Communities of Invitation and Challenge
Everyday life for the very first followers of The Way – which is how those who had become Christ-followers denoted themselves – changed very little in the first few years. They continued to gather in their small synagogues. Meeting in homes, often around the meal table, they would explore the meaning and implications of the new story that had come to define their lives.
In my experience, much of what comes to mind when we think ‘church’ in a westernised consumer culture is incidental to the core call to follow Jesus. The process of growth and maturity required to live like Jesus is nigh on impossible to learn whilst sitting in rows being taught facts we ought to believe. Growth happens in communities structured like synagogues. But most churches function more like the Old Testament temple.
Sad to say then, that the few places I have felt truly understood, accepted and empowered to flourish do not include churches and Christian gatherings. Instead I think of a men’s group in Norwich, or a retreat which blended psychological insights with self awareness exercises, and in subsets of my family.
Accepting myself is only possible as I learn how to accept others as they truly are, and self understanding happens when others are allowed to know me as I really am and we are in real relationship. And these are the foundation upon which growth happens.
Communities where this happens best are those that are most like healthy families. These are the places where I have felt safe enough to disclose to others the unhelpful stories I had been telling myself. In doing so, I have frequently encountered both acceptance and challenge. Stories we tell ourselves are rarely completely true but they will always have an impact for good or ill. Secrecy reinforces shame, which enables destructive thoughts to thrive.
I remember feeling the need to tell my men’s group the origin of my disability and some of the challenges I was facing, and then feeling like it was in the open and no longer taboo. I have witnessed profound breakthroughs in others, often accompanied by strong feelings and emotions, in the safe places at the heart of such communities, because together we understood how difficult most of us found it to admit what is real and embrace change.
In the gospels we see Jesus calling twelve rather unpromising individuals and inviting them to follow him.
The invitation to ‘follow’ is a clear indication that some kind of process is going to unfold, but there is no detail and very little challenge. If our churches are going to be places where people grow, there has to be something happening which people of all types can imitate along with an environment of encouragement and togetherness.
As each gospel unfolds, we see Jesus pivot from invitation to challenge. He even invites those he has invited to leave if this wasn’t what they had signed up for, which is essential to prevent anything like a cult from forming. People do not flourish when they are controlled by others.
In this series I am going to suggest ways of helping our churches become places where people can flourish and grow.