Assessing our Future

John 17:20-26
There are two key points in this prayer Jesus prays for our time as church.
  1. That they may all be one – one heart and mind in Peterson's paraphrase.
  2. That the world may believe that in Christ we touch the divine, we see God's way of well-being for all things.
These two points are our basics for assessing ourselves as church, and for making commitments for being church for the future.
What this means depends on the world that we're in. Specifically it's about the community we're in, so it's different for each of our congregations. At the moment we're doing a lot of thinking and planning for Kerikeri, and next week that will be the subject of our congregational meeting. This week we'll think about each in their own right.
The principles are the same: Jesus' prayer is that those who believe will be one and that the world will believe: unified and “mature in oneness” (Peterson) and good evidence to the world that God, that love, is at the foundation of all that is.
Our purpose is to enable others to connect to God, or in less in-house terms, to the spirit at the heart of all living. In other words – of Genesis 2 and Revelation 22 – the river of life is for everyone:
And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires take the water of life as a gift” (22:17)
My thoughts are in relation to two headings:
  • The spiritual nature of the local community
  • Relationships between churches
Kerikeri is a place of different faiths and no faith, different fellowships of Christians and other faiths, alongside many who hold firm to a secular world-view. There are those with no time at all for things spiritual (sometimes claiming the title “atheist”) and others, many others, who are spiritual but not religious. Faith without community. As a person known to be connected to “church” I get assumptions made about me that mean people often don't expect any common ground with me. About values maybe – good morals – but life-beliefs or philosophy of life no.
Yet everyone I know has some faith. They have life-beliefs, their values stemming from them (values are too abstract to hold if they're not rooted in one's understanding of reality). But there's been a general misconception that faith equals religion, that faith lines up with being part of a religious group.
So considering the faith-views of people in the wider community in Kerikeri, what could be evidence for them that love is at the heart of all things. What could open up the possibility of seeing that there are resources in the life of Jesus that bring well-being for people, for us as individuals and for us as community, resources to unify. For we are fragmented as a community. With different cultures and interests and financial situations, ours is a community that can be divisive and lonely.
So what potential is there for unifying? What potential for people who are spiritual but not religious to grow in their spirits, to grow in the relationality and genuinely live in a world bigger than themselves? What might facilitate that? How might we work with the Holy Spirit, follow its lead? Because we know the Spirit is at work all the time and we trust where it leads.
We, who can be evidence of love at the heart of all things, are not just Union Church of course. In Kerikeri six churches work well together. Our fifth Sunday gathering at the end of this month is to enhance that working together. It's to be a forum to talk together about vision – each of us for our own community of faith and for the Kerikeri community. That the world might believe.
These six churches are variations on the one theme of Christ, and if any one of them disappeared Kerikeri would be missing something. Three of them, Baptist, Excite, and Frontline are making strides connecting new people into faith in Christ. Adults, children, young people, “people being saved” to use their language. People finding community in Christ.
Three of them bring to the mix distinct strands of church life and worship – Anglican, Catholic, and our Union of Methodist and Presbyterian. We each fly a flag (or two) that new people to Kerikeri connect up with, because it is their faith connection, a flag that people who've been away from church for a time can reconnect to. We build community among ourselves and outward into the community; we build relationships with others through our service, our practical Christianity.
Our unity as churches is found in mutual respect and encouragement. It is also to be found – and this is the purpose of the forum – in doing things together and in making better links between what each of us does best. As variations on the one theme of Christ we can work better if we collaborate and interconnect, being seen by the world as an almost seamless web of Christ-centred community-facing people.
So what do we the Union Church bring in particular to the web?
We offer a vision for Kerikeri that is probably beyond the scope or faith perspective of the other churches. Our vision is of “Community Space with a Spiritual Heart”. Picture for yourself (easier now that we see the shape developing) a place of welcome and belonging for diverse people in this fragmented community; a place where you don't have to be “Christian” to feel at home, to be at home in a spiritual sense; a place where Christ is the unifying factor – symbolised by the woven cross at the inmost point and underpinned by our faithful presence week by week as a worshipping community.
We're a church with a long-standing reputation for being open, letting people be as they are, and not judging others. So this is a group of people, kaitiaki of a building, who can be trusted; trusted that the space we offer – building and grounds – has no religious strings attached, no membership criteria to belong there. Genuinely open space for people to be together however is right for them, as they farewell a family member, mark other life passages, or do community projects and build community well-being together.
Community space with a spiritual heart will also be a place where people do their own spiritual exploration. Our understanding of faith need not be in charge (the mistake I believe of the Church), but rather permission is given for things beyond our direct oversight. Of course we'll have our conditions for the use of the facilities, but beyond that we will trust the Holy Spirit to take the lead. Our task will be to keep providing the Christian heart, by being the body of Christ and praying again and again, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill this place, bring peace and well-being to all.”
Some will be curious and the space will be a point of connection to us as church. I envisage growth in our group, as people of faith and kaitiaki of a place of open faith.
An oasis in the midst of a busy town. There's a ministry here I know we can do: we're not too old for it, we're not too few in number. And for me, and others to come, I see a ministry of interface, of outreach and interaction with the wider community in all its facets. An agent of hospitality, as only Jesus can teach it.
Ours is a district where spirituality is to large extent part of the fabric, much more than I've experienced anywhere else. Even for newcomers, there is something about it, “something in the air” that makes it natural to think of matter plus spirit, of edges between the everyday world and mystery, and to pray as part of community events and meetings. I have very different conversations with the children during Bible in Schools at Kaeo Primary compared with Riverview Primary. God's not necessarily a question or a problem; Spirit is simply part of what is, the matter for discussion with them being how we understand it.
Churches bring connection points for the people in the district who claim a place with Christian faith, whether it be a close connection or very loose or in between – Catholic, Anglican, Brethren, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Mormon, Ratana, Te Haahi Mana Motuhake o Aotearoa, Te Wai Pounamu, me Wharekauri (Nau's church), and Jehovah's Witnesses. For many people here, more than I've seen elsewhere in my adult years, a denomination is part of their identity, or part of their local community identity, even if it's a nominal link. Also there's New Beginnings, which began as Baptist. It is a church doing a wonderful job drawing in people who have not been Christian, or have been Christian in a different way and make a new commitment to faith, growing through these means the numbers of the “saved”. Each church in fact has a very important place: if we were without any one, something would really be missing. We are one in co-operation and collaboration, in our support for one another and our common conviction that Christ is our centre. Christ-centred, community-facing.
Responding to the community's call has been a big part of our visible unity. Our community has divisions: it's multiple communities in fact, in different localities, with different interests, with different whakapapa. But our churches are visibly not divided.
Unity – unifying – is about relationships: it's about building relationships and therefore building respect and understanding. Within our churches we must keep working on this. Are we a community of faith with unity of the kind that means each feels safe to be ourselves? Or do you hesitate a bit to do things because they might be criticised? (Is there something to work on here?)
Between our churches we need to build relationships as we respond to the community's call for events like the service before ANZAC day, and as we plan other events we know the community will appreciate, like carols in the churchyard. Our working together is sowing seeds for the community's working together. And, as Jesus says in his prayer, it is evidence that he and his way are of God. This is the true Spirit of God, to be ourselves and feel safe being ourselves in all our differences and yet to have a common heart and mind for the well-being of all.
Together is important, but so also is what we do as a unique church. How can we, as Methodist/Presbyterian Union, best be followers of Christ in the community and thus serve our community?
Here's my summary:
1. Honour the distinctive service and role of the other churches, thankful for them all and aware of where their mission gifts and skills lie, as distinct from us.
2. Be available to all for whom the Methodist and Presbyterian heritage is part of their identity.
3. Keep the flag flying, that is, be a visible presence of the body of Christ through our regular worship. A symbol of God's presence even.
4. Be Christ-shaped people in the community, nurtured, encouraged, and challenged in that role by regular prayer and worship and study.
5. Provide “Community Space with a Spiritual Heart”. This is the vision of our parish's Kerikeri project, but it's also happening in a smaller way already here. In fact, this building for me has helped formulate the Kerikeri vision. A building open to all where people can feel at home, hold their own kinds of gatherings, secular or spiritual; a place where standards of behaviour and expectations of positive relationships are part of the building itself, so to speak. We as body of Christ set the tone for the building and our regular worship helps feed that and firm it up, week by week.
In Kaeo, if less so than Kerikeri, there are people who claim no time for religion. Some are spiritual but not religious, others would deny even the word spiritual. Yet everyone I know has some faith. They have life-beliefs, their values stemming from them (values are too abstract to hold if they're not rooted in one's understanding of reality). But there's been a general misconception that faith equals religion, that faith lines up with being part that of a religious group.
Our building provides an important interface with the community: how we relate to people who use it or enquire about using it, taking an interest in them and their projects, going the extra mile if need be to get things arranged; showing hospitality as the kaitiaki of this place.
Do we draw people in by doing this? Not obviously so. A huge part of people feeling they want to be at church on Sunday morning is what it feels like when they are there, or what they imagine it will feel like. And that's largely about relationships – how they relate to us, predominantly you as the congregation. Do they feel good with you?
In the future, as Kerikeri develops resources for people who might be curious about church – things to look at around the building, pamphlets to take home – we can piggy-back on that and make a more visible connection for Christian faith in the foyer where visitors can browse.
Possibilities. How to be Future Church in this community – how to let Jesus' prayer for us take hold and lead us into new ways of connecting with our world of Kaeo.

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