The building-block of the Greco-Roman world was the household.
There is a recurring pattern of church growth in the New Testament: households come to faith. Existing communities, composed of an extended family plus their slaves (think employees, rather than the total slavery of the modern era) (who may also have been families), became a community participating together in worship of a counter-cultural god, in fellowship that broke cultural norms, and in evangelism among their existing suppliers and clients (these households were economic units, with workshops on the street and living quarters behind) and neighbours.
The Christian community in Philippi began with the household of Lydia (a fashion designer) and the household of the gaoler (police chief?) coming to faith. Paul concludes his letter to the Christian community in Rome by sending personal greetings to various individuals, and five distinct households of faith.
In this way Christianity grew exponentially for 300 years.
The north of Liverpool is unusually stable for an urban population. In the case of many of the children at our children’s school, their parents – and in not a few instances, their grandparents – went to the school before them. Rather than families moving in search of work, many men went away to work, while their wives kept the family together back home. (This is an inheritance of the Irish navvies, who came over and laid the railway tracks across England – to this day, Liverpool is in many ways culturally more Irish than English – and of the crews of the ocean liners registered in Liverpool.) It is not uncommon for me to take the funeral of a builder, all of whose male relatives are also builders, and all of whom worked together in the London building boom of the 1990s, sending home their pay.
People can only manage so many relationships in each of the public, social, personal and intimate spaces. And in the north of Liverpool, these relationships are stable: Liverpool FC/Everton FC; the – large – extended family; friends that have grown up together all their lives; and close confidants. Even de-stabilising factors, such as high unemployment, have tended to grow over some considerable time rather than be the rapid and discontinuous changes seen in much of our society. (For example, our parish is still predominantly mono-cultural, and while there is a large influx of asylum-seekers no more than a mile-and-a-half away, in such a stable and tribal community, a mile-and-a-half is a long distance.)
This unusual stability has implications – both negative and positive – for mission strategies.
I think it is highly unlikely that very many people living in our parish will come to faith, attach themselves to a missional community – a reconstructed household of faith – and stick with those relationships for the long haul. They already have stable belonging places, and have neither need nor capacity for additional belonging.
Rather than draw someone in to a place of belonging they are not looking for, we need to rediscover the potential for households to come to faith: for existing households to become new missional communities, with an existing circle of relationships with which to share the gospel. We need to be looking for opportunities for whole families to come to faith, rather than allow ourselves to be conditioned by the belief that in a highly fragmented and individualistic society only individuals come to faith, and that rarely. This community, at least, simply isn’t that fragmented...nor so post-Christendom that baptisms and funerals don’t present opportunities for households to come to faith: perhaps we need to re-think our approach to the occasional offices...