“It’s terribly fashionable. The church needs to be seen there.”
This was something a member of the church where I’m about to become an assistant curate said to me, while talking about a particular local café. On one level it’s a fairly innocuous comment. On another level, the subtext was very clear; “the church needs to be seen there” meant, I think you should make a point of going there. It was my first encounter with the social expectations a church can have of its ministers. Not the expectations about how you can do the formal, easily identified parts of your job (like how you preach), but the expectations about the stuff that’s harder to define, about how you engage the local community and build networks of relationships beyond the formal membership of the church.
And it posed a number of problems for me. The church needs to be doing a lot of things, but I’m not sure that hanging out in the cool places, hoping to be recognised as some of the cool kids, is one of them. Oh, sure, I recognise the argument that runs like this: in this secular age when the militant atheists are selling the idea that churches are irrelevant at best and agents of oppression and abuse at worst, showing that Christians are not only normal people, but people who can engage with the cultural and intellectual life of the world with the best of them, making a contribution and being recognised for who we are, makes us more palatable and is likely to encourage those around us to take our message more seriously. And there’s something to be said for that idea; retreating into social isolation and refusing to engage isn’t going to contribute to an environment in which evangelism is well received. It’s also true that if we have established networks of relationships with influential people in government, in business, in academia and so forth, that when we want something from them, or want to work with them in achieving some aspect of our mission, it’s much easier to do that. So I’m not opposed to the idea of relational networks with the world, more concerned that the shape of those networks be formed by what’s “terribly fashionable.”
Then there’s the apparent equivalence of “the church” with “ordained ministers.” The church is the community of all the baptised; sure, those of us who are ordained have particular roles of leadership, teaching, and so forth; but if “the church” needs to be doing something, that doesn’t automatically mean it falls into the minister’s job description by default. I’d almost want to argue the opposite; unless for some reason a particular task requires an ordained person (and let’s face it, very few do), if “the church” needs to do something, it’s the responsibility of the whole community to ensure it happens. So if you’re convinced that “the church” needs to be connected in with the local café, don’t wait for the minister to do it; feel free to go in, buy a coffee and strike up conversation with the barista yourself. Even better, organise for your small group to have a regular outing there. Because the likelihood is, you can do just as much good by doing so as I will by getting my early-morning caffeine fix in a clerical collar.
The situation has other aspects to consider too. The “terribly fashionable” café in question is, (as I understand it), not modestly priced. Is its fashionable status reason enough to pay more for what I might get just as well elsewhere? (And let’s be painfully honest here, it’s not as if the church is going to pay me enough for me to have lots of money to waste on frivolous things, either). What are the ethics of our economical decisions, and what is a presence in the local social hot spots worth in financial terms? How do we measure that? Is this really wise stewardship of limited resources? Do we even compromise our integrity in the eyes of some if they see us apparently prioritise expensive coffee over, say, providing assistance to our community’s most financially vulnerable? And yet, what’s the opportunity cost in kingdom terms if we refuse to engage? How do we measure that? I’m at a loss to come to immediate answers.
Of course, there are more personal questions in play. This café’s claim to fame is its marvelous coffee. I don’t even drink coffee, it makes me feel ill! It seems silly to go out of my way to a specialty coffee shop and then order an ordinary tea, or a hot chocolate, and avoid the whole point of the place.
And there’s something else, too. This is one expectation from one person. No doubt she has others. Multiply that across the whole congregation, where each person will have their own expectations, and I might well end up running myself ragged just trying to ensure that I’m “seen” in all the right places, seen to be doing the right things, and neglecting what it is that God would have me do in this community. On the one hand, the members of the parish are going to be the best guides to the local church and area, and help me to orient myself to my ministry context, but to what extent should I let their expectations, their sense of their corporate identity and local community shape my ministry, and to what extent should I challenge those things? Ministry can be a delicate balance of competing demands.
So what to do? Shall I make this café a priority in the early days of my new role? Shall I anxiously avoid it, wondering if I am overlooking something important? I have no idea yet. But I hope that whatever I decide on this, and all the other similar expectations to come, that I can make that decision in a way which is well thought through and in line with God’s purposes for this community, rather than simply being blown hither and thither by every demand.