A few months ago, I was asked to make some comments on a question that was being asked by a group of believers who had withdrawn from the “Institutional-Church Scene”, and were wondering what to do next.  They asked: “What SHAPE should a local church have?”

Whenever I have been prompted and inspired to make comments on a question, I have put my thoughts on this website.  So far, I have submitted two articles on the subject of the “Shape”. What follows here is a third train-of-thought that I believe to be very relevant.  (It looks likely to be the last article in the “Shape” series.)

It seems to me that the New Testament highlights two particular activities as being characteristic of a well-functioning local body of the People of God.  I call them “OTHERING” and “ONE-ANOTHERING”. By the first term I mean “being a blessing, as God leads us, to those who cross our paths, but are not fellow-believers”.  By the second term I mean “being a blessing, as God leads us, to those who are fellow-believers.”  “Othering” is simply following Jesus’ often-repeated command: “love your neighbour”; “One-Anothering” is following a similar, yet slightly different, command of Jesus: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35).  These two characteristics should certainly be part of the “shape” of a local church.

I said quite a lot, in the first “Shape” article, about the care and concern we should have for the people who are in our own local church family.  However, there is one other aspect of that which I suspect needs emphasising.  “One-Anothering” is a two-way process.  It involves both receiving and giving.  From time to time people e-mail me, or write to me, with a complaint along the following lines: “I don’t get much fellowship in our particular out-of-church group.  I am not given many opportunities to meet with others.  I am not often invited out.  It is only rarely that someone phones me, or calls round to see how I’m getting on.  It disappoints me that I don’t get more encouragement from my fellow-Christians.”

My reaction is to ask (I always try to do it gently, and in an uncritical manner): “Do you offer fellowship, as well as hoping to receive it?  Do you give others the opportunity to meet you?  Do you phone others to see how they are getting on, or call round to encourage them?  As Jesus says, on several occasions: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (e.g. Luke 6:31); and “Give, and it will be given to you…. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (e.g. Luke 6:38).  To deepen relationships, you have to reciprocate.  How are people to know that you are interested in contact with them, if they are the ones who have to do all the contacting?  Make sure that you give, as well as receive.

Sadly, I suspect that many Christians want to be on the receiving-end of fellowship, but are not very willing to be on the giving-end! You don’t need to invite people to your home for splendid banquets!  Just show them, even in low-key ways, that you are interested in keeping in touch with them, and most of them will respond.  In a well-functioning local church-group, “One Anothering” will be taken seriously.

In coining the phrase “Othering”, I was trying to point out that a local group of believers should not only be known for being a blessing to each other, but also for “Outreach” – being a blessing to those beyond their own particular circle. Traditionally, churches have made a big issue of “Organised Outreach” (or “Organised Othering”.)  There is nothing wrong with that, so long as it doesn’t block out “Spirit-Led Othering” at an individual level.  One of the reasons my wife and I left the Institutional Scene was that our timetable was so packed with church-centred activity that there was no time to respond to real people in real situations! I would say that a new church-group shouldn’t feel obliged to organise anything, but should emphasise, rather, what I call “Cross-My-Path Care”.  If we are clearly led to an excellent opportunity-to-care that requires organisation, so be it – but “Organised Othering” is not a necessary feature of the ‘shape’ of a local ‘called-out group’ so long as plain and simple “Othering” is a very high priority.

Sad to say, the activity that regularly crowds out “Othering”, in the lifestyle of church-groups, is over-attention to “One-Anothering”!  In Galatians 6:10, Paul writes: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Notice, Paul doesn’t say: “Do good…exclusively to those who belong to the family of believers”.  He only says “especially”, and I can understand why.  If we “encourage” one another, and “stir one another up to love and good works”, then those outside the church will be blessed in all sorts of ways.  Unfortunately, in too many groups (including those outside the official church) so much time is spent on fellow-Christians that very little (if any) time is left for “Others”.  Keep the balance right between “Othering” and “One-Anothering”.