This post is written with friends who are developing incarnational and missional principles within traditional church contexts in mind. If that is you, I hope the post is helpful. If that isn’t you, it might not make a lot of sense. As ever on this personal blog, I am expressing personal views and not necessarily speaking on behalf of any corporate identity.
In Acts chapter 16 we see the establishment of two Christian households in Philippi: the household of Lydia, and the household of the jailer. In each case, the household is an extended community of blood relations and employees, an economic unit (oikos) with a particular family business - a ‘fashion house’ (or perhaps a ‘sweat shop,’ waiting to be redeemed), and a ‘security firm’ (again, a context ripe for transformation). It is these households that experience salvation, and become ‘local churches’ - epicentres of a cultural earthquake that will transform the cultural landscape. This is a pattern that will be repeated across the Greco-Roman world.
My observation is that our family business at Sunderland Minster is heritage. We are custodians of a building that records 1200 years, not only of Christian worship in Sunderland but 1200 years of the settlement that is Sunderland.
For some of my friends, the idea that our primary business is heritage is problematic: the church is not a museum. But for me, this is to misunderstand the role of heritage, or the place and value of museums. Museums exist to help us make sense of who we are by understanding how we have come to where we are; to draw on our history in order to resource our present and shape our future.
Heritage can be incarnational, because it is grounded in the wider community; indeed, it grounds the community. And heritage can be missional, because it shapes the context for engagement with the wider community.
Our family business is heritage. The Minster is located within Sunderland as a place of meeting, learning, belonging, and celebrating.
Our family business is heritage. This means that our closest connections are with those who connect with heritage. School groups who are looking for help to deliver their curriculum, whether in relation to religious education or history or art. Artists who are looking for a venue in which to put on an exhibition. Musicians - from opera to rock - looking for a concert venue. Business people looking for a unique setting for a charity fundraiser or an event promoting the economy of the city. And, in particular over the next four years, an opportunity to engage with the centenary anniversaries of the First World War, alongside the city council, library, museum, local historians, and others.
Heritage is our fashion house, our security firm. And just as being in fashion afforded Lydia’s household opportunity to share their life, shaped by their faith, with her suppliers and clients, so being in heritage affords us opportunities to interact with education and art and commerce. An exhibition of photographs or sculpture breaks down the false sacred/secular dichotomy and opens up all kinds of conversation about life.
This means that a key question for here is, how can we equip our people to play a part in the heritage business? That part might be as an interpreter of the building; but there will be other roles too.
For some of the people who relate to us, the relationship will go no further than a business transaction. Surely there were those who simply bought cloth from Lydia - or tents from Paul. But some of those relationships become personal, become being there for one another in good times and bad. Some of those relationships become transformational - and in both directions.
Because we are a baptised household, we set aside certain times in the week to gather together for prayer and worship. But this is not our family business. Because we seek to follow Jesus we find ways to respond to the needs of the most marginalised. But this is not our family business, either. Because we seek to follow Jesus, we must take up the commission to make disciples. But making disciples is not our family business: making disciples takes place within the spheres of our family business. These are things that will find expression, one way or another, in any Christian household. But within this city there are several churches, each engaging with different communities within the life of the city, according to the calling to which they have been called. Heritage is (clearly) not the family business of a great many churches; but it is quite legitimately the family business of others.
Part of our call as the Dowsett family has been the call to movement from place to place. In each place we have become part of a local extended household, and in each place the family business has been different. In Sheffield the family business was an urban monastery. In Liverpool, it was helping people escape from debt, or rebuild lives broken down by addiction. In Southport, it was to offer a parish community centre and community garden.
Each time we have moved, this has required us to learn new skills, and to find ways to bring our gifts and skills and experience to the service of something that might lie outside of our existing experience. I am not an expert on heritage - far from it! But I am learning. And I am asking the question, how might we make disciples within the context of heritage? Including, how might we nurture a particular ethos, and teach particular skills?
Are you (personally, collectively) clear as to what your extended family business is?
What constraints do you need to accept, in order to embrace that family business?
What training might you need, in order to invest in your family business?
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