I find the whole concept of ‘community’ fascinating. It’s suddenly become very fashionable in ‘forward thinking churches’ (as they very ‘forwardly’ like to call themselves) to throw this whole concept around like a big beach ball. The problem being that people like to bat the thing about but nobody wants to keep it hold of it very long because it is a bit big and cumbersome and keeps getting in the way.
We find it relatively easy to identify with the concept of community in Niddrie because the building we worship in is slap, bang in the middle of the estate. We are open every day of the week and ‘regulars’ come to our café or our Zumba classes, or counselling sessions, or mum’s groups etc and we are constantly building rapport with locals.
I have people who sit in the café and sup a cup of coffee for 4 hours every day of the week because they are sad, or lonely and just want the company of other people around them. Isolation and depression are a huge concern on estates like ours. Part of the reason we do so much around food (too much according to some ‘non communal’ types) is that it offers a non threatening way for people to come and engage with the community of faith. People here don’t want to come and listen to some bloke spout off at a ‘Christianity Explored’ type event (brilliant tool for its context, incidentally) but they will come to a karaoke night or a curry night just to sit and have the crack. Do Christians do that anymore? Just sit and have the crack and talk to people about the normal, mundane things of life? It all seems a bit forced and frenetic. Maybe if we sold it as an ‘Evangelistic Having The Crack Event’ more Christians would buy into it!
Some of the ‘Christian’ attempts to ‘connect’ with people have been painful to listen to (and be on the end of) over the years.
Friendly Christian (hovering in the Niddrie Caff praying silently for ‘opportunities’): ‘Hi, how are you?’
Godless Heathen (Thinking, “Aw, that’s nice of them”): ‘Erm…bad really. Me piles are really playing up and me bum hurts like mad. How are you?’
Friendly Christian (Shocked and offended buy the word “piles” but will suffer the privation and suffering for the glory of the gospel): ‘ooh…sounds painful but not as painful as the agonies that our poor Lord and saviour suffered on the cross. He bled tears you know?
Godless Heathen (I’m sure she said words then but I missed it): ‘What?’
Friendly Christian (moving on to small talk now, exultant that the full gospel has been shared in a warm and meaningful way. She would have something to share at the ‘Monet Prints’ ladies discussion group this evening): ‘So, what are you doing this weekend? Anything nice?’
Godless Heathen (Thinking, “That’s a bit odd. Maybe she’s a bit mad and can’t keep her mind on one subject at a time. Me gran’s like that. Aww..I’ll be nice to her. She’s probably lonely. That’s why she’s talking to me): ‘Well Friday. I’ll probably go and see me cousin. She’s had cancer and I like to take her a bottle of Lambrusco and have a laugh. Then Saturday I like to go round me sisters and watch the kid’s for her while she goes shopping. They’re a nightmare in Tesco’s otherwise.’ Then Saturday night it’s off on the lash with some pals. And then on Sunday I like to take me gran to grampies graveside, tidy up the grave and have a bit of a chat to him. We do it every week. She misses him, me gran.’
Friendly Christian (Oh my goodness me…. Help me Lord! The Lord of darkness and his evil minions surround this person! Drinking, carousing and praying to the dead. She needs to come to church and hear the Word.): ‘Well, have you thought about coming to church and making new friends and hearing the good news about the Lord Jesus Christ?
Godless Heathen (Uncertain of motives now): ‘No.’
Friendly Christian (not pausing for breath and on a ‘Spirit led’ roll now to rescue this poor individual from her sad and wicked life): ‘Well you really should. We’re doing a series on Deuteronomy this week and that would probably be good for your gran because it talks about not praying to the dead in there. And in our midweek meetings we’ve been talking about how God is good all the time and I am sure your cousin with cancer would love to come and here about that.’
Godless Heathen (unable to think and wondering if this person is a bit mentally unstable): ‘Do you do anything else except talk at people? In church I mean?
Friendly Christian (Thinking, “praise the Lord, a breakthrough’): ‘What do you mean exactly?’
Godless Heathen (Thinking, “Is this a Bible mugging here. Does she really care about me?”): ‘I mean, do you hang out together and have a laugh and that? Or is it just meetings about Jesus and the Bible.’
Friendly Christian (It’s not a party darling. It’s serious business): ‘Well…we love to come together in the spirit of community and worship God together. That’s what we do.’
Godless Heathen (sounds crap): ‘Nah. I’ll stick with me family. They’re a pain but we love one another. Thanks for the offer though love.’
Friendly Christian (thinking, “That went really well. The girls will be so proud of me): ‘Well, enjoy your tea. I’ll be praying for you and your superstitious gran.’
Family bonds in Niddrie are super tight here but they are also super destructive and can be marked by years of feudal, in fighting and petty jealousies. As a result, many people are looking for some sort of non-threatening companionship and an ear to bend, without necessarily expecting any sage advice in return. Often, the regulars at least, just want to speak and live and be in our presence. ‘To escape the madheads‘ as a friend recently shared with me.
The problem comes when the community we are inviting them into is not perhaps the utopian ideal that it claims to be, or even that it ought to be. My experience of many mature Christians is that ‘community’ is almost a dirty word, something to be shied away from and avoided if at all possible. Community is OK as long as it doesn’t interfere with my Pilate’s class or interrupt my Bible study group (ooohh…discuss).
The problem with Niddrie is that everything takes too long and in an era of explosive church growth in the USA and a mass of ‘How to be big like us you poor little, faithless, dying, unsuccessful bunch of losers’ books swamping us at every turn, the temptation is to go for big bang events and sex up our attendance figures.
Couple this with the fact that I see many Niddrie people, by and large, every day of the week. So, I know what is going on in their lives. I have met their mums, their cousins, their gran’s, and their dogs etc. I am involved in their lives and they in mine. They ask after my kids and I ask after theirs. They want to know about my health and very often they want to know about the church (surprisingly). The tension comes when I don’t see my members that often or in that light. Many of them run a mile if I try to ask a personal question. They find the concept of ‘accountability’ both invasive and unnecessary.
I remember first coming to NCC and asking people the question: ‘How is your walk with Jesus?’ In other words, how are you doing spiritually? I wasn’t trying to be hip or clever. As the one given responsibility for the shepherding of their souls I was (am still am) genuinely concerned. Yet one little question caused havoc in the church for many. People avoided me, laughed nervously, refused to answer the question, and in some cases just lied! A few came clean and, interestingly, are now doing really well in our church life. In the end, I stopped asking.
When I first went to NCC I found that people, by and large, were happy to sit and listen on a Sunday, crack out a half decent prayer on a Wednesday and that was it. No further (can I say how much we have moved on since then although there is still much to do). That is not community. That is not attractive to people with existing close and intricate relationships looking for connection. How am I supposed to ‘sell’ (in the right way) the concept of Christian community to an unbeliever on our estate who may sell weed, live with his girlfriend, hang out down the pub with his mates every night, is deeply involved in wider community affairs and knows the name of everybody within a 3 mile radius? What exactly are we inviting this guy into?
It seems a bit dodgy to me to go to great lengths to make contacts with people, tell them about Jesus, be their mates and once a profession has been made, shove them into the Sunday Service with a Bible, a good ‘quiet time book’, encouraged to turn up to the prayer meeting and maybe the odd ‘family’ BBQ. Doesn’t sound like much of an attractive swap, does it?
Christian community? Still working out what that looks like as I feel like John the Baptist with a foot in the Old era trying usher in the promise of the New.