Last year I spoke at a weekend away for St Mary’s Church in Islington. When I arrived in my room at the conference centre, there was an envelope on my bed with a card welcoming me. And inside the card was a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
The card asked me to bring the jigsaw piece to the main room where we later met as a group. And at the back of the room was the frame of an empty jigsaw. Each of us had to find the place where our piece fitted. Gradually, through working together, the picture below emerged, formed from the different pieces which we brought.
Both the picture that was made and the way it which was created was a beautiful and powerful illustration of the Church:
Almost all urban churches are highly diverse communities. Diversity is one of those issues that is easy to write and speak about as an ideal, but far harder to live out in reality. Sharing life with people who do and see things differently is never easy.
Yet it is in its diversity that the beauty of any community is most evident. The Church should never be a social club of like-minded people. It is a place where the walls which divide people come down because they have found a focus for unity which transcends all other boundaries.
I see this in the Sunday services in my church where people from over 50 different countries worship together each week. I see it in my diverse mid-week home-group which meets in my house where we gather to share our lives, troubles and hopes and try to help each other to keep following Jesus.
I see this in the Winter Night Shelter run by 13 different churches (and a synagogue) coordinated by the West London Mission. Instead of arguing over theological differences, these churches work together with generosity and kindness to help homeless people come off the streets.
I see this in the Lee Abbey youth camp that I am part of every summer where 150 people come together to form a community and to help young people find hope and identity in Jesus. The simple beauty of the place and the warmth of community makes it my favourite week of the year.
As Lesslie Newbigin wrote “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.”
Of course the church gets things wrong. Only this week we have seen the terrible examples of abuse being exposed within Christian youth camps. Trust and faith can make church cultures vulnerable to those who want to abuse others.
We should never flinch from complete honesty about the failings of the Church. As the Bible makes clear, weakness and treachery were part of the church from the very start.
As anyone who reads this blog will know, I believe the church should be deeply engaged in the struggle for social justice. But, this fruit does not grow without healthy roots. Ultimately, the social and political impact of the church is dependent on the way it forms communities of those who are committed to following Jesus.
And alongside all the social and community projects I have been involved in, some of the biggest joy in my life has come from seeing close friends make their own steps of faith. To discover for themselves the meaning and transformation the gospel brings. For me, this will always remain the radical core from which all else flows.
Individuals within a collective
The jigsaw puzzle is a brilliant picture of the Church: a collective enterprise made up of many different individual pieces. Each one with a part to play to create something beautiful.
At its best, the Church is a ‘beloved community’. A place where each of us can find our own true identity in God’s love and forgiveness and find a vital role to play in sharing that love.