After years of frustration with completing my annual tax returns, I decided to give all the information to a tax agency to handle it on my behalf. Their letterhead reads, ‘Where Relationships Count.’ I must say, their service has repeatedly borne this out!
The Church needs to re-assimilate the kingdom-truth of relationship. NT theologian Howard Snyder rightly traces Christian fellowship back to the Trinity: ‘God is in himself a permanent conversation, a communion of love… Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’ The Trinity is not an enigma to be solved but ‘a model on which all human relations, including the church should be structured.’
We can learn much from the S. American base communities of the 60′s and 70′s. They were characterised by the absence of alienating structures, by direct relationships, by reciprocity, by a deep communion, by mutual assistance, by equality among members. The specific characteristics of society (and often of the Church) are absent here: rigid rules, hierarchies, prescribed relationships in a framework of distinct functions, qualities and titles.
Perhaps this is why I love Africa and ministry in it. Of course there is a cognitive, ‘knowledge’ and doctrinal compoment to our faith. However Western-based churches (including many in my own nation) have often missed the relationality of faith. To be totally honest and politically incorrect, I much prefer working with black Africans, who are more relational than white Africans who guard their views and privacy with a terrible tenacity. A visitor to Africa is soon struck by the frequent use of the first person plural ‘we’ and ‘ours’ in everyday speech. Once I have established a mutual relationship with new believers, they are ready to soak up that core biblical teaching so desperately needed in a continent where Christianity is a hundred miles wide and an inch deep. It’s ‘lekker’ (South African slang for ‘nice,’ ‘enjoyable’) to serve God in needy African communities, as I and many others are privileged to do.
Witness the life and church-building of Jesus. Yes, he comes to impart truth which is able to make us godly: Jn. 17: 17, ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.’ Yes, his apostles constantly call believers to doctrinal purity. But Jesus also embodies the truth (Jn. 14:6) and he spends 3 years in deep relationship with a small group of ordinary men and women, who eventually in his risen power turn their world upside down (right way up). ‘Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light’ (1 Jn. 2:9ff).
Of course almost everything these days militates against relationship. On a lighter note, my wife passed on to me a print-out of photographs, circulated among her colleagues: one captures four teens sprawled all over a bench as they spend ‘a day at the beach,’ the only snag being that each is totally engrossed with his/her cell phone. Then there’s a photo of a couple ‘out on an intimate date’ – yes, you’ve guessed it, busy with their cell phones and bodies slanted away from each other. There are more photos, then a quotation of Albert Einstein, ‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots’ (feel a little idiotic myself).
Now what do we do to correct the situation? Perhaps we can begin by actually getting to know the God we profess, through more reading of and thinking on the Bible itself! Let’s learn to be with God and one another, after all we aren’t ‘human doings’ but ‘human beings.’ Secondly, it’s not about performance (religion) in the Church but about relationship! We should develop our relationships on the basis of grace rather than performance. Finally, let’s become more ‘human’ (don’t ‘super-spiritual’ Christians nauseate you?), for this is why Jesus became incarnate (D. Bonhoeffer).
If you and I take some of these baby steps in the power of Christ, we will begin to make a significant difference in winning an individualistic, lost and lonely world to Christ our Saviour and Friend.