The church we want to be

The reality of expectations and decisions for our community


13. May 2020In VisionBy Karsten Risseeuw13 Minutes

We all have them: Expectations. We seldom speak about them. When we gather for church, this is no different. We all come with expectations. But something changed: Expectations are shattered in a crisis situation like we experience today. The very fabric of our community is affected. There is a need to reflect on who we are, and why we are gathering. We need to talk about our fellowship and about our expectations. What kind of church do we want to be?

What do you want?

There is no right or wrong in expectations. Nevertheless, what we think and expect does influence the kind of fellowship we can have. We need to realize – both personally and as a community – what we really want. This article is about you as much as it is about our fellowship.

Let’s assume several expectations we can have – just to play with thoughts. I try to make clear that we can (and will) have different expectations. However, only if we recognize these different settings, we can use them to move forward. As a community, it is all about us. So let’s have a look at some approaches and attitudes.

1. The social gathering

Social aspects are very important for any kind of meeting. For some though, the social part may be the only part of value. If that is the case, and as we cannot socialize today as we have done before, the value of the church is no longer there. Why interact, if “church” doesn’t happen? It appears there is a very loose connection, right?

2. A wellness package

Probably it’s nice to visit a church service on Sundays now and then. That feels good, and is probably the only thing you really want. If that is the case, you like to greet people, but there is no continuous interest to interact on a more personal level. If you feel that way, it’s not about fellowship or people, but about atmosphere, about being entertained, and probably to get a few good thoughts for the week to come. There is nothing wrong with that, but it will be really hard to create a stable fellowship among people from this kind of perception.

3. Let’s play Church

Some like churches because of the tradition. You have always visited a church and you value the rituals and liturgies and the way things go. The church, that is the reliability of an institution and that can give some consolation in ordinary times. “Let’s play church” describes how you might value the outward signs.

Again, there is nothing wrong with that, but in times of crisis like today, there is a need to improvise and do things differently, as the previous “normal” vanished. Concepts of church which were valid yesterday, probably aren’t valid today and could be changed tomorrow. We cannot be stuck in the past. We have to ask ourselves many questions: How do we connect? Why do we connect? Is it important to connect? Do we have a common focus beyond the outer structures? What becomes the “new normal“? We have to confront uncertainties and probably learn to live with uncertainties. For some, this might be unsettling. For others, it’s to open a door into better ways of being a church.

4. An overwhelming situation

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our personal situations tremendously. Challenges though are different for everyone. Often you need more energy and  time to do your own stuff as before the pandemic. I get that, too. It might be cumbersome, but if that is the reality, you probably will not visit any online meetings nor participate in any kind of fellowship.

If 90% of the people would take this stance, the pastor runs out of work, and that’s what it is: Reality. How could we know if you don’t tell us? Your feedback is important for two reasons:

  1. Let people participate in your struggle. That’s what community also is for. This is easier if you already maintained personal relationships before. If not, take a first step towards real fellowship. We are all in the same situation, but we might be able > to let some light shine through the cracks.
  2. Let the community know that you are not able to participate, and that it’s not disinterest from your side, but due to an overwhelming situation. This also helps the pastor and other elders to understand what the community needs.

5. Approve what is excellent

Churches have not been founded with social life in view. Originally we are not a social club. Churches were groups of single persons whose lives were touched by the grace of God. They then started to learn about this new perspective and to reflect on it. They loved to do this together and to share their lives as well. To believe means to trust. Communities are great places to learn how to trust. The church as a community has a central focus point in the gospel. People had life-changing experiences because of that message. The “church” was just the result. It was a development from within.

Abounding love, with knowledge and all discernment was the focus (Philippians 1:9-11). There are those who want to learn and share and approve what is excellent. That will not automatically happen. We are all tempted to put other things in focus, like our current needs, our situation, our troubles, the tradition, personal projections etc. Originally these things were not essential. Regardless of the outward troubles, it’s about people who not only want to meet, but also want to approve what is excellent – as an outflow of experienced and practiced love. They will find ways to do so.

If that doesn’t happen from your side, ask yourself why that is. Remember that there is no right or wrong here. Learn about yourself and share your findings.  The answers you get are worth considering, not only by yourself, but also by the community and with a view towards the future. Join the process. Be part of it.

Religious feelings

Fellowship is created by all people participating. Fellowship is not a structure, nor an institution, nor is it depending on people outside yourself. You are at the center of fellowship – if you let it happen. As Martin Buber describes it, relationship is neither in you nor in me, but it is like the electricity surging between the two.

The kind of participation might be different from person to person, but there is no fellowship possible, unless people want to have interaction. In view is not an “event-participation”, but a “life-participation”. Fellowship is not a concept, where very few people do all the work, and the rest come to shop some religious feelings on Sundays. That doesn’t work. Coming to church is not a deal, nor is a church service a consumer product.

Fellowship does not depend on the pastor, nor does it depend on the Elders. Fellowship is simply created by all those participating, sharing from their lives, expressing their interest in learning about the grace of God. In reality, fellowship is only about you. If you participate, you will be part of it. If you don’t, you won’t.

Maturity in faith

Traditional church members (which counts for members of free churches as well) frequently have their eyes on the pastor, who is supposed to lead the flock. That’s what he is paid for, right? I would call this an unhealthy dependency and the avoidance of maturity. If anything needs to change in today’s turmoils of the pandemic, it is this hierarchical thinking and the differentiation between professionals and laymen as an excuse for non-participation. The New Testament teaches something entirely different, where the apostle Paul writes that we all have to mature in faith, “that we may by no means still be minors, surging hither and thither and being carried about by every wind of teaching” (Eph 4:11-16).

Maturity in faith means, that we start to take responsibility for who we are, what we are and to take responsibility for our own lives and actions. Simply put: If you want a fellowship worthy of the name, you decide. Each of us decides. This is not about an institution, but about the interaction, the fellowship, the community. It’s about you and me.

Here is the reality: The combined reactions (or: non-reactions) will create the kind of fellowship that is possible. May we help each other to become who we really are, and to show grace and thankfulness towards each other while doing so.

Simply put: If you want a fellowship worthy of the name, you decide.