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Addressing the communal nature of our faith

Friday, 18 June 2010  | Jennifer Turner

In the church where a pastor colleague of mine serves they are conducting a monthly Pilgrim’s Progress - a time of sharing their journey over the past four weeks instead of the usual more formal worship service. It is a long time since I’ve thought about Pilgrim losing the burden off his back at the Cross and continuing on a life of faith fighting a dragon here, a miry clay there. It always struck me as a very individualistic depiction of the Christian ‘pilgrimage’, a characterisation which doesn’t do justice to the communal nature of our faith, let alone that of the church community as an entity.

Pilgrim’s Progress has recently been re-published in a new version and it will be interesting to see how the tension between personal faith and the church plays out in a modern edition. The book was initially written in an age of conformity and institutional control to emphasise the responsibility of the Individual to respond to Christ personally. Today in our individualistic society we need rather to stress our responsibility to each other as we do a better job at being Christ’s community together in the world. Another recent book has the startling title, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered – startling only because we still think of spiritual formation (the pilgrim’s progress) as something we pursue individually.

I am writing this as I spend a few weeks touring the UK visiting friends of my English husband, many of whom live in the small villages and towns which dot “the old country”. For most of these committed lay people, their greatest dilemma is keeping open their heritage church buildings in the face of dwindling attendances. They feel an obligation to maintain the Christian presence in their locality that their church once represented. Some have made hard decisions to let treasured buildings go or to join locally in “churches together” with another denomination and maintain at least one building with a larger number of congregants. Churches in Australia face the same issues though without the heritage constraints. Tradition and the habitual expectations of aging members may be for us the bigger obstacle to change.

Begin again without the buildings, some would urge. Plant a missional church which faces outwards, not inwards. Let go of all the communal aspects that bind. I have been associated with Forge in WA and have seen the energy that new expectations and new ventures bring. Yet not many are doing visible presence very well. Partly it is that we do not give sufficient attention to how to be ‘church’ in relationship terms, how to build and maintain community among Christians nurtured in the very individualistic traditions. What are the dynamics that both support people and release them to connect beyond the holy huddle? How does the presence we want to be in our society come out of the gathered community that is the church?

Today in Cumbria, the birthplace of the Quakers, we visited a display of magnificent tapestries depicting their history and contribution to society over many centuries. I was reminded that Christians have in many ways in the past been a force for good corporately as well as individually, often at great cost. How do we do it today?

Jennifer Turner is a highly experienced minister, trainer and writer. Recently retired, she now spends half of each year in development and training work overseas.

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