Friday 18 December 2015

Communities of God: Caretakers

Finally managed to finish the previous two posts of this trilogy! :D This has been the most intensive posts I've made since the start of this blog, so praise God for sustaining my motivation to write. After writing the previous two, I've been away for almost a week on the VCF SWAT Camp 2015 - and as with all previous camps, where God took 6 days of my life and upgraded my walk with Him by a few more levels. Most worth-it investment of time in each of my years in university, and I'll definitely continue :D The content of the camp is relevant for this post, so praise God for new insights! A shout-out to my beloved Group 19 - you're dearly remembered and beloved. 
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)?

The literal meaning of 'Caretakers' in dictionaries is "people employed to look after a particular object." In our context, this refers to people employed and chosen by God to look after His people. Caretakers are people who are in the position and possession of the means to build and influence the community, regardless of titles (or the lack of it). So a caretaker can be a regular member, a senior who has been there for some time or a titled leader. You can also someone who feel included, or someone who feel excluded, (refer to 'Communities of GOd' post) even if you're a leader in the community. It doesn't matter, as long as you are able to build and influence the community. (though in this post I often see caretakers as also simultaneously holding titles)

The Bible describes caretakers this way: 1 Peter 5:2 - Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them - not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve. A defining characteristic of caretakers is that they have a heart for their communities; a burden and a desire to serve and help the people grow towards God and also make the community a better environment for God to move. This 'heart' comes from realizing how much you had been blessed by God through the community, and that you feel that God has put you there for a purpose and a reason - often to also help others gain what you have gained out of this community. However, for some of us, there is no such noble thing as a 'heart/burden for this place.' You are serving 'because you must, not because you are willing' and maybe you're not 'eager to serve' at all. Maybe this responsibility simply fell on you because there is no one else. Anyway, it's fine - the Bible has this to say as well: Colossians 3:17 - And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

One and a half years ago, I was meeting two people from other ministries to discuss a collaborative project that I felt would benefit the larger body of the Christian community. However, because this was technically outside of my direct responsibilities, during the meeting, they asked me why I was not working on the ministry that I was serving in and instead on the larger community. My reply was that at the moment my ministry had nothing much going on, and I wanted to contribute to the larger community via this project. And then they asked: "What is your burden for your ministry?" And I said: "Well, I have no burden." The reply I got from them was stunning: "Then you should step down." I was flabbergasted, because I saw these people for the first time in my life, and I have no words to describe their actions, however right or wrong, except for rude. As you can expect, the collaborative project didn't go through and then I went home and asked God:" Is what the person said true? What if I served with no burden, is that okay?" God was honest with me - He said: "Yea, it's not okay, but it doesn't mean to stop serving." Looking back, I truly believe that in the ideal state, we should be serving at places with a burden in our hearts - I will term this the 'primary' ministry, the place where God wants us to work mainly. (Of course, we must also seek God to be certain of which is our 'primary' ministry. It can be more than one!) But in the meantime, until the burden is there, we have to remain there. How else would we develop the burden? Matthew 9:36 writes: "When He (Jesus) saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." As we continue serving, we will start to be more aware of and personally feel God's heart and desire and purpose for the ministry. Though I believe it is still God-honoring to serve at a place without a burden in our hearts just because we want to obey God's command, it is better to be personally vested and interested and convicted as well. We will then find it easier to go the extra mile and give our lives for the community. So thanks, my two unnamed friends, for the rude awakening. (I'm still grateful!) If you're in such a situation, I encourage you to, as you remain in that role/community, 1) look around and see what can be done/improved to bring greater glory to God, 2) pray for God to gift us with His burden for it. Through this, I pray that your spiritual eyes will be opened and that you will develop that burden and conviction as in Colossians 1:9. 

I also want to add a disclaimer that the above is for places of serving that He ordained for us to be committed to for a time being. For the more sporadic/once-off sort of serving, the verse is James 2:17 - In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. After all, if we only served in places with a burden/conviction in our hearts, there are many things we won't do. We won't bless the poor we see on the way home; we won't care for our friends in distress; we wont.... you get the drift.

What is our role as Caretakers

Our role as caretakers only makes sense with the purpose of the community - what the structured community exists for. I do acknowledge that not all communities are mainly for the express interest of its members and pastoral in nature (e.g. cellgroups), there are some that are of a specific serving purpose (e.g. drama team, musicians). But regardless, there are still (maybe smaller) components and potentials for pastoral activities and purposes that can be sought by caretakers. I will be using the Acts 2 church to illustrate the purposes of Christian communities, and after that add my own opinions based on experience.

Acts 2:42 - They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Role: Get people to grow (teaching them) in God and to get them to know one another better and learn/support one another (fellowship). Also get them to see each other as family (breaking of bread) and fight the spiritual warfare (prayer).
v43 - Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. Role: Be examples to the flock, echoed in 1 Peter 5:3.
v44-46 All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. Role: Get the community to go through life together and not just on their own. Get them to meet up regularly (continued to meet together)
v47 - praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Role: Get the community to be inclusive and blessing the people around them, and also to outreach and evangelize.

The above roles are something that we are more or less familiar with. Now I want to add my personal opinions on what feel caretakers have not sufficiently emphasized/realized. I believe that caretakers have to be the people who remind our community about and also make them re-experience the importance of community. Most people, including ourselves, often forget or de-emphasize remaining and being connected to our community as the troubles and commitments of life come. I am sure a quick examination of our own lives will convince you of this point. Just that for caretakers, we have a continual burden/heart/conviction/responsibility that reminds us of the need to think about and do something for our community. Reminders and re-experience initiatives can be as simple as messaging them to ask about their lives, meeting for meals, writing cards, buying gifts or be as elaborate as holding events, (sung) worship and prayer sessions.

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 a beautiful and endearing imagery. In university, I met a very dear and amazing friend in Christian Fellowship. Her name is Esther. For all her quirkiness, one thing that amazes me about this person is her parenting. No, she is NOT a mother at the moment. But in her community, she is such a wonderful parent to those around her. Not just people she knows personally, but also to those whom she doesn't know, and who doesn't know her. Recently at the Bible study camp, I again witnessed her in action. Many times and with many different persons, I see her talking and praying with them (who are very often crying a river). And to describe the scene, I only have excerpts from Psalm 68:5 - A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows; and a single word description: beautiful. Sometimes as caretakers, we often think of ourselves as 'brothers and sisters', but at times what our communities need are 'parents', because people are feeling orphaned. Who are the ones mainly responsible for you in your house? Siblings, or parents? The latter, most likely (or rather intended to be). Can we, as caretakers, take this responsibility and opportunity to play such roles to those around us? God never sees Himself as simply a larger/stronger sheep with a bit more responsibility and ability than the rest. He seems Himself as a shepherd; carrying them and leading them. If you're still not convinced, then the Bible writes: "Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity." 1 Timothy 5:1-2. This is what Paul asks the Church to do, so let us be prepared to be seen by others as parents. 

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
There are some communities which cause a substantial amount of people to feel alienated/excluded. In my previous posts on 'Communities of God' and 'Loneliness', I encouraged people who feel alienated on what they should think/do/respond in their communities. Here, I would focus on the caretakers' point of view. An all-inclusive culture in a community is evident in the life of Jesus - He was a welcomer of tax-collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and also the Samaritans - whom the Jews despised. I want to focus on the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 (Do refer to it when you read this part!) 

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.

To summarize this part, my personal understanding as caretakers is that we are generally always occupied with 2 things in the community. The first is to build upon and improve our communities' culture and structure, such that people are benefiting and learning all the time even in the absence of explicit, once-off action on the caretakers' part. The second is to build stronger personal relationships - friendships, discipleship, brotherly/sisterly ties, serving - with people in the community. Together, these two will create in the hearts of people a desire for God, His work and His Kingdom, and act as a defence against the assaults from the kingdom of darkness as we do God's work wherever we are called to go. 


Communities (or churches) are essentially God's great melting pot of all His people, and the outcome of this melting pot is His bride - the radiant church. As caretakers, we must not take communities for granted and must constantly build and improve on it, because the devil is and will always be trying to wreck God's people and His mechanism for life transformation, blessing unto His beloveds. I pray that as caretakers we will always have the understanding that we are all God's beloved, regardless of issues, struggles and differences and desire to bring all into His kingdom as one church. May we always hold the words of Jesus, the universe's best Caretaker, in our hearts:
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."

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