The Bible passage Acts 2.42-47 provides an inspiring description of the way of life practised by the earliest Christians. There is a strong sense of mutuality, and the faith, hope and love of the believers is an example to everyone around them:
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Of course that will not be the whole story. The writer of Acts will either not have known about, or chosen not to highlight, the tensions which invariably exist among a group of humans coexisting in the world. But one striking thing about the description of the earliest Jesus-believers is their commitment, both to each other and to introducing this amazing new way of life to others…
… A way of life powered by love.
Luke’s outline of early Christian life seems so simple, and yet Ecclesiology, the study of the church, is anything but. There are many different interpretations of what constitutes ‘church’ – how it should be understood in the light of Biblical interpretation, and how heavily influences such as tradition, experience and culture should be allowed to impact on beliefs, structures and styles of worship.
Yet I would argue that, at the heart of all ecclesiology, from whichever perspective it is done, is the basic understanding that the church is the outworking of God’s love for the world. It is a covenant relationship, between the God who created and loves us unconditionally, and a people committed to living in response to that love. As John Bradbury writes in his book Perpetually Reforming: A Theology of Church Reform and Renewal:
God is in relationship with the whole of the world in that God has actively called the world. The church is that which, through the activity of the God who brought it into being, proclaims this vocation or calling to the world and proclaims that the world is also called into the church. (2013, 78)
Similarly Brian McLaren, in his 2016 book, The Great Spiritual Migration, defines the church in covenantal terms:
“God’s love is non-discriminatory… God loves us not because we are deserving and lovable but because God is loving, without limitation or discrimination” (2016, 46-48).
The logical consequence of this, he argues, is that those who follow Jesus should also demonstrate this love, both in everyday encounters with those around them and through “embedding love in meaningful ritual”, whether that be in formal worship or other meaningful activities (54-70).
However both Bradbury and McLaren argue that this covenantal identity is often sacrificed at the expense of doctrine and ritual, with the church focusing on protecting and reproducing itself rather than existing as what McLaren calls a movement based on love (21-24). Indeed Bradbury states:
Holding onto the church for the sake of its institutions, structures and even perhaps those inside of it is not the vocation of the church. The church in the present context simply must stop worrying about its survival. It is not there to survive. It is to be there for the world. (216)
The understanding of the church as, first and foremost, a covenantal community based on love, certainly resonates with the experience of Hug Cullompton. I would suggest that there are three ways in which we demonstrate it in our own particular way. None of them are rocket science, indeed I am simply showing our take on what most churches already do; but I have been to some in the past where I have struggled to see any of them practised, and sometimes it is good to state explicitly what instinctively we already know.
- Being actively welcoming
Hug Cullompton welcomes people from a variety of different spiritual backgrounds and encourages the asking of questions. Our modus operandum might be described as Radical Welcome:
Radical welcome is the spiritual practice of embracing and being changed by the gifts, presence, voices, and power of the Other… [It] is concerned with the transformation and opening of individual hearts, congregations and systems so that The Other might find in your community a warm place and a mutual embrace…
(Stephanie Spellers, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, 2006, 1)
Although we do have a room in the High Street, our organisation is associated more with our activities and community initiatives. Our weekly meeting, Wellbeing Wednesdays, is an opportunity to experience love and learn about faith and spirituality through informal conversation rather than formal worship. Those who join us tend to walk alongside us rather than becoming advocates of a particular set of doctrines.
2. Communicating God’s Love
We are tasked, not only with providing an environment where people can experience God’s love, but also communicating it. We are committed to providing a safe space, where no question is unacceptable, and no concept is beyond being explored.
We also recognise that those starting to think about faith or spirituality after a break of many years, or for the first time, will probably have discovered ideas and experienced practices from other religions as well as other continents. In reality many of those ideas replicate, or even predate, teachings of Jesus and doctrines of the Church. For example Jesus’ teaching, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6.31 and parallels) can be found in a whole host of religious teachings including Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Janism and Native American spirituality. A symbiotic conversational method (one which presupposes that neither party has all the answers) will enable both parties to make connections as they learn more about each other’s beliefs and about God.
3. Sharing God’s Love
John Proctor, the General Secretary of the URC, during his opening address at the 2016 General Assembly (their national meeting) summarises this well:
We are not in this for ourselves. We are in it to make a difference, for Christ’s sake, among our neighbours, in our localities, through our personal living, by the pattern and values that shape our life together, and by the love, care, respect and compassion we have for the people around us.
From the outset Hug Cullompton’s stated purpose has been to show God’s love in very practical ways; through prayer and community initiatives and occasionally by inclusion in projects further afield. Whether it is to support the festival life of the town, promote art and culture, or assist individuals setting up in business, Hug Cullompton is committed to creating alliances and developing partnerships which allow the Holy Spirit to flow and bring an experience of God’s covenantal love to the town. In doing so I believe we can give Cullompton a glimpse of the true promise it shows as a community of people created and loved by God.
There is far more that can be said about ecclesiology – and it is a subject I expect to return to several times in the coming months. I have, in the past, been accused of not being radical enough with my suggestion that emerging church is actually all about love. But I do believe it’s true.
For me it’s about experiencing and sharing the transformative love of God, demonstrated in the words, works and ways of Jesus. The ‘ologies’ – theology, ecclesiology, missiology, soteriology and the rest, are simply tools to help us work out the best way to do it. And at some times they are more helpful than others!
John Bradbury, 2013, Perpetually Reforming: A Theology of Church Reform and Renewal (Edinburgh, T&T Clark)
Brian McLaren, 2016, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (London, Hodder and Staunton)
Stephanie Spellers, 2006, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation (New York, Church Publishing)