In 1970, psychologist Henri Tajfel conducted a series of ground-breaking experiments. He assembled groups of strangers and divided them randomly into groups, for example through the toss of a coin. These groups were then given the opportunity to distribute resources such as money or food between them.
What he found was at once extraordinary and entirely unsurprising. People tended to favour members of their group over people from other groups, offering them more resources than everyone else. This was despite the people involved never having met each other, and having nothing more in common with their group members than happening to get a heads rather than tails.
Henri Tajfel had proven what deep down we already know: we naturally look out for our own.
In the real world this can be light-hearted, such as rivalry between pub quiz teams. Sometimes it can get out of hand when football fans clash. And sometimes it can bring out the darkest of humanity – Tajfel was part of a generation who were still trying to come to terms with the atrocities of the second world war.
In around 600 B.C. God’s people reached their lowest ebb. The promised land lay in ruins around them, smouldering from repeated attacks from the empires surrounding them. The glories of Solomon, David, Gideon and Joshua were a fading memory. Many were dragged off into exile in faraway lands, and the very existence of the people of God seemed under threat.
Never does a group’s identify become more important than when it is under threat from extinction. It is in times of crisis we go back to basics and ask what it’s all about.
And so it was during this period that someone decided that the treasured stories of the past, passed down as oral tradition from one generation to the next, needed writing down.
This was the time when the book of Genesis was written, and God’s famous promise to Abraham was first captured in writing:
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Here we find the most radical of ideas imaginable. It was a brutal world of dog-eat-dog tribal rivalry that made the Tory leadership contest look like a picnic and Eastenders look like a romantic comedy. And yet here was the suggestion that God’s people should not just be in it for themselves. God’s calling for his people was that they would be blessed so that they can bless others.
And this is the calling that was repeated to Isaac and to Jacob, through the prophets and the writers of Genesis two and a half millennia later, and to every generation that has ever professed God’s name since.
What then does this radical message look like for us today? It has implications for our nation’s role in the world. Whatever happens with Brexit, God is calling is for us to continue to be generous givers of overseas aid and to be generous with the weak within and outside of our society.
But closer to home it also has implications for how we should be as a church community. In 2005, Eternity Bullbrook was planted with a mission “To build a community where EVERYONE can experience God’s love”.
At the heart of who we defined ourselves to be was the intention not just to be in it for ourselves. Our mission is to bless everyone, not just people like us who are already part of our ‘tribe’.
To what extent are we living out this original vision? I love the community we have built and I love the way we do reach out and welcome others. I love the fact that we run a breakfast club at the school and a coffee morning in the community centre; how we support school events such as the summer and Christmas fetes; and the fact that ‘difference’ is a core value of our recently re-launched Life Groups.
But in my life at least, these activities often feel like an ‘extra’. After the vast effort it takes to run a Sunday morning event each week, there’s not always a huge amount of energy left over for other activities. And yet a Sunday service primarily serves our own tribe. It’s geared for people like us.
The thing with ‘all people’ is that it really doesn’t leave anyone out. It includes people who are very different to me; who are difficult to talk to; who have different beliefs or who live their lives in ways I don’t understand or approve of. It includes people I’ve not met yet, and people I know very well – but who I’ve fallen out with, or have hurt me deeply.
And so the challenge – for me certainly, and perhaps for us all as a congregation – is have we got our priorities right? How is God calling us to live out that ancient promise – that he blesses us so that we can be a blessing to all people.
Building a community where EVERYONE can experience God’s love. This is the reason Eternity Bullbrook exists, and is God’s calling on our lives – how are we going to respond?
This blog first appeared as a talk at the Bullbrook congregation of the Warfield Church – www.warfield.org.uk