This 15th century painting by Andrei Rublev has often fascinated me (and many others). It is a depiction of the three angels that visited Abraham (See Genesis 18:1-15) but the painting is full of symbolism and is often interpreted as a depiction of the Trinity. In it we see a mutuality and relationality coming through in the representation of the Godhead.
Quite often this painting is also used to express the notion of perichoresis which is essentially the term used to express the relationality, interpenetration, mutuality, joy and self giving that we see as Father, Son and Holy Spirit interact with and respond to one another. So connected are the three persons Father, Son and Holy Spirit to each other, that we as Christians affirm that we worship the one God. This ‘oneness’ is affirmed by Jesus in John 17:21. Jesus prays for us and says that his hope is that, ‘they may be one. As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me’. So here we see Jesus talking about his ‘oneness’ with the Father but incredibly we also hear him opening the circle of the Godhead to invite us his followers in! The thought is that God is relational and based on that, we are encouraged to join with him as we relate to one another in Christ.
But it seems so ideal doesn’t it? And in fact, of course, there are limitations to this parallel – we are not God! But at the same time there is a need to take seriously the characteristic of relationality that we see in God and then emulate that in our Christian community the church, as God guides us to do so. The battles that we are up against however are the twin peaks of individualism and consumerism which can work to hinder that building up of relationships which we pray for in our churches.
Individualism encourages us to think that we are the most important person in the world. This leads to consumerism that encourages a busyness and quick fix mindset even though we know that relationships take time, care, mutual submission and sacrifice in order to work.
How do you build a church committed to relationships? Of course it is a work of the Spirit to build community amongst the people of God under the Lordship of Jesus, but there are some things that we are putting into place by God’s power at our church that are intentional strategies in order to build good relationships.
1. Have an ‘Intergenerationa l’ perspective
One way that we can build relationships with one another is to step out of our silos and connect with those who are different to us. This includes connecting with those who are of a different gender, race and status to us. We are especially, at our church, looking into connecting the generations a whole lot better. This is not easy for the church as it has decades of holding to a strategy which segmented the ages which has resulted in people being isolated from each other. This is a tricky change to negotiate as we practice connecting with one another despite the sometimes huge barrier of age. It can get messy, uncomfortable and challenging but it is well worth the effort as we get to know each other outside of our familiar circles. One benefit of this is that we grow up into Christ better this way as we learn from one another. A research study turned into a book called ‘Lost in Transition’ by David Goodwin tells of the importance of “attractors” who are ‘particular people in the church who make Christianity live and shine and have a strong influence on how young people are welcomed and included’. I think this ‘affecting’ of one another goes two ways as each generation learns about their walk with God through connecting with one another.
2. Learn to ‘fight well’
Disagreement and conflict are a natural part of life. The problem is that we don’t know how to disagree very well as the church. It could be because disagreement is seen as a move towards disunity or the fact that Christians are supposed to be ‘nice’ therefore disagreement and conflict are seen as ‘unchristian’. My experience has been that because of the fact that Christians do not speak openly about their disagreement it can foster an underground culture of tension in the church which even though it cannot be identified overtly, the feeling of tension nevertheless exists in an unrecognised way. Also I have seen that disagreement builds up and if not expressed, outbursts occur which are disproportionate to the actual situation. This is not easy, however to build good relationships it should be assumed that disagreement and conflict are a normal part of the Christian life and a culture in the church needs to be fostered to encourage people to ‘fight well’ when those disagreements do happen. Building a culture that can handle disagreement means more than preaching a sermon on conflict resolution. People need to be taught that disagreement is ok and in fact healthy. Flowing on from this, appropriate ways to engage with others when disagreeing needs to be modelled. After our Sunday morning gatherings we often invite anyone, to come to a particular area of our School hall to ‘keep discussing’ the message presented that morning. The idea here is that if someone wants to contribute to what has been said by the teacher or in fact disagree, that this is ok. Both congregations and leaders need to allow this process to happen in order to model disagreeing well.
3. Encourage authenticity
We live in a culture of cover up. Mostly we are encouraged to ‘focus on the positive’, ‘talk ourselves up’, engage in self affirmation and recognise that ‘we can do anything if we put our mind to it’. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald called this the ‘Happy trap’ and said ‘A growing number of psychologists and social researchers now believe that the ‘’feel-good, think positive’’ mindset of the modern self-help industry has backfired, creating a culture where uncomfortable emotions are seen as abnormal.’ Speaking about the emotion of grief and loss the article says, ‘(loss) gives you access to a wonderful array of very real human experiences, especially the connection between people.’ Being honest about the way we feel and not marginalising those ‘negative’ emotions can actually help us to connect with people better and be more compassionate. This idolisation of positivity and happiness in our culture has infiltrated our churches and this can be seen in some of our theology and in some of our worship. Only speaking about the positive and only sharing our successes isolates us from each other. The pastor/leader can model this authenticity by being more ready to frequently say phrases such as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘forgive me’. The more we share openly, vulnerably and authentically, the more our churches become places of connected relationships.
4. Encourage mutuality
Each church system is different in its interpretation of the way power is structured in the congregation. Some tend more towards a set hierarchy and others tend more towards a ‘democratic’ approach. However, whichever structure is chosen, room for mutuality is a necessity if good relationships are to be built. Processes need to be put into place by leaders which encourage the congregation to provide feedback on key decisions and events so that people feel heard and sense that they have taken ownership of the decision in some way. This builds a desire in people to connect with each other since the leadership has modelled good communication and mutual respect. Granted this is not always easy due to people’s lack of desire to participate and also due to the tension that exists between implementing a vision and meeting people’s expectations, however a mutuality between leader and congregation encourages a respect and mutual submission amongst the people in our congregations.
5. Eat together
This last point might seem simple and it is, however it is often so difficult to find time to eat together. If we think about it, this is when we truly open up to one another, share our stories, speak about our past, telling of our pains and joys. At our church we are encouraging hospitality as a practice associated to one of our values which is relationships. By this we mean meeting up with people, and not just those who we usually connect with, for a coffee or a meal regularly to foster connected relationships. This to me still seems like an ideal due to the busyness and fragmentation of our culture but our assurance is that the Kingdom of God has come through Jesus and we have been given the Holy Spirit who will help us to build the authentic community that the world is longing for.