Translocal ecclesial identities

Posted on March 13, 2012

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The theme of the recent – and excellent – Evangelical Alliance Council meeting was ‘It takes a whole church to raise a child’. Amongst the points made, two seem to me to connect interestingly. First, there was emphasis on the increasingly post-Christian, and so alien, nature of our society, which means that churches must become counter-cultural communities successfully modelling different values to the cultures around. Second, further reflection on the fact that young people tend to drop out of church when they move location – and the assumed mobility of many parts of our culture.

We listened to testimony from Jesus House, and lots of helpful guidance as to what had worked for them. It struck me, however, that they seemed to be able to assume a fairly continuous process of catechesis and discipleship that began when a child entered the church and continued until she was into her twenties. My own cultural expectations are that it is unusual for a professional white British family not to relocate once or more often during a child’s schooling, and that on completing her schooling, she will attend a university some distance from home, and then relocate again away from both her university and the family home on graduating. The continuous discipleship practiced by Jesus House becomes an seemingly-impossible ideal in that context.

Perhaps in a counter-cultural church geographical stability should be taught and modelled to and for families, but at present it isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, and there are obvious issues in thinking that way: most British Baptists seem to expect pastors to move on every seven to twelve years, taking their families with them, for example, and we seem to assume that this is both a right discerning of God’s call, and good for the development of both pastor and congregation.

More promising might be a much more denominational outlook(!) The Free Church of Scotland recently agreed to allow the use of hymnody, and not just metrical psalms, in worship; one of the arguments against, as the debate was explained to me, was a serious concern for uniformity: a Free Church member coming from Lerwick to Glasgow should feel ‘at home’ in the service he experienced there, should recognise it as part of the same community; psalmody facilitated that.

I think it was right that this argument was rejected, but that nonetheless there is something we can learn from it. Uniformity in style of music in worship is trite and almost irrelevant (at best it might be a part of a symbolic construction that points to what is truly important); what if we succeeded in creating a denominational, or quasi-denominational, network of Christian communities that were united by a deep commitment to owning and exploring the same set of counter-cultural values? Imagine if a teenager, moved by her parents from Stirling to Bournemouth, knew that if a community in the new town branded itself as ‘Baptist’ (or whatever), it would understand and encourage the life of discipleship she had been trying to construct, would support her in ways that she had been supported before, would be an experience of continuing the same journey, albeit in a different place and with different people.

Now, as I hinted above, trappings like music or dress styles, shared lectionaries or shared liturgies, or owned symbols, could all contribute helpfully to creating a shared symbolic structure that gestured to the shared ideology that was driving this. And for those who were in the process of relocation – and experiencing dislocation, as inevitably people do – such obviously-familiar symbols might be very important as a reassurance. What matters, though, is a continuation in a process of cultural formation, a coherent set of narratives and values that successfully shape someone into that oddest of things, a ‘Christian’. Networks like this might succeed as Jesus House has succeeded, in growing people up into maturity in Christ.

The EA couldn’t of course, but maybe in a mobile society like contemporary Britain we should have met under the slogan, ‘it takes a whole denomination to raise a child’?

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