The Church and its “Underbelly”
By Charles Ringma tssf
This heading may strike you as rather strange. You may even think that there is something underhanded or even sinister about this. Or you may think that with the reference to underbelly that I am referring to something like a corrupt cohort of police in a police precinct or the mafia in a society, and that this somehow refers to the church. I have no such thing in mind. But there is something strategic and counter-cultural at play here.
I use the term underbelly, deliberately and provocatively. And this is because with our focus on the institutional nature of the church we often neglect thinking about the laity and their role in the kingdom of God and the goodness they bring to society. They might as well be the underbelly.
Let me get straight to the point. It is evident that more and more the church and its other institutions will have to function under increasing governmental regulations. I am not suggesting that this is bad. It is simply a fact of contemporary life, and these institutions should be safe and accountable entities.
However, there are a number of concerns. 1. Church and its related institutions will need to spend more of its time and resources on governmental compliance issues. 2. This could result in this becoming the “main” game. 3. And as consequence, the main game of being a servant of Christ and a witness to the world could get lost or compromised.
In the light of the above, I wish to suggest that the church and its related institutions should develop more of an underbelly. This underbelly is the laity as the “scattered” faith-community doing its informal activities such as friendship building, caring, practising hospitality, mentoring, praying, and acting into the world. All of this, while under the nurturing care of the church, is beyond any regulation by the state or other entity. No one can stop me from bringing someone home for help, or providing food for a needy neighbour. And above all, no can stop me praying or mentoring a friend or colleague. And building families of safety, nurture, care, and resilience with spiritual values, is thankfully also something one can do without outside regulation.
While the church and its related institutions, particularly as these continue to get government support, will need to be compliant because these are professional and social entities, there is another dimension to the church. This is the members of the church as they live their lives at home, at work, and in the neighbourhood. And these members can do a lot of good both informally, practically, and strategically.
These members of the faith-community constitute the “informal” face of the church – the underbelly. They are the “non-professionals” in the art of loving care.
What I am discussing here is something we see in the general community when there are bushfires or a flood or a drought. Ordinary people in these circumstances do a lot in helping their neighbours and they do so alongside of the governmental and other social-group supports that are provided.
We also see this in the life of the church. There are all sorts of friendship and other informal “groups” that exist in the broader life of the church, and there are many individuals who act on their own to help others.
Historically, when Hong Kong was to be handed back to China, the churches did a lot to form informal care and nurture groups in the life of the church. And in the long history of Christianity groups have been formed alongside of the parish church – including cenobitic communities and groups like the Clapham “Sect” just to name two.
Now it is true that over time informal groups can become institutionalised as was the case with monasticism, just to mention one. But this makes my central concern all the more pressing. And that is that we need to continue to facilitate, train, nurture the informal activities of the “scattered” church in its activities of Monday through to Saturday. And this means the empowerment of the laity. And it also means that members of the church need to gain a new identity – no only longer consumers of religious services by Christian professionals, but full participants in the joy of seeing the seeds of the kingdom of God springing up everywhere.
If this underbelly is not nurtured, then my concern is that the institutional church of the future may become a more and more hampered institution concerned with its own survival and less with its mission in the world.
And who would say that the church as institution only can do more than the combined activities of its members in the art of care and influencing others with the gospel and caring love?