Archive for community

Inclusive Church Communities

Posted in Church, Life with tags , , , , , , on June 10, 2011 by stephengardner

Christian Blind Mission has launched a fantastic new initiative called Luke 14 (See the video below). The purpose of Luke 14 is to help churches to care for disabled people.

20% of Australian’s live with a disability – is that reflected in your church community? I’m assuming its not and so, Its worth asking why not? Is your building wheelchair accessible? Does the service exclude those who live with a particular disability? They’re the more obvious questions to ask, but what about at the level of personal contact. How are people with disabilities welcomed by others?

I was part of a church community of around 120 people some years back. One of the people from the congregation, lets call him Brad, had a profound disability. Brad was wheelchair bound and had great difficulty speaking. It was hard work to hear and understand Brad. Perhaps thats why out of a church of 120 people only 3 people would speak with him. Perhaps thats why Brad stopped coming to church after persisting at it for a number of years.

Last night I stumbled upon these helpful words from Jurgen Moltmann:

The first thing that people discovered in Jesus, according to the synoptic gospels, was the healing power of the divine Spirit. That is why people who come into contact with him are revealed not as ‘sinners’ (as they are in Paul), but as ‘the sick’. Out of the corners into which they had been forced, out of the wilderness to which they had been banished, out of the shadows into which they had crept, the sick and possessed emerge, and try to be near him. In the neighbourhood of Jesus men and women reveal themselves, not as people who fulfil the Greek ideal of the healthy mind in the healthy body, but as sick, suffering and in need of help. In the vicinity of Jesus, people do not show themselves from their sunny side but from the sides that are dark and shadowed (Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 189).

O that our churches were free of superficiality. O that the divine Spirit would change God’s people that we would look at the world with the same paradigm shifting eyes of Jesus. O that God would forgive us of excluding other image bearers of communion with their Maker.


Leading communities III

Posted in Church, Leadership with tags , , , on March 16, 2010 by stephengardner

So far, I’ve suggested, that many of our churches have  a problem; a created divide between those in leadership and the rest of us sitting in the pews. And in the last post I suggested we tend to recreate this problem by the way we train future leaders.

Today I want to begin to flesh out some of the implications this might have for church life. And I want to suggest that one of the symptoms of this problem is when a leader begins to blame his/her congregation. Bonhoeffer takes this accusing back to a misplaced model of ‘visionary dreaming’. He describes it this way:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realised by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of the brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.             (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together, 27-28.)

Can you see Bonhoeffer’s point about the danger of visionary leadership?

There is nothing wrong with visionary leadership, in fact we could do with more of it. But there is a problem when a leader’s vision for the church is not met and the leader becomes ‘an accuser of the brethren.’ This is a symptom, of a far bigger problem, of a leader who does not identify as a belonging member of that community.

If the leader’s vision is not met, who’s fault is it? Surely not his! How often,do you hear leaders speak against their congregations, blaming them for the reasons why the church is not welcoming enough, not growing, not looking for ways to serve etc…

There is a place for a loving rebuke from a leader to his/her congregation. But there is something quite wrong when a leader cannot see their own participation and involvement in the community. Bonhoeffer goes on to say:

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. (Life Together, 28.)

Leading communities II

Posted in Church, Leadership with tags , , , , on March 10, 2010 by stephengardner

In the last post I introduced the idea of how the language used by leaders significantly reveals what they think about, and value, regarding community. I want to suggest that as soon as a leader begins speaking about ‘his’ or ‘her’ church they have effectively dislocated themselves from the community of God’s people they have been called to serve.

To go further, my sneaking suspicion is that many leaders are resigned to the fact that they must dislocate themselves from their communities. And my hunch is that the way we go about training future ministers contributes to this.

What do I mean? Take the example of ‘Joe’.

Joe is in his mid twenties and has had five years experience leading the youth group at his local church. During that time he felt a growing conviction that there was nothing more he would rather be doing with his life than teaching people from God’s Word. He mentions this in passing to his minister who excitedly organises a breakfast meeting for the two of them to discuss what this might mean. Over breakfast, the minister encourages Joe to do a ministry apprenticeship at church the following year. After thinking things through Joe decides to give it a shot!

His time serving at church offers mixed experience’s but he continues to feel increasingly convicted about being a pastor and a teacher, so he enrolls in a theological college for the following year.

After thinking through some ecclesiological issues he decides to enter college as a candidate for ordination in his particular denomination. With this comes a necessary change of church. Joe feels the tension of leaving his home church, where he has been deeply connected for so long, while understanding the benefits this move will bring for having a wide range of church experiences. Joe chooses a church in an entirely different part of the city, and one that is quite a distance from his new home near college.

Joe serves at the new church for two years, continually struggling to juggle college work and student ministry work. More often than not college work and the college community win the battle for Joe’s time and energy. Largely this is due to the distance between home and church; because Joe is only able to serve 14 hours/week in his church; and because he knows he only has two years at this particular church. The result  is that Joe’s theological college effectively becomes his primary Christian community.

This pattern of balancing church and theological training is repeated in Joe’s 3rd and 4th year at college. He then graduates, with first class honours, and quickly finds work in a church in a nearby suburb to his home church. Joe is eager to finally have some time to dig deep and contribute to the life of this new church but he also realises his time here will be quite short. Joe is a candidate for ordination and quite eager to one day lead his own church. He realises that in 2-3 years time he could well be given a chance at doing that, which would mean, again, a change of church.

Sorry for the cheesy story, but I hope you can see what I’m getting at. The nature of the way ‘Joe’ has had to train for church ministry has trained him to think about Christian communities in a certain way. They are not necessarily long-term, and they are not necessarily places he identifies with. He has effectively been trained in how to disconnect from church communities.

The next post will flesh out what, I think, are some of the possible implications of ‘Joe’s’ formative years of training…

Leading communities I

Posted in Church, Leadership, Sermons with tags , , on March 8, 2010 by stephengardner

I’ve had a couple of thoughts floating around in my head for a while now about leading communities, particularly relating to the language leaders use when speaking to, and about, ‘their’ communities.

To get the ball rolling here is an excerpt  from a recent sermon on 1 Peter 5:

Facing immense persecution at the hands of the Roman’s Peter’s message is all about supporting the resistance movement—its a desperate plea for Christian’s to be on the side of the resistance. Because at the heart of this movement is a radical community of people who pledge allegiance, not to Caesar, but to the Lord Jesus. So Peter outlines what this community is to look like from the inside:

Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you 2 to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. 3 Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. (1 Pet 5.1-4 NRSV)

So, Peter begins by picking on those in charge – the elders. And notice that he very wisely aligns himself on the team of the elders – he calls himself a ‘fellow elder’ and as ‘one who shares in their glory to be revealed’.

Its not a bad way to get people onside is it? You know to appeal to your similarities before you offer a challenge, its quite political and very wise. Because its important for Peter to have their trust because he has some genuine words of challenge for them. And in a nutshell, his message to the elders is this– ‘don’t be a jerk’

‘No matter how good an elder you are – the people under your care are not yours. They are God’s’. Elder’s therefore, have no right and no basis to lord their authority over their people. That’s what the Roman’s were doing. The leaders of the Christian community are to be different. Elder’s are ‘shepherds of God’s flock’. That means they care for communities-they are to pastor communities-But they don’t ever own communities!

I have a friend who, is the equivalent to an elder, he is the senior minister of a church. He, I think, really admirably, has decided to never speak of his church as his church. Rather, he calls it ‘the church where I serve’. Its only a little thing. But its important. Elders don’t own the church, God does.

And elder’s must want to be elders. Peter says this straight up in v2 – ‘that you’re not to become an elder because you feel you must, but because you are willing’

Need, therefore, is not a good enough reason to become an elder. This is a massive challenge to anyone who has ever thought about going into full time, paid ministry with the plan to lead a church. Yeah there is a great need for people to go out into the harvest field—Jesus said that himself. But if you decide to go down that path purely because of need—If you go down that path without ever having a genuine desire, even a passion, to be a shepherd of God’s people, then you are at real risk of becoming the type of leader Peter warns against. The type of leader who throws his or her weight around, compelling others to do what he or she thinks they must do.

Living with Evil II

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 29, 2009 by stephengardner

white.tennantsThe dramas of Denis Ferguson’s housing situation show a clash of two very different ways of treating “the other”. Our governments are committed to inclusion as a means of reintroducing offenders into communities (see the last post), however, what is clear from Ferguson’s brief stint in Ryde is that many within our communities are committed to exclusion as the only means of treating “the other”, and particularly, “the evil other”.
Look at the way Volf describes this process of exclusion:

Others are dehumanised in order that they can be discriminated against, dominated, driven out, or destroyed. If they are outsiders, they are “dirty,” “lazy,” and “morally unreliable”; if women, they are “sluts” and “bitches”; if minorities, they are “parasites,” “vermin,” and “pernicious bacilli” (Hirsch 1995, 97-108). In a sense, the danger of “dysphemisms” is underplayed when one claims, as Zygmunt Bauman does, that these labels take the other outside “the class of objects of potential moral responsibility” (Bauman 1993, 167). More insidiously, they insert the other into the universe of moral obligations in such a way that not only does exclusion become justified but necessary because not to exclude appears morally culpable. The rhetoric of the other’s inhumanity obliges the self to practice inhumanity.
Exclusion and Embrace 76.

I think this is a really clear picture of what has occurred in Ryde, and other places Ferguson has found himself. The thought of including ‘one like him’ into the community is repulsive. But what drives people (us) to so quickly dehumanise others to justify our exclusion of them? To this, Volf says:

Sometimes the dehumanization and consequent mistreatment of others are a projection of our own individual or collective hatred of ourselves; we persecute others because we are uncomfortable with strangeness within ourselves (Kristeva 1990)… We assimilate or eject strangers in order to ward off the perceived threat of chaotic waters rushing in. We exclude because we want to be at the center and be there alone, single-handedly controlling “the land.” To achieve such “hegemonic centrality,” we add conquest to conquest and possession to possession; we colonize the life-space of others and drive them out; we penetrate in order to exclude, and we exclude in order to control—if possible everything, alone.
Exclusion and Embrace 78-79.

You might think these are useful criticisms of cases racial exclusion like that of colonial Europeans, or of gender exclusion. But I think Volf’s critique of exclusion also offers a profound approach to the question of ‘what do we do with child sex offenders?’
Exclusion, Volf would argue, is always an act of dehumanising, performed out of a fear of including the evil ‘other’ into our communities. And the basis of this fear is in what the inclusion of such an evil one might say about our communities—and ourselves.
This raises the issues of guilt, innocence and justice—aren’t there clear examples of such repulsive guilt that the only right thing to do is to deny their place within communities? Isn’t this a necessary act of justice? We’ll look at this next time

Living with Evil I

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 25, 2009 by stephengardner


Over the last two weeks the NSW government has been under massive pressure to remove Denis Ferguson from his public housing unit in the Sydney suburb of Ryde. On Wednesday new legislation was passed that will allow the termination of public housing leases of registered child-sex offenders. Yesterday Dennis Ferguson was evicted. Under the new legislation the state Government must provide ‘permanent’ accommodation for the remainder of the tenants  lease. But what happens then? Where will Denis Ferguson move after that initial placement? How does a community go about living with a known child sex offender? If Denis Ferguson’s previous stints in public housing are anything to go by, then it appears impossibly difficult for any community to achieve this.
Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace has much to say to communities faced with the possible inclusion of ‘the other’, and particularly, when ‘the other’ is seen as evil. In the coming posts I want to focus on the relation of Volf’s categories of ‘exclusion’ and ‘memory’ and try and relate them to the present situation with Denis Ferguson.

But first, have a read of Volf’s thoughts on inclusion—the path our state government has committed to—as the answer to these questions:

One could argue that the barbarity within civilization and evil among the good arises from inconsistency. We simply need to press on with the program of inclusion, argument could continue, until the last pocket of exclusion has been conquered. Exclusion would then be a sickness and inclusion undiluted medicine. Could it be, however, that the medicine itself is making the patient sick with a new form of the very illness it seeks to cure?
Exclusion and Embrace 60.

Inclusion, is not a simple, sustainable option, for Volf. It’s a relic of modernist misplaced hope in the story of progress. ‘The logic of the modern story of inclusion suggests that “keeping out” is bad and “taking in” is good… A consistent drive toward inclusion seeks to level all the boundaries that divide and to neutralize all outside powers that form and shape the self.’

The presupposition here is that difference, and particularly evil, should be removed, all of it. But there is a problem

Does not such a radical indeterminacy undermine from within the idea of inclusion, however? I believe it does. Without boundaries we will be able to know only what we are fighting against but not what we are fighting for… The absence of boundaries creates nonorder, and nonorder is not the end of exclusion but the end of life…boundaries are part of the creative process of differentiation. For without boundaries there would be no discrete identities, and without discrete identities there could be no relation to the other.
Exclusion and Embrace 63, 67

As long as our governments aim to reform and reintroduce offenders into communities there will be moments of exclusion and anger – as there has been in Ryde over the last two weeks. Inclusion, in and of itself is not sufficient. Communities need to be highly differentiated to be able to include, not just, the child sex offenders, but also, the immigrant, the poor, the homeless and anyone else thought of as ‘the other’. But how?

Vertical or horizontal?

Posted in Church with tags , , on June 5, 2009 by stephengardner

I was involved in a discussion recently concerning the structure of church services and the community’s involvement in the service… One of the values everyone agreed upon was the need for the church community to feel responsibility for one another and to express that as part of their duty to teach and admonish one another.

Initially the conversation revolved around ways in which that responsibility can be expressed in a church service. Including: prayer request moments, sharing/testimony spots, interviews and teaching each other in song – the basic value in each of these was that a variety of lay people should be involved in the service.

Soon after the conversation moved towards getting the balance right between the horizontal and the vertical. What I mean by that is, emphasising the gathering to teach and encourage one another (horizontal) and emphasising the gathering to worship together (vertical).


This provoked a thought; by emphasising the vertical in the church service don’t you manage to hit both anyway? By gathering together for corporate worship (lets not forget that’s what Church is) we, in a sense, enact what it is that gives us fellowship with one another. We come together in awe of Christ at Church, because we come together in Christ as he breaks down the wall that divided us. It is our union with him that has made us one.

I plan to post some more thoughts as to what doing ‘the vertical’ might look like a bit later…But in the meantime, I would be interesting to know how ‘vertical churches’ go at generating strong, healthy communities where people teach and admonish one another.

I’d be fascinated to hear where your church lands on this scale, and how your Church is going at generating a community that has responsibility for one another.

So, tell me…