You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. [Spoken by Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird“, by Harper Lee (1960)]
The quote above and the play on the saying in the heading are known for their attempt at getting us to consider understanding others: people not like me.
If church people are serious about what some of us call “mission”, or evangelism, or simply any sensible, authentic and transparent connection with Christian spirituality and people not part of the church, we need to consider and apply the type of understand the above quote is getting us to think about. How do people outside your local church context understand the church? …understand your church?
The church is very visible in contemporary society. It is almost certain that any adult who has been socialised in New Zealand, will have some perception of the church, no matter how minimal, because there are things in this country that either publicly display the church or are bound historically to church tradition, for example:
- It is impossible to drive through a New Zealand town or city without seeing church buildings, although sometimes these are now cafes, restaurants, art galleries, shops, or houses.
- Two of New Zealand’s longest statutory holidays are focused around Christian traditions: Christmas (the birth of Jesus), and Easter (now the death and resurrection of Jesus).
- Significant events that cause the country to pause and ponder also show clear representation of the church, such as Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral in January 2008 – where prayer, homilies and other Christian traditions were observed either live or on prime-time news bulletins.
- Almost 2.2 million New Zealanders (half of the population) watched on television the British royal wedding in 2011 between Prince William and Catherine Middleton. This royal event was centred on a formal and traditional Church of England church service.
- Across the country, ANZAC Day dawn services now attract thousands of attendees who stand through a traditional church service with hymns, prayers, and homily.
There are many other less passive examples that display the church in society, and I would like to talk about them another time.
The central issue for me when trying to understand people not part of the church, is not whether New Zealanders know of the church; rather, it is what meanings they make in connection to the church when they personally encounter “the spiritual” in their own lives.
Or, to put it another way, if for some reason a person not part of the church gains some sort of spiritual curiosity, in their understanding of the church through their socialised experience, would they consider the church a helpful place to explore this new spiritual curiosity? Or would their default place for exploration be something/somewhere else? Google perhaps?…
As you consider your own church’s engagement with it’s local context, is it useful for you to imagine being in the shoes, or skin, of someone not part of the church? Do you ever do this?
If you saw your church in someone else’s shoes today, what would you see?
Image: Bourke Street shoe shop, Melbourne, Mike Crudge.