Being Church in a Foreign Land

27 Sep 2020 by Rev Andrew Smith in: Letters, Thoughts, News

Video interview with Crookwell and GRACE – Being church in a foreign land

From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures

For the meeting of Presbytery that was held on Saturday 15 August, a series of four video interviews with parts of our Presbytery were prepared to help members of Presbytery get ready for group discussions during the meeting. The videos worked a treat in stimulating the thinking of members of Presbytery, and they might do the same for you. This week I’d like to share the video from Crookwell/GRACE with you, along with how it got me thinking.

You can view the video through this link – A huge thank you to Amy from our Presbytery Office for organising the interview and making it available to us. Thank you as well to Daniel for being part of the interview.

To fill in a few details, Crookwell is a congregation that includes worship sites at Crookwell, Jerrara and Wheeo. GRACE is a faith community, and stands for Goulburn Region Alternate Church Experience/Experiment.

The interview engages conversation around the challenges Crookwell and GRACE might be facing if the social restrictions for COVID are extended for another 12 months or more, and also asks how these COVID times have led to reimagining what church is. Daniel speaks about the as yet “unrealised grief” for the congregation about not regathering for worship and funerals in buildings in familiar ways (including singing). He is drawn to the exile narrative in Scripture in which the Hebrew people had been dragged away from their homeland and taken to live in a foreign land. This COVID time feels a bit like that – because of COVID restrictions, the church has been dragged out from what was normal and is dealing with the shock of being in a foreign land.

Daniel’s comments about the exile narrative, including not being able to sing, find connection for me in Psalm 137. It is the Psalm from which we get the song “By the rivers of Babylon”, where the Hebrew people had been taken to exile. In Babylon, the people wept in grief as they remembered their life in Jerusalem. In verse 4 they ask the question: “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” Perhaps this is our question as well as we find ourselves in this extended COVID time, and remember what it was like to be church before the COVID restrictions.

It’s a question that can be asked in different ways depending on where the emphasis is placed. Our emphasis could be upon the current recommendations to not sing so that we care for one another and the wider community through refraining from the super spreader activity of singing. With this emphasis we are saying: “of course we will not sing during this time”. For the sake of one another and our wider community, how could we sing?

The question could also be asked with emphasis upon feeling lost in this foreign time – feeling lost about how we might worship our LORD for this extended time in the foreign land of COVID restrictions. We have managed up until now, but it is dragging on and on. In some quarters, the question has gone well beyond how we will sing or worship in this foreign land. It has become a question about how will we be church in this foreign land?   

How will we be church when our pre-COVID understanding of church was closely linked to our church buildings? This link is signalled by how we use the word “church” in our sentences. Sentences like “What church do you go to?” or “What time does church start?” or “Look at the beautiful old sandstone church”. These sentences show us thinking about church in terms of it being an event or a building. But during COVID restrictions we can’t get along to the events like we used to. We can’t go the buildings like we used to. As a result, we are feeling lost about how we will be church in this foreign land.
Of course, we believe church is far more than an event, and it is far more than a building.

The understanding that the GRACE faith community has of their part in God’s mission helps us find alternate ways for thinking about being church (remember the “ACE” in grace stands for Alternate Church Experience). Here is how they speak of themselves, using the account about Jesus in Luke 5:17-26.

“Through the narrative of the man on the mat found in chapter 5 of Luke’s gospel, we reflect that the man on the mat had a history, a story, that had him stuck on the mat. That man needed friends, in fact a whole community of people, to pick him up and get him in front of Jesus. We don’t know what his friends were expecting from this encounter. They don’t ask Jesus for anything in particular. We just know they felt it was important to get him in the same room as Jesus and trust what would happen.

However, when they got to the building where Jesus was, the building was full of religious people blocking the way. There was no room for the man on the mat. So, the friends decided to think creatively – instead of coming in politely through the front door they cut a hole in the roof and lowered the man in.
We at Grace acknowledge that all of us are the man on the mat. All of us have a story, a history, that can leave us feeling stuck and helpless and in need of a community. All of us are the friends, taking turns at carrying whoever is most weighed down by their mat at the present time and breaking through any barriers we find on the way. And all of us are the religious people, comfortable with our community, and blocking the way for others to encounter Jesus. Sometimes, we acknowledge, it is our turn to get out of the way.
But all of us, are the man on the mat, who Jesus tells to stand up, pick up our story, and carry it with us so that others might see what Jesus has done for us.”

From the understanding that GRACE has of itself, we can be helped in our time of feeling lost about how to be church in this foreign land. Taking the lead from GRACE, try this understanding of church –  The church is our community or family that carries us to Jesus when we feel stuck and helpless. The church is friends taking turns at carrying whoever is most weighed down by their mat at the present time, and breaking through any barriers we find on the way to Jesus. The church is our community that changes itself and takes on new fresh expressions to unblock the way for people to encounter Jesus (some of the blockage may be our expectation that new folk should come on Sunday mornings to our buildings for worship the way we like it!). The church is all of us, like the man on the mat, who Jesus tells to stand up, pick up our story, and carry it with us so that others might see what Jesus has done for us.