Sunday, September 11, 2005

Socials, Structures and Loving Others

A completely mad packed weekend was spent traversing the island at breakneck speed, chalking up thousands of kilometres on the meter, late into the night and early in the morning, under hot sun and heavy rain and being continually fed:
lasagna and meatballs at Da Paolo's Pizzeria and a catch-up

breakfast at Ghim Moh

snacks at Zion

cone in hand, watching Melissa's employee hand-churn ice-cream at The Daily Scoop

barbie, very good salad, cold cuts and a really heavenly pavlova at my cousin's

more food with friends before late night drinks at Liang Seah Street

a full brekkie with a big bowl of coffee and discussion of church ministries...

...and rabid blister-forming foosball thereafter

As we were planning the next social for our DG, we thought about what socials were supposed to achieve and the best places to hold them.

To Keep Focussed
As was noted at this year's Men's Katoomba Conference, the Christian life can be pretty lonely, especially if we try to do a lone ranger. God's word tells us not to neglect meeting together, but to encourage one another to do so (Hebrews 10:24–25) and build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11). The primary purpose and goal of small groups (ie. bible study groups, cell groups, discipleship groups, however you want to term the small group) is to encourage its members to grow in Christ (Romans 8: 28-29, Colossians 2:7). Spending time with each other in a small group helps keep us focussed and on track (Proverbs 27:17).

As we live in the world with its social and economic change, job insecurity, redefinition of the family, high divorce rates, increasing suicide, the changing role of men and women etc, we struggle not to be of the world. We need one another to keep on course. We need the encouragement to press on to be God's people. We need to guard ourselves, our spouses, our families and the Gospel.

Small groups should be havens of support and encouragement to Christians in ways that are not possible in larger groups. Small groups provide an opportunity for people to raise personal issues of concern to them, in confidence, if necessary, and for which they need the wisdom of other Christian brothers and sisters and informed prayer.

Discipling one another, as a group or on a one-to-one basis, is greatly facilitated in small groups. They also provide an opportunity for Christians in the group to pray for their non-Christian friends and stimulate their desire and effectiveness in sharing the Gospel with their friends and others.

To Help Others Keep Focussed
But small groups don't just exist so we can get our encouragement or "feeding" there. They are places where we can encourage and meet the needs of others, loving them and doing whatever we can for them to help them keep focussed on Christ and his kingdom, by praying for them (Colossians 4:12-13), by prepping for study so that the discussion is informed and fruitful and biblical, and encouraging them by our mere presence, for it is encouraging that we think God, his word and his people are important enough to us for us to make time for them, no matter how tired and grumpy we are, rain or shine.

Socials are part of being in a small group. Because there is usually only a limited amount of time every week before or after bible study to chat and catch-up, socials are self-imposed dates to meet up and get to know each other better that we may better serve the other.

Of course, socials are merely structures which we set up to achieve these biblical purposes. Socials in and of themselves are nothing.

But we humans love to label and categorise and have hierachies. We love structures. And as time goes on, we lose sight of the underlying purposes of ministries and small groups and meetings. Then we start to assume that one's relationship with God and one's godliness are dependent on outward appearances, on conforming to the structures of bible studies, one-to-ones, high profile ministries... And we slowly and unconsciously fall into the error of the Pharisees and lose sight of God.

A sister in Sydney had this interesting conversation:
"What week is [insert name of Christian conference]?"
"I don't know"
"Why not?"
"Because I'm not going."
"Why not? Are you busy? Are you going overseas?"
"Because I don't want to go."

Awkward silence, in which I inwardly regretted speaking her mind.
"I suppose it's a good thing. Then you have more time to spend with your non-Christian friends and share the gospel with them."

Wry smile. Be loving, be patient, be gentle, I warned myself, but I just couldn't bite back the sarcasm that edged along my tongue.

"Yes. That was the plan all along. Dine 'em before I hook 'em in. I'm sure they'll appreciate the sacrifice I've made when I tell them that."

At church and throughout the Sydney evangelical Bible belt, we have become exceedingly good at creating a methodology for many of the nuances that occur in life. Personal friendships are called "one-on-one ministry". Bible reading and prayer fall under the routine of "quiet times" or "prayer points". The gospel is summarised into six diagrams. Even being single is no longer an incidental situation in life, batted at with a plethora of support groups, fellowship dinners and seminars.

This also extends towards people. People are encouraged to attend seminars and camps that are supposed to be good for their spiritual growth. What we forget is that these events are not the only Christian events. They fall under our own narrow definition of what is "biblical" and therefore permissible. If you don't want to go, people often wonder why. A girl in my group hated fellowship because of this reason. She was tired of defending the Catholic traditions she held dear, tired of being cajoled into going to KYC over summer.

Even people themselves fall into catergories. Congregation members are separated into "workers" and "uni students" (even though you may be neither working nor fortunate enough to study at a university) and divided into more palatable sizes for ministry. Women are divided from men. They apparently need to learn to be good wives and mothers, like to attend cooking socials and never struggle with pornography. I've even heard people described as "good value" for leadership and service, context of the sentence being, "Oh Betty? I know her, she's good value. Bring her in on the team." How would you feel if someone talked about you in this way behind your back? If they thought your merit could be examined based on the activities that were visible to the crowd?

I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with methods and structures in themselves, but I think that it becomes problematic when we feel the need to formalise and structure every facet of life. Firstly, we run the risk of becoming contrived and restrictive, becoming inflexible to things that fall outside our perameters. A common example I can think of is Bible study. Last year during a study, a girl tried to relate the passage to a personal problem she was going through at home. The well-meaning leader ignored her point, saying,"Can you hang on and not race ahead? Application time is at the end." It seemed so ridiculously harmless to let the girl raise her point, yet the determination to reach the end of the study and conclude with the Main Point eliminated any chance for such flexibility.

Secondly, we alienate people. This was really made clear to me when I saw the term "relational-based evangelism" on another Christian's blog. It's not the first time I've heard this term. Many Chirstians often use it to outline a method of evangelism that takes into account personal relationships rather than impersonal (and often pushy) methods. However, the irony is that it is terms like "relational-based evangelism" that turn people away from Christians. The idea of personal relationships implies a natural progression of friendship that is based on individual circumstance. It is not meant to be defined under a model or constructed as an action plan. To do that transforms the person into a target, the friendship into a task. No one likes to be treated that way. It's the reason why so many of my friends dislike the EU, and yet are extremely fond of Christian people.

I am not asking for solutions. Often when I raise this issue, people reply, So what can we do about it? What can we implement? What models can we put in place instead (I think this was the attitude behind the term "relationship-based" model of evangelism). But in trying to imply more structures, they have missed the point.

Instead, I cry for more freedom and understanding. Less reductionism, more appreciation for the complexities in life. More prayer in guidance, less structures in which a person must follow in order to live the blessed life.

...good intentions are not enough. I wish we lived in a world where intending to encourage another person was enough to make things right. Unfortunately, "good intentions of encouraging people" are not a guarantee that those people will be built up.

An example I can think of is a leader who tried to encourage a friend of mine. After sitting together at a table, he proceeded to pull out a piece of paper and ask her a list of questions in regards to her Christian growth. He would listen to her comment, write it down and then move on to the next one. According to the girl, it was the most awkward experience of her life. She felt like she was being interviewed as a subject rather than cared for as a friend. When this girl finally shared a burden that was close to her heart, the leader showed very little concern and has since failed to ask her how she was going with that burden.

I'm not telling this story to blame the leader. I believe he had the best intentions in encouraging this girl but sadly, those intentions were not enough. The girl left the meeting unencouraged and despondent. I ask you: if you were that leader, wouldn't you want to know? Wouldn't you want to reap the fruits of your effort to encourage others?

1. On the Importance of People
Much has been said about the pitfalls of predominantly following feeling and the heart as opposed to organised structure, just take the many criticisms you've probably heard of charismatic churches. In turn, I would like to point out one potential flaw in relying heavily on rigid structure to conduct our ministries:

People are vastly different, and a predominantly structural focus treats everyone like they're the same.

I thought it was interesting that you [person who wrote an email to her] wrote about your good intentions of "encouraging people to participate in the structure (in hope that the structures may be helpful for their Christian walk)". If I may ask a deeper question: how do you know that the structures you're encouraging people towards are "helpful" for their Christian walk? Is it based on a personal knowledge of that person and what he/she finds helpful, or is it based on what the general Christian population around you promotes as helpful?

Besides the bedrock foundations (belonging to a church, reading the bible together, prayer, service…though even these contain a multitude of differing forms within them), it is hard to define a clear path of set structures that every Christian will find helpful, simply because every Christian is a unique creation. Not everyone thinks and reacts to things in the same way. However, when you try to feed people into a rigid system of structures and groups, one unintentional side-effect is the treatment of people as identical subjects rather than individual beings. This is not a new concept, but has been forewarned by opponents of purely utilitarian methods in our society (its times like these I thank God I'm an arts student!). Blind devotion to a purely logical method has always been mankind’s downfall, particularly when we are so governed by our structures that we think that God can only work through them.

This mentality sounds extreme, but we tempt it everyday when we presume that church must be done in this particular way; worship must be offered in that particular way, the Bible can only be taught in this way, these type of conventions are the only ones that are "sound". Often, we defend our choices with the refrain,"this is the biblical way". We need to be careful that we don't use that word too lightly. Evangelicals are not the only Christians to hold dear to the Word of God. Millions of Christians do, and yet millions of Christians differ on its interpretation. If we get to a point where we cannot think of a Christian life outside of the structures we know and are comfortable with, then we are limiting our great God.

We also risk discouraging the people which these structures were ironically meant to serve. In all my years of working with people, whether at church or outside Christian activities, I have learnt one simple yet valuable truth: people don't like to be treated as projects. They want to be respected as human beings.

One problem of being too driven by structures and tasks is that we run the risk of reducing people into projects to manage or tasks to fulfil (hence my "reductionist" assertion). The first thing we must acknowledge is that the ones we lead are people, and implicit in that is their uniqueness. While one Christian may find KYC a fantastic experience, another Christian may not find it so helpful. One person may benefit from Matthias Media studies, another may benefit greatly from something else.

Structures are effective in keeping things running, but don't forget that they are there to serve people, not the other way around.

2. On the Importance of Difference
I think it's interesting that you commented that the structures in general seemed fine. Can I ask: how do you know that? Where is the proof that the structures seem fine? Could it be that the people who show that the structures aren't always fine are obscured from our sight or have already left the church? That maybe the ones who show you that the structures are fine are only the ones who fit into it?

Let me throw you a hypothetical. What happens if you encounter a person who, whether due to economic situation, personality, disability, theology, denomination, race, age…whatever, does not fit into that structure? How will you respond?

I have faced a similar situation with people at church and this was the advice given to me by various people in our congregation (I haven't made any of these up):

"Keep pushing."
"Find a different structure that they can fit into."
"Have more socials."
"Be more welcoming."
"Maybe they should go to another church."

Pushing can scare people away, different structures don't exist in our church, more socials can pour oil on troubled waters and "go to another church" is surely not the most loving response. I find these answers unsatisfactory because they fail to deal with the heart of the problem: the structure itself.

If you have a structure which assumes that everyone is the same type of person, accommodating those who are different becomes extremely difficult (hence my "arrow minded" assertion). The only way in which "different" Christians can have fellowship in the church is to form their own structure outside of the group, with material and relationships that encourage their growth as Christians. This is only a temporary solution; it should never be the ideal to separate different people from the entire body of believers.

Before we say,"that would ever happen in my church", I have to say that it's already happening. Right now. Right under our very noses. I lead a group of six girls (I don't think they'd mind if I say this) who struggle in varying degrees with this issue. I know of at least five more in similar situations, currently not in my group. And I don't talk to that many people at church. That's just the few that I've noticed. That's just amongst the girls. Once again, our good intentions are not enough. It just doesn't cut it to say,"well, we meant well. We meant to be encouraging". By the time those words escape our mouths that person is already out the door, never to return.

If someone doesn't fit into the structure, our response should never be,"well, what’s wrong with you, then?" Too often, this is the reply that lies on the tip of our tongue. Instead, we need to try and understand why that person doesn't fit in and, if it is for a legitimate reason, change the structure accordingly. This can only happen in a structure that leaves room for flexibility and difference. I am not against structure in principle, only those that allow no room for difference.
We serve others best by knowing how they work. But how would we know the workings of our small group members if we do not get to know them better? Formally-arranged socials are one way of doing that.

Places and Activities for Socials
Any place which is quiet enough for a conversation without having to shout one's vocal-cords hoarse, where we can sit without being continually interrupted (so the Fellowship Hall in ARPC is a no-go) and which is comfortable for long chats is a good place. It can be someone's home, or a cafe, or a picnic in the park.

Activities which involve everyone and which every member (no matter how left-footed or socially inept) can participate in and have fun are good activities to have (therefore sitting in the dark beside your small group members in a movie theatre cannot be considered a social).

We get to know people both by talking to them as well as observing how they interact with others in games and sports. Games and sports somehow bring out the worst in people: cheating, physical and verbal abuse, anger, malice, impatience etc. How can we love someone specifically (and not generally as our pet project) if we do not see them in all their gory glory?

See also Legalism, Sin and Godliness.

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