The Challenges in a Changing Environment
Before I get to the exciting ways in which Gospel Change has shaped Village Church to this point, I want to explore how the Gospel speaks into the difficult question of change.
1 – The effect of living out what we believe
You’d be hard pressed to find a Christian at Village Church who doesn’t want other people to come to know Jesus and to feel part of the community. Since Village Church started, those who were there from the beginning, and those who have joined us, have done a fantastic job of doing this.
But doing this in an ongoing basis, inviting new people into our (or any) community, year after year, brings two challenges.
- That while we do share unity in Christ with them, their history, expression, desires, passions, baggage will be different to ours. This will cause growth in us, but it can also be a source of tension and perhaps friction.
- That even if everything else is aligned, those who join us may be better able to do what we’ve been doing. They may be more gifted, more experienced, more creative, more engaging than those currently in the community.
These are real and difficult challenges, and they push us to consider what our response will be. Do we ask those who are joining our community to adapt and just accept what happens as well as the way in which it happens? The upside of this is that it provides continuity and comfort for those who set the tone and agenda in the community. The downside is that it minimalises (and marginalises?) the contribution of individuals in the community as a whole. The expression of the body becomes static, and the diversity within the community is stifled.
To put it more bluntly, if we do this we are calling all people, from all backgrounds to the Gospel that gives freedom, and then telling them they need to conform once they accept it.
If we are to be a community that wants people to come to God through Jesus, to be a valued part of our community, then we need to grapple with what that means for the inclusion and expression within the community, while not giving up the DNA that’s made Village Church what it is.
2 – Questioning the Questions
But change is also a challenge for those joining communities. Christians come to new communities for a variety of reasons and their past will shape their engagement and experience. Three examples:
- Stage of Life – Some move Christian communities because of the stage of life they’ve reached. Our hope is that it’s never done lightly, and it’s rarely what they’d want, but it’s sometimes the reality. In these situations, the challenge will come in the form of expectations – “Will this community do for me what my last community did not/could not?” This in itself isn’t a bad question. But if the answer and fulfilment to this question takes centre–place in your engagement with a community, the questions of God’s mission through this community not only take second place for you, but can begin to take second place for others.
- Past hurt or Disaffection – Some move Christian communities for reasons of hurt or disaffection from other communities they’ve been a part of. This can mean they will approach a new community with trepidation, perhaps even suspicion, for fear of past hurt being repeated. The challenge for many in this situation will be to allow themselves time to learn about and experience love within community, without pre–judging people or circumstances. This isn’t easy, especially when wounds are raw. But what’s happened isn’t always bound to repeat, and we always want to allow room for God’s grace in difficult circumstances.
- Relocation – Some move Christian communities because they’ve physically moved. They might have been in a church they loved, where they’d been growing, where they’d been part of the core group – so they come to this new community with mixed feelings, often the desire to experience (or replicate) what they previously had. This itself is not a bad thing – who wouldn’t want to experience again something they loved? The challenge then is working out how to engage with a new community, in a new context, in a way that is not self–fulfilling, but Gospel–honouring.
With fresh eyes it’s often easy to spot things that aren’t done the way you’d do it or how you’ve seen it done in other contexts or communities. The critique itself isn’t a bad thing BUT the step prior to critique has to be understanding. Why is it done this way? What’s the history behind it? Who are the audience that’s trying to be reached by this community? What are the relational dynamics behind the scenes?
The answer to these questions take time – which is in itself the challenge. It’s tempting to jump in and change what we don’t like, understand or aren’t used to. And it’s always easy to spot things that are wrong. What’s harder is to restrain ourselves for the sake of love, unity and respect for those around us. Just as the Gentiles were asked to do in Acts 15.
In Acts 15, we see the issues in the early church coming to a head. Jews are forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish practices, and making them Gospel issues (Acts 15:1,5). Paul and Barnabas won’t have a bar of this, and so took their issue to the centre of power, the Apostles in Jerusalem. We see two things at this counsel meeting. The first is expected, that the Gentiles are confirmed as joint members in God’s people and don’t have to be circumcised. The second is slightly unexpected. That the request from the Jewish counsel is that they are asked to abstain from food polluted by idols and from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. These seem to go against what Paul says when we read parts of 1 Corinthians. But what we’re seeing here is actually the same spirit that Paul writes with in 1 Corinthians. The message from the Jewish counsel is this – “We know God has accepted you and given you the Spirit…sorry for making a fuss before…but to have fellowship with some of these Jews, could you meet them halfway?”
It’s not always comfortable, but there’s something much deeper going on in Christian community than our comfort. How we engage on these issues is a demonstration of the Gospel.