It has been four years since my book 6 Radical Decisions was launched in Oxford. I have been reflecting on what I have learned in the effort to put what I had written about in the book into practise.
Over the last few reflections I have written about helping people find their individual callings, having a global perspective and loving their neighbours. These are the three main awarenesses we have been trying to build into our congregation.
Moving the church into mission, though, is not just about what we do individually. Our collective action matters too.
In chapter 7 of the book I wrote:
Once we have chosen our mission, we need to act. N.T. Wright, in the Challenge of Jesus, says “Your task is to find the symbolic ways of doing things differently, planting flags in hostile soil, setting up signposts that say there is a different way to be human.”
When I first read Wright’s statement, I wanted to protest. Symbolic action sounded like futile action. I wanted my action to be significant. I have often fallen into the trap of thinking like the Zealots, that I had to fix all the world’s problems; that my job was done when everything was right with the world. Eventually the penny dropped. This world is broken and it is not my job to fix it, my job is to harmonise with God and work with my brothers and sisters in Christ to give a glimpse of a different, not so broken, way of doing life. Like Isaiah, we are called to be signs and symbols in the face of a world that is based on self interest and greed.
This “Symbolic Action” framework was big in my thinking when I was considering joining the church. One of the things I appreciated about St. Albert Alliance church is that they hadn’t moved to a trendy one word label like so many others. They were still branded first by their locality. They are a local church.
The other thing I loved about the church was what I saw on their website. In many ways they had been very intentional in acting symbolically for many years.
For sixteen years they had, twice a year, been transforming the building into the biggest free thrift shop in the city. Share and Wear had become a local institution, with around 800 people lining up on a Saturday morning to get into the building.
As I arrived the team that had been making it happen were growing tired and were considering whether it would continue or not. It didn’t take a lot of effort on my part to build fresh momentum and encourage those who had faithfully been serving over many years.
Share and Wear is all about practical grace. I love that half the team aren’t even from the church but come to serve because they see the value in what it does.
Another symbolic action that the church had been taking for a number of years was the choice to cancel the normal service twice a year. This was seen by other churches as a radical act because the Sunday service is the main sources of income for the church, but the leaders decided a number of years ago that decisions would not be made by the dollars.
One of the weekends we cancel the regular service is the Christmas Hamper Day on the last weekend of November every year. About 600 people work together in about 100 teams to pack 100 Christmas hampers and deliver them to whoever they decide as a team they want to give them to. As one comment on the CBC news story about the day said “This Church exemplifies the true meaning of Christmas. ”
Another day we cancel the regular church service, is “Church Has Left the building.”
When I arrived at the church, Church has left the building had been different every year. The impulse was to have a day, at the end of summer, that reminded us all that Church was not just what normally happened on Sunday morning.
It was natural to bring Open Crowd Festivals from my experience in Fusion into this framework, and for the last few years we have run small neighbourhood festivals across our city on the last Sunday of August.
We also run an Open Crowd Festival in Easter Week. The strength of Open Crowd festivals is that they are less about the program and more about the relationships.
As I wrote in the book:
One of the most effective tools for ministry in community that I have seen is the Open Crowd Festival. It is effective because it is symbolic. For a moment, people are invited into a community of justice and love through the agency of a simple festival. When the festival works well, it is normal for people to come up to the organisers and want to join. They see something they cannot put into words, but know that it is “right”.
Since being at the church I have seen that one of the other benefits of the Open Crowd is that real fellowship takes significant work and some skill. The same tools that help produce an Open Crowd Festival are the very ones that enable real fellowship in a church. (But I will talk more about that in the next post).
One other important aspect of our symbolic action in the local community is our cooperation with other local churches. Our lead pastor, Jeremy, is the chair of the local ministerial and our impulse is to work with the other local churches wherever we can. The Good Neighbour project, that I wrote about in my previous post is one example of this.
There are other ways that we symbolically demonstrate the truth of the gospel, and it is something we want to continually develop.
It is true that symbolic actions like these take a lot of effort. It would be easier just to focus on Sunday morning. Our experience is that these symbolic actions really matter though. Instead of arguing points of ideology, people see the gospel in action.. and that makes a difference!