Continuing his guest series on creative tension, Andy Wier encourages us to look beyond our ‘default setting’.
As local churches, how should we relate to other organisations in our community like the Council, Police and secular voluntary sector providers? Should we be actively partnering with them wherever possible? Or should we be maintaining a critical distance and modelling something different?
I’ve wrestled with these questions over the fifteen years I’ve worked in the community regeneration sector and been part of an inner city church. I’ve not been able to arrive at a definitive answer but over the past couple of years, I’ve found the experience of studying different churches helpful in giving me some fresh perspective.
I recently spent nine months observing an independent charismatic church based on an outer urban housing estate. There I attended Sunday services, joined a house group and observed various community outreach projects. Having spent most of my life worshipping with Anglican churches of various kinds, I found this a fascinating experience. One of the things that most intrigued me was the way church members talked about ‘the World’.
Many of the sermons, songs and conversations I heard painted a picture of the world as a dark place. This appeared to make the church wary of working too closely with secular organisations. It sought instead to model a counter-cultural alternative to the world. Occasionally, however, I caught glimpses of a more positive view of the world. At one house group meeting, for example, I was struck by what one church member prayed for the non-Christian people involved in a local community association. He kept repeating the phrase “they’re good people… they’re good people”, before going on to ask God to bless them.
Collaborative versus Counter-cultural
This story illustrates a tension between counter-cultural and collaborative tendencies that I’ve observed within lots of different churches I’ve studied and worked with. In my experience, most churches have a tendency to lean one way or another. Some churches like the independent church I studied mainly emphasise the world’s sinfulness and the need for the Church to be counter-cultural. Other churches adopt a far more collaborative approach and are very keen to find common group with secular organisations and people of other faiths. They do this because all humans are made in God’s image and God’s purposes are not restricted to the Church.
Living with tension?
I think each approach has strengths and limitations. But within many of the Church networks I’ve been involved with, I’ve found that only one or the other is emphasised. In some urban mission circles, there’s a dominant focus on collaboration with secular partners while in others there’s a far greater focus on counter-cultural distinctiveness. On one level, it’s really good to allow a diversity of approaches. But all too easily it can lead us to operating in self-enclosed bubbles, tribes and camps. Rather than living with tension, we surround ourselves with Christians who agree with us. We fail to engage with those who take a different approach.
So how should our churches relate to other organisations in our community? Should we be collaborative or counter-cultural? The short answer is I think we need to be both. But in practice, it’s incredibly difficult to do this within a single congregation or project. For this reason, I think it’s really important to remember that we’re part of a wider Church – and to take time to engage with Christians who take a different approach from us.
By way of practical response, I’d suggest two simple steps:
1. Identify your default setting!
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Which way do you lean? Do you see the goodness in the world and want to collaborate with people who aren’t Christians? Or do you see the world’s fallenness / need for salvation and veer towards the counter-cultural?
- Why do you take this approach? Is this because of your previous experiences, personality or reading of the Bible?
- What do you see as the strengths and limitations of your default setting?
2. Get to know someone who takes the opposite approach!
- Think of a Christian, church or project you’ve heard of that seems to take the opposite approach to your ‘default setting’. And then try to get to know them.
- If you tend to be more collaborative, try to find someone who might be more counter-cultural. What might you be able to learn from them about maintaining a strong Christian distinctiveness while working in partnership with others?
- If you prefer to be counter-cultural, try to find someone with a more collaborative approach. What might they have to teach you about joining in with what God’s already doing in the world?
Andy Wier, November 2013
Andy Wier is a freelance researcher, consultant and practical theologian. He works with churches, charities and community organisations and has recently completed a Doctorate in Practical Theology.
- For an example of a primarily collaborative approach, see John Atherton (2000) Public Theology for Changing Times
- For an example of a more counter-cultural approach, see Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (1996) Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony
- For examples of creative approaches to living with tension, see Malcolm Brown (2010) Tensions in Christian Ethics: An Introduction and Jon Kuhrt (2009) Resisting Tribal Theology and Going Deeper Together