Apparently the Euro parishes were, not so long ago, accused of being ex-pat social clubs who spent their time sipping G&T in the afternoon. Without a doubt, hospitality is a big thing here and it is not uncommon to be invited to come for a meal when a visit is arranged. And, yes, it’s not unusual for wine to be part of that meal (I’ve yet to be offered a G&T). But to suggest that this is indicative of some sort of easy and relaxed life of Riley would be a very superficial understanding of both the culture and the reality.
At the heart of this ‘lifestyle’ is the issue of hospitality. I’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t really stress enough just how important a part of life it is here. I suppose it might be different for the indigenous population, but for what is the epitome of gathered congregations, it is a crucial part of maintaining ties with one another and for looking out for each other. And I don’t think it’s simply an issue of ex-pats sticking together. There may be an element of that, and I’m not a sociologist, but it seems to me that the separation from country and roots will, naturally, bring people together. So hospitality cannot be dismissed simply as a ‘lifestyle’ or even used in some faintly derogatory way – it’s the key to maintaining relationships in an environment that separates a person from their roots.
The accusation also ignores the fact that many, if not all, Euro congregations are ethnically diverse in a way that simply isn’t seen in Scottish churches. And not only are they ethnically diverse, but culturally and socially as well. From cleaners to senior NATO or EC officials – they’re all to be found worshipping together on a Sunday morning. And to read into ‘cleaners’ some sort of lower status would be entirely wrong. I’m told that Belgium has a degree of systemic racism, so even well-educated, non-natives can struggle to get jobs worthy of their abilities.
I have also said previously that, in many ways, the congregation here in Brussels represents the worldwide church in microcosm. I sense that to be more true than I first realised. Peter speaks of the Christian as being a ‘stranger’ or ‘alien’ in this world (1Pe 2:11). Jesus also speaks of feeding the ‘stranger’ and giving them a drink (Matthew 25) and it representing doing the same for Him. Being a stranger in the world doesn’t mean that we are meant to disassociate ourselves from the world and to care less for it, but that it indicates that our true sense of ‘belonging’ is found through God and through ‘Godly’ relationships with one another. I know I’m using those texts somewhat out of context, but I think the point still stands. And the point I am trying to make, in a somewhat convoluted way, is that the congregation here in Brussels, through its hospitality, through its diverse, yet welcoming community is probably closer to being the body of Christ than many other congregations. Here, “doing something for the church”, far more obviously means doing something for each other.
Is it perfect? No! Of course not. But I do believe it offers much that is worth reflecting upon; much that can be brought back into the non-G&T world of most Scottish congregations where hospitality is often taken to mean a handshake and hello coming into the church on a Sunday morning.