Staying local, going global

At CSBC, we’re rethinking mission.

One of the tensions I wrestle with–both personally and for the church–is in balancing the missionary call of Jesus to the global (‘go into all the world’) and the local (‘love you neighbour as yourself’).  As someone deeply committed to the neighbourhood–the most immediate context for living and loving–I have to confess that whatever energy I have left to genuinely engage with global concerns is pitifully small.   I may well believe or say publicly all manner of things about our ‘global neighbourhood’, but the reality is I can’t be in two places at once.  Even in my head I struggle to think about more one thing at a time!

My brother Mark has given his life and energy to ministry overseas.  He works with Global Interaction in South East Asia.  In his absence, I am the keeper of his books. I was looking over them the other day, and found his copy of my book God Next Door.   I flicked through it and noticed he had underlined these words:

Just as loving one’s neighbour is simply a noble idea apart from the concrete realities of immediate relationships, so the call to mission is nothing more than a rousing trumpet blast apart from the tangible challenges of a particular place in which to live it.  God’s call is a call to place.  When Jesus bids us, ‘Come, follow me!’ he doesn’t call us into the ether, or even into the whole world for that matter.  He calls us into particular places, places that we can see, walk, smell and inhabit.  God’s call is not a call to be everywhere; it’s a call to be somewhere.

It encourages me to think my brother and I are in ‘the same page’ when to comes to what mission looks like.  That fact that he lives that call in place far away while I live it here is wonderfully encouraging to me.  Still, even as I am reassured, I am not let off the ‘global’ hook.  The nature of the world we inhabit means the global and local do not and cannot exist in isolation.  The are connected and profoundly so.  A local church like mine cannot choose one over the other.  Somehow, despite the tension it may cause, we must keep the two hand in hand.

Andrew Davey in his book Urban Christianity and the Global Order makes a similar point.  He says that falling captive to a simplistic analysis that rejects the global solely for the local is to fly in the face of the way the world is and, in fact, the essence of our Christian faith.

I want to suggest that a church that fails to realize its potential in this new context will find itself more and more reduced to individualistic pietism and dogmatic introspection.  The strengths of the Church must lie in its ability to hold the local and global in its own dynamic tension, as it seeks the practice of human freedom in the presence of God in whatever human arrangements it encounters at local, national, regional and global levels.  The Church needs to understand and realize its potential as it connects and affirms the communities and individuals in the margins of the global city, communities which comprise significant numbers of women, minorities and migrants–those who really do live on the fault lines and in the back alleys of the new global order.  While challenging the reshaping of the geography of power, the Christian faith is lived through presence(s), through communities that include, strengthen and give integrity to those at the margins.  Local pastoral praxis becomes simultaneously global political praxis.

If I understand Davey correctly, how we at CSBC engage locally has implications for the integrity and effectiveness of our global presence. That’s something I need to think more about!


A while back my daughter and I were sitting together on a tram. She was texting; I was reading.  Looking up for a moment she noticed the title of my book, and gave me one of those looks. ‘Seriously Dad,’ she said with something between mild pity and eye-rolling despair, ‘who would read a book about that?’

She’s right. I do make some odd choices, but when I saw this one on the shelf at Hill of Content—one of the most reassuring bookshops in Melbourne—I smiled and slipped out the credit card. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking was first released in 2000. Old news I guess, but it’s such a good book it keeps reappearing.

Perhaps my interest is tied to how much I walk. Willingly. In fact, it’s one of the pleasures of life. No mountain treks, nature trails or anything quite as virtuous. My nightly routine is to simply roam the streets and laneways of the city where I live. For me, walks like these are endlessly fascinating, space to think and breathe. To risk overstatement, it’s life restoring.

Solnit walks too, but just as significantly, she writes beautifully. What’s more, she is passionate about the place of walking in human development, cultural history and in our individual and communal wellbeing. Solnit ranges broadly in her book, from the evolutionary beginnings of bipedalism to the religious significance of pilgrimage and labyrinths. Following the poets and writers of great literature, we begin in the garden and journey beyond to the country lanes and then the mountains and wilderness. And finally we walk the city streets. Along the way we discover walking as creativity, pilgrimage, restoration, celebration, discovery, protest, endurance and achievement, well-being, consumerism and citizenship.

All in all, I was struck again with just how spiritual the act of walking can be.  And it is that for me, as much as any more explicitly religious practice of my life.  I often think of walking as a spiritual discipline of presence: presence to self and presence to place.

Presence to self: there is something about the pace and rhythm of walking that syncs the way I think and feel … slowly!  Solnit says the same: ‘I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.’   For me, walking is a choice to give the mind and heart the space they need to talk to each other.  In a way, it’s a practice of being present to myself, a means of personal awareness and wellbeing.  But its benefits, thankfully, go way beyond me.  What I am able to give to others deepens as a consequence.

Presence to place: for me, walking is also a routine discipline of being present to my neighbourhood … really noticing it.  It’s certainly true that we see places when we walk in a way that we would never see them otherwise.  As Solnit says, when we walk we give ourselves to places and, in turn, they return the favour: ‘when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.’

Sacred spaces

A couple of days back I suggested here that the connection between spirituality and place is a significant one; that the values of beauty and transcendence are important to the spaces we set aside for worship. More than anything, I wanted to put my hand up for the unique role church buildings play in the landscape of the city.  Every Sunday I lead worship in one of those churches, a beautiful sanctuary of historical importance: ‘Australia’s grandest church in the classical tradition,’ they say.  It’s a magnificent space, one where people have gathered for close to 170 years to worship God. If a place can be classified sacred, then surely this one qualifies.

That said, the word sacred has always troubled me. Like its associated word holy, it carries a sense of demarcation. Here is sacred; there is not. This is holy; that is not. At worst, designating particular places sacred infer islands of spiritual meaning amidst oceans of  … meaninglessness.  Surely not.

As I sit this morning on the church’s ‘verandah’ looking out over the street below, it feels as though the sacredness of this place is in its connection, not its difference.   Street and sanctuary are one in history, story, place … even future.  In fact, the word sanctuary is meaningless without the neighbourhood around it.  After all, this is Collins Street Baptist Church.  Context is essential to its identity and existence.  Perhaps, to draw on John Taylor’s imagery of The Go-Between God, sacredness is found in the in-between of church and street. Sacredness comes in the relationship.

I have mentioned before Charles Ringma’s understanding of worship as a ‘disclosure situation’ … or was it JG Davies?  Whoever it was, the idea is when we gather with other Christians to worship, we are learning to discern and recognise holiness elsewhere; it heightens our sensitivity to the holy in all the other places of life. Rather than demarcating one place or activity from everything else, it challenges us to a spirituality of integration. Once we understand what makes this place sacred, we see every place with new eyes. Once we discern the holiness of God here, we’ll recognise that holiness all around us.

What that means to me is that a church building, as sacred as it might be, is never a hiding place. Its holiness is in its ability to launch us into the sacredness of life elsewhere, life in all its fulness and diversity. Collins Street included.

Places of soul

I listened to a panel discussion recently in which participants were invited to envision the Australian church twenty years into the future. There were some challenging things said, but one comment made several times has replayed in my head since.

It was suggested that the thriving church of tomorrow will have almost nothing to do with buildings, but gatherings of people in homes, pubs and cafes. And where church buildings do come into play, they will look more like multi-purpose spaces with porous edges into the surrounding neighbourhood. The church as a sacred building will fade away, it was predicted, as the organic and integrated community of faith flourishes.

Part of me wholeheartedly agrees, even hopes for something similar. For a long-term supporter of the house-church movement, there is so much about this open, fluid and integrated vision of church that resonates. All space and every aspect of life is sacred. Still, another part of me hesitates.

The city of Melbourne is home to some magnificent religious architecture—churches and cathedrals with sweeping spires and hallowed interiors. As I walk the city, I often wonder to myself what difference it would make to Melbourne if all of these churches were bulldozed and replaced with more commercial office towers, retail centres or even public plazas. How different would the city feel? Would it matter? I think it would, even to those who never venture inside. The fact is, architecture is a powerful expression of history and meaning. The very presence of these churches stands in contrast to the towers of capitalism that surround them, a reminder that there is more. At their best, buildings like these point beyond themselves to a spirit of deeper and higher things.

Granted, I’m more than a bit conflicted in this. Being a minister of one of those churches, I could well be accused of self-interest. But I don’t think it’s that. I have felt this way for too long. The truth is I need my occasional visits to St Paul’s or St Patrick’s. My soul needs them. My sense is that whatever shape the church of the future takes, there will never cease to be a legitimate human need for buildings that speak distinctively to the spirit—places of soul.

While I am all in favour of community centres and multi-purpose spaces that blend faith and community, I wonder sometimes if we are not in danger of losing something of value if this is our only architectural goal.  As I walked through our church sanctuary one day last week, there was a man sitting alone in the pews, a visitor from interstate. I stopped to talk with him. As I left him he said to me, ‘this feels like a place where people know God.’ Indeed. While I am not suggesting cathedrals on every corner, perhaps we need to remember that worship and place have a deep and time-honoured connection.

A Capital read

Another book I’ve enjoyed in the last couple of years is Kristin Otto’s Capital, a terrific read that looks at Melbourne during its brief period as the national capital of Australia. Ok, so it’s not riveting subject matter to everyone, but I reckon it’s great!

Otto begins the story on New Year’s Day 1901 at the birth of the Commonwealth and ends in 1927 when the Federal Parliament packed its bags and headed to Canberra. Its an eclectic gathering of stories, but nicely tied together. The result is an entertainingly coherent narrative that moves along at good pace and reads easily.

First and foremost it’s a story of people. Otto favours the power brokers, the influencers and celebrities: the Prime Ministers, from Barton to Bruce; Australia’s first international megastar Nellie Melba; the queen of cosmetics Helena Rubinstein; wealthy socialite and philanthropist Janet, Lady Clarke; confectioner Mac Robertson with his white factories and matching suits; engineer and war hero John Monash; founder of the city’s beloved department store, Sidney Myer; writer and poet C.J. Dennis; and Murdoch the newspaper mogul. But interwoven with these are glimpses into the life of ordinary Melburnians, where they lived, what they were reading, how they shopped and what they did with their spare time.

It’s also a story of places; the grand Exhibition Building, host to the opening of Australia’s first Parliament; the Coles Book Arcade, the world’s largest book store; the city’s Public Library, an engineering feat; the instantly successful Luna Park; the Burley-Griffin’s Cafe Australia, ‘perhaps the most beautiful cafe in the world;’ and the Flemington race track, home to the city’s obsession, the Melbourne Cup.

And it’s a story of events, many of them life changing: the birth of a nation; the death of a beloved Queen and the enthronement of a King; and of course the War in which a third of a million Australian men volunteered to fight. In a country of less that five million, the sacrifice was defining and its impact upon this city extraordinary.

All in all, for those who love this city, Capital is a fascinating read and a good reminder that our hometown story is as captivating as any other.