The hard work of life together

Ian and I met as idealistic young adult Christians in an inner-city church located near a community of people living in a high-rise area of Melbourne. Despite living in close proximity, people struggled with isolation, discrimination and issues of broken trust. Our understanding of what it means to walk alongside people who fear violence and injustice in their immediate neighbourhood grew as we shared with troubled teens and their families.

Then, like many baby boomers during the 1970s, we travelled and studied overseas before settling to work in children’s homes in southern England. The team of care givers and their own children lived and shared their lives with 20 children from different cultural backgrounds including Africa, West Indies as well as UK, who were in long-term residential care. I remember scornful onlookers when pushing a well-sprung English pram containing a nine-month-old Nigerian baby, accompanied by two pre-schoolers from Nigeria and the West Indies when I was in my 38th week of pregnancy! What a contrast to the 20 wonder-filled faces of children who had experienced traumatic personal family lives when I brought my newborn home. Crucial to our ministry was the ordinariness of giving time and self to establish trust before we could effectively share our message of hope and reconciliation.

We later spent three years living in Christian community at theological college on the outskirts of Morpeth, New South Wales. This experience equipped us both pastorally and spiritually for parish ministry. As a community we shared gifts from God’s people on numerous occasions. Living by faith, we had just enough materially and so often a food parcel provided what we needed just in the nick of time. I learnt about grace in giving and dignity in receiving. However, issues of unrealistic expectations of fellow Christians and lack of clarity about the role of sending churches proved painful.

Community is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as “a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government and have a cultural and historic heritage”. The church is a body – a community – not a business. The model in Acts 2:42–47, the life of Barnabas, the ’one another’ verses of the Epistles, and the relationships reflected in the book of Acts and the apostles’ writings give us basic insight into the task before us. The same love requirement is incumbent upon the church of the 21st century with our own complex and ever-changing challenges. But what is the cost of striving to live in Christian community?

It seems that in Christian ministry and overseas mission work the biggest pain reported by members is in connection with Christian community living. Our experiences parallel similar issues for Interserve partners as they prepare to serve cross-culturally in places far from family and friend supports. From the experience of Paul (check out his listing in 2 Corinthians 6:4–10) we see that anyone practising true, biblical community life will experience much pain. We all fall short and fail each other. When we love deeply we also hurt deeply. We could choose to protect ourselves from much of this pain by staying at a safe distance from others and not committing ourselves too deeply to them. Alternatively, we could lower our standards and expectations to avoid much of the pain. However, Paul reminds us that Christianity is lived out in community. Attitudes and behaviours such as we read in Acts 2:42–46 and 3:32 must have been difficult to achieve and perhaps that is why Paul urges the believers in Philippi to work hard at achieving community (Phil 2:2; 4:2–3).

The Great Commandment to “love each other as I have loved you” is the essence of what we are to teach, how we are to disciple, and the way to develop Christian community. In many ways, though, it is when we share our vulnerability that Jesus opens doors for the community to minister with us.

Since Ian’s ordination for the Anglican Church in 1983 we have lived and served in several Australian towns: Bendigo, Kerang, Yackandandah and Heathcote as well as the Mornington Peninsular south of Melbourne. Our ministry and work has indeed been a family affair. Ian’s pastoral and teaching role, children at school, and community nursing assisted us to relate to locals in practical ways. Over time, opportunities arose to share God’s power for healing and translating the message of the gospel to reach people who had felt estranged from the church. The message of Jesus needed to be heard in new ways. The church congregations were often tiny and isolated from village culture but God’s people began to explain their faith and adjust worship styles and ministries to assist new members to understand the gospel message. The Great Commission is not complete until we have made disciples, ”teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.

Both of our daughters, together with their husbands and families, live their lives as incarnational ministers of the gospel. Ruth, David, Abby and Josh serve Jesus in South East Asia. Our second daughter Naomi and son-in-law Chris lived in South East Asia last year on a short-term assignment and are looking to serve cross-culturally in future. Ruth was ministered to by her local Christian community last year when she was very ill. David was away and she had sole responsibility for the children. The people in their slum neighbourhood rallied at her bedside in prayer. Children were fed and cared for by trusted church friends.

Currently we are transitioning from pastoral parish ministry to serve with a new community of believers through Interserve and related missionary organisations. As this unfolds we are honoured to partner with others who have the courage and conviction to serve Jesus in His global village in the community of faith.

From our experience, it would seem that the way we interact with the issue of suffering and pain in most churches and the way we ‘sell’ missions today do not always adequately prepare missionaries for life on the mission field. So often we highlight the excitement at the expense of the reality. Churches in the West may teach people how to respond to suffering but often fail to teach them about the indispensability of suffering – a doctrine clearly taught in the New Testament. If missionaries are truly going to identify with and become servants to those they serve, they will face severe frustrations, along with what initially looks like failure and fruitlessness.

As member care workers we want to encourage you to bear in mind constantly that suffering is an indispensable feature of discipleship and hence community life. Hopefully, then, when it comes we will not be so surprised and we can respond to it in a Christ-like manner. May your community life be enriched by the love of God as you grow in the ways of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.