Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Church as Community or Speaking God's Yes and No

Christian community sounds very attractive in today's consumerist world, at least until you try to practice it. Many people would like Christian community to be like an affirmative therapy group, where only sympathy and support are ever given.

Truth be told, Christian community is more like a family. The arena is one of love, but true family love must also involve correction of thoughts and behaviors. The motive behind fatherly discipline of children, however imperfect, is always love. Every parent, however, will make selfish mistakes in discipline: disciplining a child because he has become an annoyance, or has made a public spectacle, rather than patient guiding of the heart. This can happen in the church, too.

When someone steps out on a limb, and attempts to offer some sort of course correction to us, we can have several responses. A common one is resentment: "Who does he think he is?" I know this because I have been there. People have dared to come to me, and offered helpful critique. I fumed. I fussed. I self-justified. I took it to God. They were right, and I was humbled, and set about correcting course. Not easy. Not fun.

The most common one in today's church is leaving. Find an easier place, where we can hide. Frankly, this is part of the appeal of the mega-churches. This is not just my inkling; I have heard many people voice this as just their reason for leaving a smaller church, where they had to shoulder some of the burden of leadership, or service, or "everyone being into my business." Biblical community is uncomfortable, and I want to hide from it.

Incidentally, this impulse is behind the failure of many marriages, and the pervasive lonesomeness many feel in our world. We don't want to be hurt; we figure solitariness is safety, and there we can always get our own way, so we cut ourselves off from anyplace where we might have to bend or yield our will to another, or be hurt. In our Wal-Mart culture, it is easy to do. We can go places and be surrounded by more people than ever before, and yet be lonely, because we do not connect.

This shows itself in the virtual world, too. Real relationships are too costly, too messy, and inconvenient, so we enter into a world of artificial reality, where we can project ourselves to be whoever we want, and "befriend" those who ask nothing of us, and who can be "un-friended" at will, and who, incidentally, are not their real selves, either.

I think many Bible-believing churches are succeeding today by speaking only the pleasant truths. When the unpleasant truths are brought to bear upon us personally, then we can assuage our consciences by going to other "Bible-believing" churches where the unpleasant truths are simply ignored, as if by doing so, we can escape God's all-searching gaze. This is a fool's errand. While we can escape scrutiny on our lives for awhile, and perhaps find some rest of conscience, or (worse) a passive acceptance of our self-destructive sinfulness, God always sees.

Life in community is no easy thing. God did not intend for it to be easy. The alternative is Hell --being left alone, with ones' self, to become one's worst self-indulgent, self-destructive self, with a worm that never dies, a fire that never goes out, and a thirst that is never quenched.

But, life in community here will often cause us to cry out for the perfection of the life of community in the world to come. Its very imperfection shows us it is a pale copy of the true. The father's house has not mansions, but rooms. Heaven is a place of dwelling together, shorn of all that makes dwelling together here difficult and painful. Yet, life together here can give us a warm foretaste of glory. Lewis said if we would have pleasure, we must have pain too. That's the deal. Those who cut themselves off from the pain, miss the pleasure. If I never connect to another living soul, I will never face the bereavement of death. If I am a faceless face in a crowd among the people of God, who will ever help me see my own sins and shortcomings, let alone show up with a casserole when I am sick?

God save us from our selfish selves....


  1. It seems to me that here, as in almost every other area of Christian life, the church is following the American culture as it's been going for a century or more. As soon as the automobile became affordable, people began moving out and out and out, as far as they could get, and then when they couldn't get any farther, they built bigger and bigger houses. Why? To get away from other people.

    We say it's all about creating community, but really if there is any community in the gated subdivisions, it's one that is composed of people all the same--same income, same level of education, same aspirations, nowadays even the same politics. Those are the only people we want to be around, and even then they get on our nerves and we move to a "better community" and hole up in our big houses, each person to his own room, playing on the Wii or watching movies or surfing the internet.

    This way we don't have to interact with other humans who may annoy us and we them. We don't have to listen to them playing their music so loud it vibrates the house (my particular thorn-in-the-flesh) or see homeless people or listen to Democratic neighbors bash whatever politician we happen to like.

    Marriage is the same way, why work at it when you can just dump it and move on, confident that you have made the right decision for your own self-actualization? The list goes on, jobs, best friends, local businesses--if they are holding you back, move on, don't worry about them.

    Sometimes I wonder if maybe the Amish have it right . . .

  2. The Amish probably have a lot right...

    Yet, isolation is not new to the American experiment. In fact, one might argue that it is at the very heart of it. Yes, at one time, many people dwelt in towns, surrounded by kith (whatever they are) and kin. In cities, there were strong neighborhoods bounded by ethnic and socio-economic ties. Downtowns were the happy meeting place of these cultures, both in city and small town.

    But, for many, if not most, Americans, there was the isolation of the prairie homestead and the mountain holler, an isolation that bred a particularly desolate and bleak worldview, and (as in Appalachia) a debauched and violent history.

    The point is this: the church is supposed to transcend that, and flourish in community despite what is happening in the larger culture for good or for ill.

    In rural Virginia, people tended to live far apart, surrounded by the lands necessary to provide their livelihood. I imagine, in the days before cars, this meant a lot of isolation. Presently, however, at least in our case, the church served as a hub of community life, even as people came from as far as 65 miles away (and many more from 35 or 20), they were still part of that community. Spirit transcended geography. It was a unique thing. It showed me that the church itself, if it is being the church, can create the community, despite the realities of separation.

    When we moved to the Jackson metro from the rural Blue Ridge, we were excited to live in a neighborhood. The reality is far different from what we expected, with the exception of one family that lives behind us. Nobody is ever out of doors --at least not in their front yard. There is no community there. There is no community centered on school either, which is far different from my Midwest farm town upbringing. The church, then, can provide the community for those who are committed to it. Part of the problem in Jackson, I think, is that there are too many good options, so, when I get a bit irritated at a church, I can find a church that irritates me less. When the new church irritates me, as it inevitably will, since everyone but me is a sinner, then I move on to church C.

    It is just everything that is wrong with current American culture writ small.