweeping them aside.
One aspect of this has been the broad issue of morale or mood. Awareness of the loss of things, people, activities is a kind of collective grief and my role has been to help people acknowledge and work through that. But then also to move on, appropriately. Recovering from grief takes time, if it is done properly. (And if it is not done properly, then it will continue to undermine energy and life generally. I know.) Building a sense of hope, a sense that things are not about to collapse, even if there has been a lot of change and loss is the vital task. Confidence in the life of the community is crucial to morale. It is worth hanging in there, that’s the point. For what, then? That’s been my challenge and this is precisely where the issue becomes theological. It’s about what the church is, as such, and why any church exists at all.
And that is not about programs, activities or ‘missional goals’. Not first of all. Those things come much further down the list. The primary task is the theological task of knowing what it means to be a ‘people of God’ or a ‘community of faith’, called into being not by what we do but by what God is doing.
So the challenge has been to address the nature and meaning of faith.
Several things have become clear. For a number of people faith is basically about believing things. ‘Belief-that’ is the basic idea. People have been taught that to be a Christian is to believe these things, and then some activities and life choices flow from it. This may be alright for a while, but it actually leaves everything in our own hands. We own our faith, here. We are in control. And we make all the effort. Little wonder that people get tired, and feel despondent. It’s all too hard.
There’s another view, however, in which faith is more about receiving than believing. It’s not we who create and maintain all this, but a spirit given to us from within, evoked from us by the life around us, the presence of the divine within all creation, by the approach and ‘word’ of God. This view of faith centres not on ourselves but on us as parts of something bigger, more, beyond: it’s about participation more than us generating the action. It’s responsive. It’s given. It’s a calling, and a choice. It’s a gift.
My conviction is that this is the primary task of pastors, to enable people to discover that they are invited into the life and activity of God, a spiritual presence both around and within: around and within each person, around and within each church and each community.
It is this ‘being’ that is primary—and it is this being that enables us to know what to do and gives energy for doing that, just that, only that.