Steve Collins: Small Fire

October 2001
Coffee and campfires
Previous Small Fires

Comment on this column Cathy Kirkpatrick MUCH OF WHAT FOLLOWS derives from time I spent recently with Cathy Kirkpatrick and her husband Andrew Lorién, at Greenbelt and Epicentre. Cathy was the co-author of The Prodigal Project, a book subtitled, "journey into the emerging church", published last year. She and Andrew produced the CD-ROM which accompanied the book.

Cathy and Andrew were founder members of neighbouring church experiments in Sydney; Cathy's was called Cafe Church, Andrew's was Plunge. Both experiments explored similar territory: Cafe Church is the more famous version of church as cafe, where the structures of worship fit around the expression of community over food and drink, rather than vice versa.

If church is the gathered community of believers, then cafe can be church, every bit as much as a worship service. The difference between a cafe church and Starbucks is intent – we are gathered as believers, aware of and open to the presence of God.

Cathy is no longer a member of Cafe Church. She left, after great heartsearching and with enormous grief, when the majority decided to become part of their denomination's structures; a move she believes profoundly undermines the ethos of what had been created.

She asks: do we, the people on the fringes of the institution, think our job is to feed new people into the beleaguered centre to strengthen it again? Or is the institution beyond saving or not worth saving, and our job is to model ways of living the kingdom of God without it? She, and I, believe the latter.

IF ALL FORMS OF CHURCH were closed down for 10 years, what would you do to maintain and express your faith? To Cathy, the obvious answer is to meet together over meals. After her latest struggle with the institution, Cathy says, "Meals are where I'm up to with church. If it's not as good as a meal I'm not interested."

There's been much talk among mission-minded Christians of people needing to belong before they believe, just as the first disciples followed Christ long before they believed in him as God. Fair enough, but how do people who are not believers belong to something whose chief expression of community is a belief-centred act of worship? If that's what's on offer from the Church then it's hardly surprising that non-believers don't hang out with us.

Our communities, to be penetrable by non-believers, need to be expressed in other ways. Eating and drinking together are the supremely accessible acts of fellowship – but it only works if eating, drinking and hanging out are "the point", and not just a pretext for evangelistic conversation or the prelude to an act of worship. To give other people what they want, no strings attached, is surely in itself a demonstration of godly love – an interest in them for themselves, not because of any purposes we might have.

But where, people ask, is the place for evangelism in this? How do we bear explicit witness to God's work in our lives? The answer as practised at Cafe Church and Plunge lies in giving one another permission to speak honestly – permission to be passionate without ridicule. Each person given room to speak freely and be listened to with respect, not shut up or trampled on.

Whoever disagrees can say so in their turn, and be heard with similar respect. It is understood, one is talking about one's own beliefs and feelings; there is no pressure for the listener to agree. But still, the message has been given. And our listening in turn is itself a message of unselfish love.

THIS PRINCIPLE WORKS OUT in various ways. The give and take of the dinner table is one way. Another, as practised at Plunge, is giving the creation of an entire evening's worship to one person with the explicit agreement that everyone would go along with whatever was presented. Those that didn't like it would get their turn to do their own thing. Those that knew beforehand that they weren't going to like it would still take part out of love.

This principle of turns surely does wonders for community. How can you leave, saying you can't stand the worship, when you can do it the way you want next week?

There is a section in the Prodigal Project where Cathy writes about heading into unknown territory as explorers and pioneers. These are the regions marked "here be dragons" on old maps. Most stay at home for fear of the dragons; few think that there is anything to be discovered by foolhardy quests. But again and again God has called his people into unknown territory, ever since Abram left Haran. At times, like the present, staying put is not an option. To travel is dangerous, to remain is fatal.

The campfires of Christian communities on the move light the unmapped expanse; beacons for travellers, places of refreshment and shelter, places to share wisdom and warnings about the road. A campfire works by attraction not compulsion; it doesn't have a boundary fence. It's open to approach, and there's a sacred duty of hospitality.

The trouble is, we're tempted to take our visitors hostage. As soon as they drop their guard we tie them up to prevent them leaving. "It's for your own good," we say. "Don't you know it's dark out there?"

The assumption is that those who leave our campfire are choosing the darkness, rather than heading for the next campfire on a continuing journey with God. As if campfires were in competition. As if they were final destinations.

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