I recently attended a suburban Anglican church. It shall remain nameless – as its location etc. is not important. I’ll call it St. Alban for convenience. At most the church building could probably hold 130, maybe 150 people. The community who built it probably never anticipated more than a couple of hundred attending on a Sunday – with a couple of morning services and an evening service. Next door they built a vicarage. St Alban has an entrance foyer and a large hall where you can play basketball or do any number of other activities. There are a couple of smaller meeting rooms – easily usable for Sunday School. There is an area where refreshments can be prepared and placed. Then a couple of small offices – one intended for the vicar/parish priest.
In an age of bigger-is-better, mega-churches, even internet churches, St Alban and its architecture speaks of a different approach. It speaks of a local community worshipping and serving where they live. A vision of young families who generally send their children to the local kindergarten, primary school, and secondary school. The church encourages neighbourly care. I recently read of three very successful businesses where the people worked near where they live.
Yes, there will be some travelling to supermarket, even shopping mall, and cinema. Many will travel out of the suburb to work.
I regularly read about and encounter the enormous energy directed towards creating “Christian communities” of like-minded, same-age congregations. Imagine our multi-faceted society as a gateaux or layer cake. These people want to slice the gateaux, the layer cake of society, horizontally – so that you look around the congregation at slightly-varying clones of yourself – people who think the same, believe the same, dress similarly, like similar music, are a similar age, income-group, culture etc. There is no stress or challenge. And maybe little transformation?
The vision that the architecture of St Alban speaks of to me is quite different. It slices the gateaux, the layer cake, vertically. Sure, not every possibility will be included in the slice – the community just isn’t big enough. But there is a variety of ages and stages, opinions and positions – rubbing shoulders, rubbing the sharp edges off, being the grit that produces the pearl.
There may be a warning in the cake-slicing metaphor. If you attempt to slice a gateaux horizontally, normally you will be very unsuccessful, ending up merely with a lot crumbs and sticky cream.
St Alban’s doesn’t just meet for worship and mutual support. The small number that meet there (relative to the population of the suburb in which it sits) serve and care in the local community. The hall is used for young people to be active together. There are visits to the local retirement homes. The vicar/parish priest is not just there to care for the worshipping community, but is understood by that community to be available for anyone in the suburb. The vicar is a general practitioner, helping people find the resources they need. The vicar is in touch with what is happening in the worshipping community and the wider local community, presiding at the eucharist and other worship as pastor of the community, preaching sermons that connect the timeless message to the actual, known, lived experiences and issues of those in the pews.
Some people want to slice the gateaux, the layer cake of society, horizontally – so that you look around the congregation at slightly-varying clones of yourself – people who think the same, believe the same, dress similarly, like similar music, are a similar age, income-group, culture etc. There may be a warning in the cake-slicing metaphor. If you attempt to slice a gateaux horizontally, normally you will be very unsuccessful, ending up merely with a lot crumbs and sticky cream.
Some groups proudly boast that ten tithing average-income families can support one average-income pastor’s family. Anglicans have never generally got such a ratio, however I posit that a community with an average weekly attendance of a hundred or more can generally support a parish with a vicar.
This post is not even beginning to explore the possible imperative to alter our lifestyle to a more local expression for the sake of the planet and our future. This post is not a denigration of larger churches, nor of the church’s use of the internet. Far from it (clearly) for the latter – it is not a romanticised yearning for a bygone, pre-internet age. The internet complements such a real world small community. This is an attempt to look again at the too-regularly forgotten value of small, local Christian communities where the pastor IS pastor to the faith community, leads, teaches, and preaches to their actual context. And the Christian community not only worships God in and prays for the local community, and really supports each other, it also serves the local community (and beyond) in a multiplicity of ways. They act locally and truly are Christ locally.