By Seán Mullan
(From the July - September 2017 issue of VOX.)
Two conversations got my grey matter moving the other morning.
Number one: two business people. We’re discussing a couple of events they want to organise: one a business reception, the other a personal celebration. They want to figure out how both events would benefit someone else, a person or a cause that would receive help as a result. I find this intriguing. The conversation moves on to the notion of values in business and the challenges involved in that.
Number two: a small group of church leaders. We’re discussing a couple of recent church-related encounters that have left one of them seriously bruised. Bad behaviour, arrogance, poor relational skills and plain old dishonesty have all been significant factors. “It’s as bad as being in the business world,” comments one of our group.
Having just come from the first conversation, that touches a nerve. “People in the church world,” I say “are no better than people in the business world. So why do they think they are?”
In work, I deal with a good few business people who have no interest in church or religion but who are good and reliable and honest. The enterprise I work in has been trading for over five years. So we’ve done business with a lot of people, suppliers, tradespeople and salespeople. Of that group there have been a tiny number of crooks and a larger number of people only interested in you for what they can get out of you. But the largest number have been fine people who do their job well and have become good colleagues and, in some cases, friends.
So where does the idea come from that church people - and I’m sure you’ve guessed I’m one of them - must be better because they’re church people? Maybe it is born of the idea that they should be - that the church, by its very nature, should be better than the rest. There can be something attractive in the notion that in this world there is a group of people who are more caring, more wise and more loving than society at large is. That’s a notion we pursued in Ireland with some pretty awful results.
The man that the church seeks to follow was pretty wary of people who saw themselves as better than others. Jesus of Nazareth developed a reputation among the church people of His day for being far too fond of disreputable people like prostitutes and tax collectors and for being a glutton and a drunkard because of His partying habits. Those good church people couldn’t figure out why Jesus would hang around with people who weren’t as good as they were.
Why did Jesus party with people the church looked down on? Perhaps He knew that in their company, no one was going to look down on Him. They had no interest in judging Him. They were just intrigued that a person like Him would delight in spending time with people like them.
Now stick with me here - we’re nearly done. What if this man from Nazareth is, as the church claims, a picture of how God is? Then God likes hanging around with non-church people and getting involved in their lives. What if the goodness I saw in those two people that morning was a result of God hanging out in their lives whether they recognised Him or not? Perhaps all the many kindnesses and the good business relationships of our years in business are the result of God hanging out with people who didn’t recognise it.
It’s too easy for the church to limit God’s activity to the people of the church. That old phrase “the people of God” can become an excuse for criticising, judging or even despising people who don’t claim to belong to God. What if, instead, the church were to become the people who recognised and celebrated the work of God wherever it showed up, in business, on the street, and maybe helped others recognise it too? What if the church simply began to consider that all goodness might come from God? Or put it this way: maybe the church’s job is to help everyone answer the question, “Is all good God?”
Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.