It’s been more than a year now since the Kerikeri congregation experienced something unique in the life of a congregation.  Coming to church on Sunday morning meant coming to a place that was not only fresh and new and unlike any traditional building but fresh and new to everyone attending.  Those who had been part of the Sunday group as if forever and those who came along for the first time, plus everyone in between, we equally could make ourselves at home.

And for me, leading as much as I can through words and actions, I could feel an equal open relationship with everyone present.  I could sense the even greater variety and difference among us.

We weren’t all “church” people.  We knew we didn’t all have a common history.  We could each be present with our own histories and life experiences.

In theory we can acknowledge that we are each unique and there are differences among us.  But an established church congregation develops an inner culture, a sense of shared understanding, and a common voice that probably reflects more the strongest voices than the voices of all.  You’ll hear phrases like  “We all know that…”  “We remember when…”  “We believe…”

But what if you’re present and you don’t know that, or remember when, or believe the same?

That’s the feeling of being an outsider.  I’ve known it often over the years, particularly attending church services elsewhere, and have worked hard to express something different, something that gives room for everyone, including this odd-bod me.

So the Kerikeri congregation had a unique opportunity at the turn of the year 2016/2017 and we took it and I’ve been told it was working.  I felt it – here was church that I could want to be part of always (and would miss terribly when I left).

I have a feeling that we’re now settling in, settling down.  And we’re at risk of losing something very precious.  I’ve felt the pull towards familiarity, regular patterns, sameness.  I’m told others are feeling it.  Could be that we’re not as inclusive as before.

Being present on Sunday mornings – at Kaeo and at Kerikeri – does mean being part of something that has familiar elements and something of a regular routine.  New people have always been joining our groups, and they seem soon to find their way to belong.  Often they’ve come with experience of church elsewhere and that gives a link – being familiar with church culture.

The biggest barrier to growing participation, from beyond those already “churched”, is this church culture, this sense that we all know what’s going on, or if we don’t we’re not really part of it yet.

As church, our chosen mission (God’s mission for us) is to be “Community Commons” and that’s as a community of faith as much as through our buildings.  “Commons” by definition are places open to all, all equally belonging.  Traditionally they were places to bring live-stock to graze; here and now it’s for people coming for spiritual refreshment.

We will grow our congregations when we are this for any who come.  We simply need to remember that we are all different.   This is a “we all” statement we can safely make: we all come with our own unique stories.  We build connections, but we don’t lose our individuality, and we can never presume what I know or think or feel matches the other person alongside me.   We build community by listening to one another’s uniqueness, sharing our own stories, marvelling at the diversity, and enjoying the spiritual richness that results.

In this we experience a unifying spirit among us.  That surely is the Spirit of Christ, weaving continuing and growing threads of Christ-like people.

Rangimarie Peace Shalom, Robyn