This post follows after 'Communities of God' and 'Loneliness'. I wrote this post based on my personal experience in church and also in my Christian community in university, and I learnt that caretakers of a structured community are often able to make or break a community. I will also add in what I see people doing and the outcomes of their actions.
Who are the Caretakers (of a community)?
What is our role as Caretakers
The next one, I am especially convicted about and also aim to do it in every community I am in. It is about being family to the people - including being their fathers and mothers. The Bible has this to say about how God sees His people, mirroring the relationship between caretakers and their flock:
Isaiah 40:11 ESV - Like a shepherd He will tend His flock: in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
What happens if we don't do our role well?The truth is, even if you don't do it well, there may not be obvious damage done to the community. Perhaps the culture of the community is such that the caretakers need not do much and people will still meet, fellowship and grow. Praise God for the previous generations of caretakers who built the culture. Or perhaps God is divinely intervening to open up the hearts of people towards one another. Regardless, none is to your credit and you're like, "sure, I don't need glory or recognition." If you're thinking like this, I can confidently tell you that God is sighing at you. You have not understood His heart. Communities are structures that act like a bridge into people's hearts and lives; a bridge that God Himself will walk on. (That is the reason for the picture at the top of this post.) The bridge needs to be maintained, to be enlarged, to be improved and upgraded upon, so that more of God can come into the person through the community and interactions within. If not, eventually this bridge will suffer damage and eventually crumble, due to wear and tear and the devil's assaults. Even the best bridges will one day crumble, much less the fact that in most communities, the bridges are so so so far from perfect.
So how do we do our role well?I wish to suggest some possible ways by which we can address issues in our communities, and I want to focus on the relationship component of the caretakers and the flock (not the physical 'doing' aspect). This list is obviously not exhaustive, but what I think are common issues plaguing most communities. I will be using Luke 19:1-10 and 'not being fully inclusive' as a case study to be extrapolated for addressing other issues.
Not being fully inclusive
What I think as caretakers we can draw from this passage is firstly that we should not be too wary and afraid of addressing the excluded people (or even singling them out, with wisdom and tact of course). Everyone probably knows Zacchaeus's status and his flaws and sins of cheating and extorting fellow Jews for personal benefit (v2, as all tax-collectors were doing in those days). But the passage never mentions if everyone knows that he was on the sycamore-fig tree (v4), or that he too was interested in and waiting for Jesus (v3). Likewise, in our communities, as caretakers we may know who feels excluded or less connected - but sometimes we try to ignore or sweep them under the carpet, not realizing that they too are interested in God and are unknowingly trying to grow and know more about Him. Then Jesus, in full view of the public, talked to Zacchaeus and established contact with him (v5). Now everyone knows about Zacchaeus's effort, and I'm sure there are some in the crowd who thinks that this terrible tax-collector might actually have another side to him. Most sermons would see Jesus' public dialogue with Zacchaeus as a sign that Jesus was not afraid of the judgment of the community and that the souls of people matter to Him more. I agree, but could it have also been intentional and intended for Jesus to do what He did? Jesus could have simply waited for the crowd to disperse (eventually) and then sought out Zacchaues, or He could have simply visited Zacchaeus' house directly or sent someone to tell him to visit Jesus at His lodging. But no, Jesus chose to make his existence, and probably his needs too, known to the entire community. Are we afraid of making known our brothers' or sisters' needs by exposing (in a sense) these needs in the name of 'protecting their feelings'? Or are we actually afraid of talking to the crowd (not knowing their response) about our beloved brothers and sisters, as Jesus possibly was actually doing? Sometimes, it's not that people do not want to include others in the community, but they are often awkward or do not know where and when to start. By pointing it out, we can help in rising them to action.
The second point I want to raise in the passage, is about building personal relationships with people who are excluded. This one we are more familiar: Jesus' insistence and enthusiasm for going to Zacchaeus' house (v5, 'I MUST... TODAY.') were seen as as a desire to be associated with and have a personal friendship and relationship with Zacchaeus, despite his labels and statuses. Also, I heard that it was customary for people to visit one anothers' house to 'hangout' in those days. But I'm sure that there are other hangout places around. So it may be that Jesus wanted to spend extended time with Zacchaeus. Having repented of his sins and accepting Jesus into his life (v10), I'm sure Zacchaeus had doubts and questions and would want to use the opportunity of having Jesus at his place to clarify all these, because Jesus had shown Himself to be one who was fiercely 'for' him. And this close relationship eventually would bring him closer to God in heart and deeds. If Jesus, miracle-maker and renowned rabbi, welcomed somebody, who would and could and dared to reject the person? At most they could only secretly bear some dislike in their hearts, but nobody would act openly. Only then would they start to view and think about the person objectively, instead of continuously building their disdain for others upon their negative actions and attitudes. Likewise, caretakers have a special influence amongst the community. Build a personal relationship with the person and once he/she is assured of your love and commitment, he/she will be much more willing to combat the wounds and lies in their hearts as he/she embrace the imperfect community, knowing that you are 'on their side'. You will also become more approachable and less daunting to them, just as Jesus was to Zacchaeus. Give the less-included a reason to give the community a chance through you, and give the community a chance to accept and accommodate the excluded, through you. Be the minister of reconciliation, remembering that "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all....." - Ephesians 4:4-6a
A personal advice (not from the passage above) I have for caretakers about pre-empting potential damages/cost/issues. When I was a year 1 student in university, there were a lot of people my batch who joined the faculty's Christian fellowship with me; I think about 20 or so. In the next semester, it dwindled to an unspeakable amount as many left, probably because of other increasing pressures such as academics and their own personal reasons. But I also feel that surely in part it is because they do not find that they benefit much from the fellowship, which I attribute to the lack of feelings of inclusion. As for me, I was usually attending the same session as the seniors. What's more, I also went for the annual bible study camp organized by the fellowship, where I gained precious friends that made me feel that this is where I belong. Thus, personally knowing that the threat of not feeling included is real and dangerous, for the next batch of year 1s, I pre-empted it and made an intentional effort to establish personal relationship with every single one of them. Some of these friendships were not very deep because there are so many of them and only one of me, but a difference was made. For this batch, the number of people who remained after the first year was easily more than double of what remained, and many of these people eventually came along to serve God alongside me and became my treasures in this fellowship :D (my subcommittee of 2015, if you're reading this, shout-out to you <3 !) As a caretaker, let's not be lazy and wait for the issues to come knocking on our door! Let's use our experience and wisdom and support from the community to give them our best!
Communities which have lots of disagreements and conflict: The caretaker, again, must be courageous enough to point out the 'Zacchaeus', which are the issues of conflict within the community. Also, strive to be the minister of reconciliation amongst the conflicting parties (even if the parties themselves are caretakers as well) through personal and cordial relationships; be the bridge so they can realize that the other side loves God as much as them, and that they are arguing because they both love God so much (assuming the issues are not about sin), and thus this is something to rejoice about as a community. Do pre-empt and address future issues before they show signs of becoming a full-blown conflict and split the community.
Communities which are comfortable but are not growing in God: The 'Zacchaeus' that must be pointed out is the sloth, inertia and lack of spiritual eyes to see the importance of God (on top of any other root issues). This must be also be said towards the minority in the community who really want to grow and are on fire for God, before they get very discouraged by the state of affairs and start to leave the community. Engage them to help make a change. Personal relationship here must similarly be employed, but not necessarily as a personal friend. The community is comfortable and that implies that people generally have sufficient friends and emotional support. Instead, as caretakers we need to make relevant the Bible and the kingdom of God in their lives. Thus personal relationship takes the form of personal teacher; personal mentor; spiritual buddies; personal fellow servants of God etc. Pre-empting will be on preventing the next generation of people joining the community from being accustomed to the lack of desire for God and growth, and how to create a separate culture for them while not judging those not enthusiastic for God.
Communities which are more conservative, traditional and even boring (in terms of program/practices): The 'Zacchaeus' here is simply the lack of relevance between church and the lives of the flock and the rigid stance that may result in 'doing things for the sake of doing them' or 'tradition'. Personal relationship must take in the form mutual love and understanding between people who are more conservative and those who are more progressive. Members of the flock, being humans, will fall into either category by default and it is important for them to have personal and close friends on the opposite camp - only in this manner will the community understand and help one another to understand, appreciate and serve one another and also together, else there will be a lot of hostility and divisive hurts. Pre-empting is perhaps, in my opinion, to put in place a balanced number of leaders of deferring opinions. Balanced here does not necessarily refer to a 50:50 kind of balance, but depending on the demographics of the flock and the prompting of God. And any decisions/initiatives made must be examined with respect to the biblical soundness of the changes proposed. 'Tradition', in my opinion, is not a good enough reason for no change/trying-out. But we also don't want to destroy the unity of the church by making changes simply to 'change/challenge' existing traditions.
John 10:16 NIV - "I have other sheep, which are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock with one shepherd."