Whanaungatanga: Temples and Connections

We live in a (post) modern Western world that is shaped by a profound individualism. Personhood, identity, spirituality, faith; our understanding of these is formed as we navigate life in a society of apparently independent and autonomous individuals. But from the very beginning, the followers of Jesus understood their faith and life to be deeply and meaningfully expressed in community and connectedness with others. In this way, Christian life is not just about what we ‘believe’, but about how we relate to those around us.

We’re starting a new series exploring ideas around what community and relationship means for us and to do this, we’re building on the word: whanaungatanga

Whanaungatanga: relationship, kinship, sense of family connection - a relationship through shared experiences and working together which provides people with a sense of belonging.

Ultimately, whanaungatanga is about the idea of relationships, connections, community… whānau. And this language is very similar to much of what’s going on in the New Testament language for church.

Eph 2:19-22

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Paul writes this to the church in Ephesus, and at this point in the letter he’s emphasising the way in which this community brings together people from diverse backgrounds – in this case, ethnic backgrounds who are quite literally foreigners to one another and should really have nothing to do with each other – and they are joined together in community with one another to become a holy temple.

In the Ancient Near East, temples were a common feature of all religious systems. It was here that people were to present themselves before their gods, to make their requests and sacrifices. But there was a strange group of Israelites who for quite some time didn’t have a temple at all. And apparently the God of all gods, the creator of the universe, lived in a box inside a tent and was prone to getting stolen, which was all very unusual. No serious nation could tolerate a situation like that, especially for a nation who kept claiming that their God was better and bigger than all the others.

In the end, Solomon does build a temple to the Lord, but this temple is itself unusual because if you went in there you wouldn’t find any images or statues of God, which was a little confusing. When we get to the story of Jesus this radical situation is pushed even further and we find that Jesus isn’t all that interested in this physical temple at all. He would rather go and be baptised in the wilderness by his crazy cousin, then to go and make sacrifices in the temple. Then, as a follower of Jesus, Paul plays with the language of temple and claims that God’s temple will be the connectedness (or whanaungatanga) of those who follow Jesus. The relationships built in church community will be the ‘place’ where we find the Spirit present and alive. In this sense, whanaungatanga is a really appropriate way of thinking about what the deep value of church community might look like. And two of the ideas that are found within the definition of whanaungatanga are “shared experiences” and “working together”.

Shared experiences

Some people hear language of community, relationship and connectedness and it immediately resonates, but that is not everyone’s response. For some, making connections and meaningful relationships is difficult. Some are more introverted,  some have had difficult experiences of belonging – in family or church or broken friendships – and so are wary of getting too connected. All of that can mean any language of community, whanaungatanga, family can start sounding intense and overwhelming. Or maybe just too demanding of our time.

But the language of “shared experiences” can take some of the pressure off. 

We gather, we sing, we pray, we eat, talk and listen. And we centre ourselves around a Eucharist table that we experience together. Even when we are just passing each other by, we are sharing in something beautiful, sacred, mystical, and profound, alongside and with one another. And over time we might start to develop common reference points, moments in the journey that are experienced together. We start to develop in-jokes, songs that only we know, moments where we experience something sacred and divine, and we can look around the community and see that we’ve experienced something with this group of people and with nobody else. We have shared experiences together that mean something, drawing us into whanaungatanga. 

Working together

For some of us the first response to 'working together' will be – ‘I already have enough work to do thanks’. But it’s a genuine recognition that whanaungatanga is often formed as we work together on things big and small. When you’re on a marae, you will always find that there is working together... you will be doing the dishes at some point, whether you want to or not. And many of the good memories are in the laughs and work and beautiful ordinariness of life.

So the hope is that as we share experiences together, and learn what it is to work together in ways big and small, we discover a sense of belonging. This can be a really practical sense of community, but the New Testament also invites us to think of this in a mystical kind of way too. That somehow we are imaging the divine in the way we belong to each other, and that our common life together includes an invitation into a different way of being in the world that resists the rampant individualism that is stifling life in the West in the 21st century.

We live in a city and a society that drums into us that life is about “me and how I’m going to make it in the world”. And yet it seems like there is more loneliness now than ever. We’re gasping for air and struggling to find our place in the world. And I know that the church is no antidote to loneliness, sometimes it can be in crowds of people where we feel most isolated. But I also have hope that somehow the Spirit is present among us in a mysterious, mystical and ordinary way. That whanaungatanga can emerge in surprising ways and invite us into a different kind of life.