In the last 18 months I have made the transition from the neo-pentecostal church I was a part of when I first moved to Southmead over to the local Anglican church. Largely this has been a positive experience for me. I have enjoyed the contemplative nature of the services, the simplicity of the sermons, the importance placed on Jesus’ sacrifice, reminding me week-in-week-out that it is indeed finished.
But the change I have appreciated the most? This church is full of people who I can count not just as my friends but also as my neighbours. In this church, we are all in it together, and we’re all equal, and we’re a community – not just on a Sunday morning but throughout the week. That simply wasn’t the case for the significant majority of my previous congregation.
Instead of having to travel to a particular area of the city to go and run a project or provide for someone in need, that someone and the people who would be ‘reached’ by these such ‘projects’ are one or more of: my co-worshipers, neighbours and friends.
I don’t love everything about my new church – who does? Of course there are things I would change. Realistically, I would feel much more at home in a medium-sized Baptist church with a larger group of young, single people (beyond myself and my housemate) as well as families and folks of older generations.
But that’s just it. Far too often we go to a church because it’s what we want. We go and we consume (there’s a whole blog post in itself there, really). Instead of doing that, I wonder what it would look like if we actually invested in our local communities? I think two or three key things would happen. And I think they would all be good.
Picture the scenario. Every Christian across the UK (or even, say, across Bristol) decides to attend the church most geographically proximate to them.
The Mega-churches would be empty, and the dying churches filled
Megachurches tend to be situated on commercial or industrial estates, or they tend to be found near the city centre or nearby to university campuses. These areas have extremely low residential population density and certainly aren’t likely to be closer to a housing estate than the local Anglican church (I admit, the Anglicans really do have the upper hand in this whole scenario). One could argue they might even die out.
Conversely, local churches would be filled up again. They wouldn’t be bursting at the seams, but they would be hugely increased in size, proportionally. I’m sure (though I don’t have the numbers to back this) that you would end up with a good 15-20 people attending a significantly high percentage of local churches. In a lot of cases, that’s another 50-100% on top of the existing congregation.
These small-to-medium-sized communities would function similarly to large homegroups, equivalent in size to a medium-sized church’s student group (often called Pastorates). You would know everyone there (or get to know them quickly), you would be close with one another and – crucially – you wouldn’t live far from one another, either.
We would rediscover our sense of localism
Within this environment we would lose one thing and gain another. We would lose the encouragement, excitement, hype and bigness of megachurches. Initially this would be a bad thing. There would be pastoral chaos, as people are forced to be real with one another morseo than in the easy-to-not-engage-with larger gatherings. There would be a lack of consistency and solidity in teaching – there are many great and good celebrity Christians whom I personally admire – and these would find it much harder to gain any sense of prominence under a localised system.
That’s not to say, however, that in time, it wouldn’t be sensible to have regular large gatherings. I think they’re vital to getting a sense of the ‘bigger picture’ of our faith community. I just think they happen a bit too often!
What we would gain is worth that loss. We would gain a sense of localism. Need something? Your neighbour might have it. Need help with something? Your neighbour can probably help. Feeling generous? What do your neighbours need?
These questions are harder when we are not geographically close by. I have had a really hard time lately with depression – yet those who I would speak to about it the most live far away (and by far away, I mean 25 minutes drive, which isn’t a lot, but it’s a lot when you’re feeling crap) which means I’m not inclined to do anything about my situation. If I had close relationships fostered with those who are nearby to me, that would be very different.
Our relationships with those we serve would be radically transformed for the better
The localism doesn’t stop there. The people around us who are homeless/depressed/struggling with addiction/in need of tuition/poor/whatever-it-is-you-care-about-or-is-a-problem-around-you are around us. This means:
- We will struggle to ignore them (good!)
- We can find more time to help them (great!)
- They’ll see us leading our normal lives, away from the pretense of service-provision (ouch)
Number (3) is the most daunting, and yet the most freeing. We have to learn to be ourselves, to be vulnerable, to treat others as friends not as someone on the receiving end of our services such as free food. Much better to have them round for dinner and get to know them as a human being, I think.
To me, that’s the beginning of starting to really look like how the Kingdom of Heaven should look like. Making things more organic, more interpersonal, more interdependent. Instead of perpetuating the system (I am in need of X, someone can provide X so I will use that service becomes I am in need of X and my friend can help me – much healthier).
We would be able to support one another in mission, rather than watching one another burn out
One of the most striking things I have learned in my four(!) years in Southmead is that people burn out. People feel alone, isolated and emotionally exhausted from trying to be missional.
So we have to stop being missonal. (In the sense of deliberate, pointed, mission).
That doesn’t mean we need to stop sharing God’s love, or sharing the good news of God’s love. It means we have to stop trying so damn hard. It means that instead, we should focus our energy on living normal life and letting that life be attractive. We’ll see those whom we are serving at the doctors, at the gym, at the supermarket, around and about.
It also means that in our small-group-churches we can sustain and support one another. No task will be huge because the area of focus will be so small. No more huge events which require volunteers to burn themselves out over a bank holiday weekend. No more isolated families expected to do all the mission work of a congregation – however implicitly – and then find themselves questioning their own faith. No more burnouts. Beautiful.
We would look a lot more attractive
We’d also be a lot more normal. Instead of some pageantry and procession on a large scale, or emulating the latest rock concert vibes (have you seen just how hipster church posters have gotten now? ugh), we can just live life in a way which is attractive.
It’s a lot harder to have orthopraxy, but it’s worth it. It’s genuine. It’s meaningful. And it’s where we’ll actually see change happen. Our best bet? going local.
Of course, this is all a dream scenario. But if you aim for the sky you might at least hit the top of the tree, right?