I have just had a great weekend with my brother’s family in Aylesbury. My brother Martin is Chairman of the Aylesbury Churches Network and they put on a brilliant Fun Day as part of the Town’s Park Life weekend where around 4000 people came for football, bouncy castles, face painting, burgers and loads of great games. Everything was free and everyone had a great time. The next day I was speaking at an ‘Church in the Park’ service where the town’s congregations gathered – most of them having cancelled their own services in order to meet together. Despite the drizzle there was a good turnout and it was a privilege to speak.
I met some brilliant people, including some former homeless people who had been served by the church’s Winter Warmth project where 7 different churches provide a night of accomodation each. One guy had been sleeping rough in the town centre car park but now he had accommodation with a member of one congregation and was attending another congregation. It was fantastic to hear a bit of his story.
The whole weekend was a great example of a fruitful partnership between a wide range of congregations and the local council. And who benefits from this growth of trust and relationships? The town itself. Alyesbury is a better place because of this unity.
A long way from Buckinghamshire, in a completely different context, Krish Kandiah posted a powerful blog entry called Processing Poverty about his reactions to visiting the slums in Kibera in Kenya. Krish wrote:
“Talking to some church leaders here, it was reported to me that the Kibera slum – arguable Africa’s biggest slum, has over 3000 NGOs working in it. Most of them are Christian run. On the one hand this is a huge credit to the church for getting its hands dirty and getting involved…But the report of 3000 agencies makes me wonder if they could be working together better…I know this is not just a Christian problem – the non faith based NGOs often have the same problems. But we Christians have got to sort this one out. I have seen in many situations that due to either tiny theological differences, large egos, nationalistic pride or often sheer pigheadedness Christians refuse to work together.”
Aylesbury and Kibera are very different and cannot be compared. But the issue of overcoming the disunity between Christians and the organisations and churches they run is a global problem. Too often it is tiny theological differences, large egos, pride and pigheadedness that stop us from coming together.
Disunity is a key reason why the church is treated with suspicion by those outside. Being focussed on your institution, your denomination at the exclusion of others is never attractive. Most people can easily see the difference between simply wanting to pull someone else into your group (proselytising) and those who have a genuine interest in the welfare of the community.
This is why I believe so much in the work of Love Streatham, our local network of congregations. At a recent prayer meeting the night after the worst of the London riots, former youth worker, now Pastor, Kevin Kerr spoke about how he had been amazed to see three separate Clapham gangs who normally hated each other, actually working together to loot shops. He said:
“If the gangs who hate each other and are stabbing each other and are killing each other can work together to loot shops, how much more should we work in unity as Christians?”
It’s an important challenge – the cost of our disunity is too high. In both the large scale events I saw this weekend, and in the individual stories of transformed lives, I saw the fruits of unity. It shows the truth of the African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.’