I. The Trinity as a way of thinking about the unity of the churches in the city: mutuality in particularity
In visiting different churches this year I had one of those “aha” moments when I walked into a church and suddenly saw that while it had its own particular form actually it had the same underlying reality as the other churches I had visited. I searched for the language to name that and found it in the language of the Trinity. This must have been what happened for the early church. They knew God and then in the particular person of Jesus they realised they were encountering the same underlying reality. It took a few hundred years to pin down how to name that – the language of three particular persons and one shared being. Even there, there is divergence because in the West the emphasis was on the one with different parts, whereas in the East the emphasis was on the three particularities and their relating together in loving mutuality. To summarise, in the particular persons of the Trinity we realise we encounter the same underlying being of God (same shared substance: the Latin terms is con-substantiality) and then the unity is thought of more as particular persons maintaining their particularity but in mutual loving relationship (Eastern social trinity) rather than as a flat unified oneness (Western model) - mutuality in our particularity.
Now apply that to life: When we relate we tend to either go to Fusion/Enmeshment where the two are combined and there is a loss of individual identity or we have Isolation/Detachment where individual identity is preserved but at the loss of community and relationship. Relationality is the capacity to be distinct or separate in my particularity but connected with the other in their particularity.
Now apply that to the churches of the city: In the New Testament “Church” exists in its concrete particularity and we are called to build particular churches/ congregations/ parishes (1 Cor 3:10-16). But then we model relations of loving mutuality. And our witness to God is the mutual relating of the particular churches, characterised by: Full equality, Glad submission, Joyful intimacy, Mutual deference. The foundation is loving respect for the ‘other’ as an expression of the same underlying reality as I have.
II. Relating as family
This model is extended to seeing the churches of the city as an extended family of separate but relating nuclear families. At my stage of life my wife’s and my siblings each have their own families so extended family is about relating to the particularity of individual nuclear families. That is a good model for churches in the city. Each is a relational network in its own right but then we connect together. A practical step for me is that when I relate to another church, I try to not just connect with the pastor but to identify the key leadership team and establish at least a minimal connection with each part of their core relational system.
III. Synergy and momentum through networks
The early Church was a highly networked movement. We can see this in the little bits of Paul’s letters that we usually don’t notice:
- · Romans 16: Paul knows 28 individuals in the church in Rome, a city he has never visited and is several months travel away. This happens because there was a lot of movement of people back and forth between churches
- · Paul’s cowriters: Paul models relationship in that seven of his letters are written with co-authors (Imagine statements issued by 3 or 4 key Christchurch church leaders).
- · Paul’s co-workers: here we get a picture of a highly networked movement with people regularly being sent back and forth between churches. Five times Paul records sending someone to another church (Eph 6:22). He also notes where churches had sent people to him as he worked in a church(Eph 4:22). Paul is thinking strategically of strengthening the network of churches, not just one church, and allocates resources and builds connections accordingly.
A New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham states: “Of great importance is the extensive evidence that the early Christian movement was not ... a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other”
Imagine if we could say this of the churches of Christchurch: Of great importance is the extensive evidence that the Christchurch Christian movement was not ... a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other”
That last part is challenging: in constant, close communication (while maintaining their particularity and working to build each individual church). A third way between isolation and fusion.
Another New Testament scholar compares the early church to a holy internet eg Romans roads as paths of communication. He considers the “archives of information”: “The network ‘servers’ of the holy internet were the churches” and he notes the importance of “hubs”: Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome. These functioned as hubs for the surrounding areas. Paul seems to have focused on establishing new hubs of the network which then networked into the surrounding areas. Now there is a thought of strategic importance! How do we foster hubs of ministry and mission within Christchurch? Geographical hubs, denominational hubs, hubs of relational networks, hubs specialist or focused ministries?
Thompson also considers the kind of information travelling on the “internet”: News about churches, mutual encouragement, participation in needs, sharing of resources, offering/delivery of assistance, practices/positions taken/responses to issues, and I would add intercessory prayer; requests and information for prayer.
I can see at least four main models of combined momentum:
- Smaller churches get in the slipstream of larger churches but without losing their identity and particularity;
- Smaller churches hold combined events to generate a sense of being part of something bigger – whether geographical or denominational or relational groupings;
- Specialist, expert ministries or people (such as Canterbury Youth Services or Society of Salt and Light) create excellent events for other churches but in a way that propels the individual churches forward rather than amalgamating them in a new reality;
- Various levels of combined operation: e.g. new shared facilities, actually combining groups but realising a new particularity is created.
IV. Preoccupation with the Lost
In Revelation Christ sends letters to the churches. If Christ was to address the churches of Christchurch I believe he would say “I love your heart for the lost.”
The language of the “lost” is a term that comes from Jesus and it is important to see how he used it. Bottom-line it refers to the Father’s perspective that some people are lost to relationship with him. It is found in Luke 15, a chapter of three related parables: The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The Father’s heart is for those lost to explicit conscious relationship with him so we reflect his heart when our heart is for the lost
John Nolland (2002)in the Word Biblical Commentary introduces the section on Luke 15 with the following: “The section 15:1–32 defends and commends preoccupation with the lost, and overflowing joy at their restoration. We all respond this way with what is our own, and this attitude corresponds to the concerns of a father’s heart for his own children, each one of whom is singularly precious in his sight.”
What would it mean for our networking in loving mutuality to be preoccupied with the lost and for the cause of mission?
Let’s find unity in our particularity in ways that build momentum for the cause of the gospel and the sake of the lost.
1. The Trinity as a way of thinking about the churches of the city
a. What would it mean to recognise the “consubstantiality” of other churches in the city – in their particularity they share in the same underlying reality as you! eg. Fervent prayer for their success? Respect, public honour of other churches? Championing the success of multiple churches and networks in the city? Encouragement of other leaders? Receiving input from other churches?
b. In what ways does relating in our particularity highlight some different ways of expressing unity and mutuality in the city? Eg recognising different strengths of churches, combined events as not lowest common denominator compromise but celebration of diversity? What new ways of expressing unity as mutuality can you see?
2. Relating as family
How can we increase the sense of an extended family of particular nuclear families relating e.g. get to know leadership teams of other churches, pray for church leaders, give towards other churches?
3. The church as highly networked
a. Imagine if we could say this of the churches of Christchurch: Of great importance is the extensive evidence that the Christchurch Christian movement was not ... a scattering of relatively isolated, introverted communities, but a network of communities in constant, close communication with each other.” What evidence could we start producing for the city and the churches of the nation to see of this network of communities in constant, close communication with each other in Christchurch?
b. Paul seems to have focused on establishing new hubs of the network which then networked into the surrounding areas. Now there is a thought of strategic importance! How do we foster hubs of ministry and mission within Christchurch? Geographical hubs, denominational hubs, hubs of relational networks, hubs specialist or focused ministries? What different networks or hubs could be foster?
c. What models can you see of networking: larger churches in relationship with smaller churches? Smaller churches creating momentum together? Specialist ministries/people/events that add momentum? Creating shared life and new particularities?
4. A focus/preoccupation on the lost
How will our relating be preoccupied with the Father’s preoccupation with the “lost” of the city (those not connected with God/church)? How do we connect together for this? What could we do?