“I like ‘love first.’ I just don’t like the church.”
I was having a conversation with Cindy (name changed) and we had gotten around to the topic of the Sunday gatherings I had been trying to get more people from Kathleen Avenue to come to. After all, the gatherings were for their benefit, and the gatherings were held locally.
We had begun a Sunday gathering immediately following a North Atlanta Church of Christ summer mission trip. The North Atlanta church had been coming to Sarnia for 10 years, doing 2 week long summer mission trips, and sharing the “love first” message through their work, teaching, and branding. We had hoped to capitalize on their trip to build momentum for our gatherings as we worked to plant the Love First Church.
We initially met in the public park towards the Indian Road end of Kathleen Avenue. On Sundays, a few of us gathered to put up shade tents, set up our sound system, and hang our banner. Our gatherings were well attended in the beginning. But as summer gave way to fall, we had to consider moving indoors. And with that movement indoors, attendance at our Sunday gathering cratered.
Cindy stuck out to me as a person to talk to about this because she “reps” the idea of “love first” on Kathleen Avenue. She is in regular contact with members from the North Atlanta Church of Christ, who initially brought the “love first” message to Sarnia over the course of their 10 year summer mission trip project. She talks about her North Atlanta friends. She throws around “love first” in conversations. She even has the “love first” sticker on her mailbox.
So I was taken aback when she made that comment.
At first, I really struggled with it. I’ll admit, I was actually angry that someone could say that. How could someone identify with “love first” but have nothing to do with the church that teaches that message?
I have since learned, through many conversations and observations, that folks on Kathleen Avenue see “love first” as a value. They can separate the value from the organization that teaches that value, and hence, they don’t have any particular utility for, or allegiance to, the Love First Church. Folks on Kathleen would not express it this way, but they are doing theology as they relate “love first” to their lives. In some sense, the church is active in this work.
Pete Ward, in his excellent book that melds ecclesiological studies (“ecclesiology” is the academic study of the church) with ethnography (“ethnography” is an academic discipline that comes out of anthropology and studies the lived experience of people groups), Liquid Ecclesiology, writes about a “liquid church” versus a “solid church.” A solid church is defined by its meeting and what happens there. A liquid church focuses on the fluidity of the presence and activity of God in both church structures and social locations (pgs. 6-11).
If we operate out of a liquid ecclesiology, we can see that it is natural for Kathleen Avenue folks to identify with the “love first” value but not with the organized church. The activity and presence of God is located in the “sociality” (Liquid Ecclesiology, p. 6) of their intertwined lives, social networks, and neighbourhood problems. These relationships and interrelationships provide a fluidity where God is at work.
To be clear, I am not calling those relationships “church.” I am hinting, however, that there is something ecclesiological about them by virtue of the presence and activity of God being located in that sociality. “Church,” in a secular culture, might be a function more than a form.
I bring up secular culture because that is the milieu of the Canadian society. Canada is secularized. A secular society proceeds on the basis of natural and humanistic considerations, with a clear separation (and even suppression) of religious beliefs and activities from public life and institutions.
I’ve gotten technical for a bit, but it’s important to begin fleshing out the way the Canadian secular culture, and secularity in general, impacts our work here in Sarnia. A (not the) way forward includes equipping interested people in “grounding practices” that teach them how to locate the fluid presence of God in their relationships and in the broader culture around them. “Church” might function as something like a discernment group, where members share in common practices--both in their common meeting and away from it--that tie them together in looking for the fluid places where the Spirit of God goes and is.
Let’s circle back around to Cindy. What might it look like, and even mean, to teach her to pray? To pray with her? To meet with her and one other twice a week to ask simple questions like,
The key for mission work in secular culture is to help people gain “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” what God is up to around them.