It wasn’t a great meeting, but to be honest I wasn’t expecting it to be. The first hint I had was the email saying the venue was in a local church hall, known for its shabby decor (not the chic kind) and its intermittent heating system. About 15 of us sat in the middle of a depressing hall on hard seats with our coats and scarves wrapped around us. It was Lent, so the leader of the church told us we wouldn’t be having coffee and biscuits this morning.

We were there, as some of the leaders of the church in the town, to have fellowship. I’m not sure what that means, but it didn’t seem to really qualify as the biblical definition of being part of the same family on the same mission. There was no major bust up or heated theological arguments; in fact, it was all a bit polite, safe and predictable, perhaps it would have had more life if someone had said something controversial or confessed to some juicy hidden sin.

People talked about their ministries without really sharing any personal information. They either spoke about their stress and lack of resources, or they related how well they were doing, which made others feel a bit more depressed. We sung a bit, and prayed a little, and we all went our way not really knowing each other any better. 

Some left the meeting confirmed in their negative mindsets and others thought it was a complete waste of time and went back to their successful’ churches. So, whatever was going on in that depressing place, the kingdom of God certainly hadn’t been extended much. Maybe you have experienced similar, underwhelming, moments of the gathered body of Christ? Is this really what Christ envisaged for His body across an area? It all seems very individualistic and a bit lonely.

Outside of our own church communities, how much do we express the vision of being one family, a cohesive interrelated city within a city, a light shining out to the world, revealing how relationships should be lived and experienced? With the mission set before us to work for the transformation of the places God has sent us to, can this really be achieved in this way? Have we settled into an individualistic, passively competitive mindset that creates a siloed, fragmented church? 

Relationship within the whole body of Christ across a town or city is not an optional extra to the work of growing effective disciple-making churches. It isn’t something to be endured or ignored; it is something that is meant to be the foundation, the core of the fire that creates the heat, the base from which all other mission flows. 

Contrast the depressing narrative I just outlined with the incredible move of the Spirit
happening across many cities and towns in the UK, and across the world. Let me take you to a town in the north of England, where the church leaders meet every week to pray with each other in a safe, warm and loving environment that creates a context for mutual support and lifelong friendships. 

This move of relational unity is producing some very effective mission across the UK

Let’s journey down south, where in many towns and cities leaders have been meeting and praying regularly for more than 20 years. This has created a shared story, a coordinated and strategic approach to mission. They are known in their areas as One Church, serving together for the good of the city. They build strong relationships with their civic authorities serving their places as best they can, by helping reduce homelessness, getting kids out of care and into families, setting up foodbanks, and reducing social isolation.

Individual churches, however large, are not able to impact a town the way all the churches can if they are in strong relationship with each other. Some cities are now taking this to another level and hosting Movement Day conversations, where they are setting a 15-year vision for the spiritual, cultural and social transformation of their places. This incredible move of the Spirit isn’t only confined to our country, but it’s being discovered in places all over the world, from Dubai to Dallas, Berlin to Pretoria, Mumbai to Ottawa, in more than 300 cities across the globe. Obviously, this unity is expressed in very different ways, but the core values of prayer, relationship and love for the town or city are exactly the same.

We’re getting there

This exciting move of God is all about relationships, firstly with God as He transforms and deepens our love for Him, then this love is deepened with each other and then overflows towards the place He has called us to reach. I remember meeting a pastor in one of these towns with a vibrant unity movement at its core. He said to me, My week begins on a Wednesday morning when we meet for prayer with the other leaders; I see them as my team. I then go back to my congregation empowered and supported to serve God.” He went on to say, I would not be in ministry if it were not for the prayer and support of the wider church in this city.”

This move of relational unity is producing some very effective mission across the UK: we are seeing more coordinated and strategic work in social action and evangelism, and we are seeing unity movements engage with civic authorities like never before. However, at the core of all this activity is trusting relationships, in other words, friendship. Pastors are becoming friends, congregations are sharing resources, and the family of God in an area is being formed. 

This is a far cry from a group of polite, distant strangers who meet in a dingy cold hall. This incredible move of the Spirit around the UK and the world is highlighting for us the deficiency of our understanding of the body of Christ as displayed in the Bible. The magisterial passages that describe the interrelated, mutually supportive, organic body of Christ under His leadership (1 Corinthians 12) are in sharp contrast to what we often see lived out. The cry of Jesus in the garden for the same level of intense, relational, trusting unity that He has with the Father is often expressed in shallow, stilted and lifeless institutional frameworks. 

My wife Lesley and I have a large family which is full of life, excitement and fun, and during the hard times it is supportive and compassionate. It is not perfect — sometimes we bring out the best in each other, and at other times the worst. We can sometimes disagree about politics, football, approaches to life and generational challenges; and we can be selfish and at times inconsiderate. But, we are still a family, and we love each other. And, as the Pope recently said, The family is the school of love,” so we are still learning and sometimes passing the exams. It can be messy and at times chaotic; but, at its core, there is a deep love, appreciation, respect and understanding that if we can’t work this out in this context, where can we work it out? Is it any different in the body of Christ, within individual churches or across denominations in a town, or even across national organisations? We are family. 

We are one body whether we like that or not. We are all we have. We are called together, adopted as brothers and sisters into the eternal family of the Trinity. And the world is looking at us; it is waiting to see if those who profess the name of Christ can live out that love together. The Holy Spirit is waiting to bless us wherever He sees unity breaking out (Psalm 133). Jesus is waiting to see the fulfilment of His garden prayer (John 17:21). Cities and towns are waiting within the whole of creation to see the children of God (Roman 8:19) come into their own, to be a loving, reconciled body as a sign to the world for the glory of God.

What can we do today to become part of God’s way of relating?

1. Citywide prayer meetings

If you lead a church, find out if there is a relational-based prayer meeting for the town or the city already happening. If there is, get involved and be part of the whole body of Christ across the area.

2. Small prayer groups

If there is no relationship-based meeting, take the initiative and find a couple of other leaders who want to meet regularly to pray for the area and build some trusting relationships. Make sure the meetings are about praying for the town/​city and praying for each other’s ministries and families. Keep inviting other leaders into the meetings, and make sure they are not in cold halls but in people’s homes or cafés.

3. Prayer events

Try and organise a regular joint prayer event for the churches you lead, to introduce your people to each other’s church members. Always keep focusing on the mission to the area, and sometimes invite senior civic leaders to the events to be interviewed as to how you can better serve the town/​city. If you keep the town/​city your focus, you will be able to avoid focusing only on people’s pet projects.

4. Resources

Use the resources of the Gather network, which links more than 130 town- and city-based unity movements. Apply to attend the national Gather summit being held in June 2019, and bring a team to tell your story and hear and learn from others. For an overview of this exciting move of God in the UK, get a copy of my book, Gathering Momentum.

5. Respect and honour

Keep the values of this move of God in your prayers and your spiritual practice. Honour one another and make sure you speak well of each other and your ministries. Celebrate diversity: don’t expect everyone to be the same, and learn from each other’s traditions. Set a culture of vulnerability, where honesty and acceptance are valued, and don’t do too many projects in the early days; focus first on building the friendships through prayer.

6. Long-term vision

If your unity and mission are developing together, then take the next step and start a Movement Day process that firstly extends the vision of unity to Christians in the spheres of life (health, education, arts, business, etc) and also develops a long-term vision for the town/​city. Visit the Movement Day UK website for more information.