How do you make arrangements when people live chaotic lives?

Today I got stood up.

Funnily enough, I said to my wife before I left that I’d probably be there and back in 15 minutes. Thus I proved my credentials as a red-hot prophet. Only, of course, there was nothing all that surprising about it. The guy I was due to meet has a habit of not turning up on time for anything if he manages to get there at all. I tried to confirm our meeting before I left to no avail. It was important to me to honour the commitment nonetheless but, having waited 10-15 minutes only for the guy not to show up, I did an about turn and went home.

One of the questions that seems to regularly crop up in relation to working in deprived communities is this, how do you arrange meet ups when people lead such chaotic lives? I think there are several assumptions in the question that need exploring before we can answer it. For example, just how chaotic are the lives of these guys? Some of them might be, but not all of them. Similarly, why does a bit of chaos in one’s home life necessarily have to translate into chaos everywhere else? Also, rather than assuming someone didn’t turn up because their life is chaotic, it seems worth asking a more basic question: why didn’t you show up? Chaos and disorder is rarely the underlying reason.

In our particular context, those whose lives might be deemed ‘chaotic’ would be our asylum seekers and refugees (incidentally, most of them don’t live chaotic lives, just not conventially timetabled ones). It is true that few of them have a standard day or week that follows a particular pattern. This does not mean, however, that they are incapable of taking on responsibility and fulfilling it. Nor does it mean they cannot get to anything on time. The same is true for those benefit class guys with whom we live and work. They may not have standard days but that doesn’t make them devoid of the ability to turn up to places on time, take on responsibilities and duties and fulfil them adequately.

For those who receive refugee status or come off benefits and get into work, rarely have I found people constitutionally unable to get to work on time. Typically, people get into work on time because they know they will lose their job if they don’t. Likewise, very few don’t manage to get their Giro at the appointed date and time. Similarly, not many asylum seekers turn up to their substantive interviews and court appeals several hours late. Even those we may deem ‘chaotic’ (rightly or wrongly) are perfectly capable of time keeping and maintaining basic responsibilities.

The issue is more usually that they see collecting their benefits or the asylum interview as important while the church is, in their minds, more of a take-it-or-leave-it arrangement. Interestingly, this is not an issue unique to the working classes or foreigners. I know plenty of middle class people who seem constitutionally unable to get to church on time or to meet ups at the agreed hour. What never ceases to amaze me is that they don’t routinely arrive half an hour or more late to work each day; if they did, they would be sacked or disciplined and they know it.

The issue – whether working class, middle class or non-indigenous – is that the meetings of the church, and the relationships and appointments that go along with it, is simply not deemed all that important. Of course, when middle class people do it we refer to it as ‘a time management issue’; when working class or foreign people do it, their lives are ‘chaotic’.

The question is, how do we deal with it? First, I would not make a distinction between the ‘chaotic lives’ of working class and foreign people compared to the ‘disorganisation and time management problems’ of the middle classes. In essence, both are treating the church and its people as something they can push down their list of priorities. Regardless of class, ethnicity, nationality or culture, I expect people to prioritise the things they deem important. The first issue is helping people to see that the Lord and his people are their first priority.

In practical terms, the more we make allowances for this sort of behaviour the more people continue to indulge it. The courts do not make allowances for people who turn up an hour late. If you miss your asylum interview you can expect a letter telling you your case has failed. Likewise, if you routinely treat the Lord and his church with contempt, you should be expecting a process of discipline that may well culminate in your removal from fellowship.

Similarly, if you routinely fail to turn up to meet ups, particularly if you have sought the meeting and not shown up, you should expect less time to be made available for you. Elders have a limited amount of time and they are not going to waste it meeting up with people who won’t show. They will simply reserve that time for those who honour their commitments. I, for example, am glad to meet with anybody who wants my time. Those who turn up can ask for whatever repeat meetings they like; those who repeatedly don’t show up will soon find my calendar is blocked out whenever they want to meet with me.

I think we patronise people in deprived communities too readily. If they can turn up to get their benefits, or they arrive on time for their asylum hearings, there is no reason they cannot get to church on time and show up for the meetings they arrange with church elders. The issue is not one of capability; it is one of priority. It is not a matter of having deal with chaos; it is a matter of getting people to view the Lord and his church as more important than whatever else was deemed too big to miss.

We deal with the problem in the same way as we should with middle class folks. We teach and model that the church is important and should be a priority. We discipline those who repeatedly fail to prioritise the church as they ought. We make time for those who really want to make church a priority and limit the time available for those who abuse the offer of discipleship and support by not showing up.