This blog is one in a series of reflections on chapters in the book Called to Community.
Ironically, those three words are not about communicable diseases or social distancing. And yet, they were not the three words I was expecting a few months ago when I first cracked open the Foreword to a book about community. This opening phrase of Stanley Hauerwas was unexpected but also refreshing. My usual supply of information about Christian community takes on the subject with a somewhat naive optimism.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the concept. I've seen what community can be when it comes together in all the mess and beauty people bring to it. But this concept has a frustrating history in the modern Western church, and I've lived just long enough to witness its burst and sizzle. Like lighter fluid thrown a bonfire; this idea of community has dimmed to a crackle just as quickly as it first blazed up with a bang. I'll try to explain what I mean by giving you an autobiographical view from the wings.
I’m one of those annoying generation straddlers that hangs between Gen X and Millennials. In my lifetime of church participation, I have seen the rise of the "community trend." In my formative years, Sunday School was still Sunday School and the weekly church community activities consisted of Wednesday Night Fellowship in the "Fellowship Hall," youth choir, children’s and youth programs, and Bible memorization groups. As I got older, we saw the rise of "Community Groups." We rejoiced in or post-modern savvy! Weekly gatherings moved to living rooms and every church was asking members to get "plugged in" to some kind of core/community/D/cell/life/growth/small/fusion/city/koinonia/family/connect/home groups. Titles like "Sunday School" were dropped and the new buzz term was "community." It seemed more relevant and accessible. We felt like we had accomplished something.
I had no problem with this idea at first. In fact, it was a welcomed change to witness a shift away from programing and event driven church participation (which often sections people off by time-of-life circumstances). However, we are a few decades into this transition and many of us are wondering: "Is this really community?" Perhaps community was a word we used before learning what it really was. Is community a random conglomeration of young adults that meet once a week (or month) for seven months out of the year discussing pre-packaged discussion questions related directly to the Sunday sermon? Is community something that can be facilitated through a baseball diamond shaped program of Christian education that moves new members into engaged church goers? Does community happen somewhere along the way? Are these people sitting in my living room each week here to be community? What exactly are they here for? Do they know? Do I?
I have sat in living rooms with nice, committed people from our church and I have wondered about these things. I have now "plugged in" and emerged from so many "community" groups over a number of churches and cities that I can now say that true community is not what is happening in many of these groups. I resonate with many of my peers when we admit that we are still hungry for community and the label does not seem to match the reality.
But what is the reality? What is community really? Does Scripture tell us? Is it even possible in our current Western culture to achieve biblical community?
No single resource holds all these answers but when I picked up Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People, I noticed the range of authors and realized that this collection of articles from modern and ancient theology might be a good start. Each chapter is short and rich with information that explores the questions offered above.
Even in the Foreword and Introduction, Hauerwas’ assertion is followed by a frank observation about our difficulty with real community. Hauerwas observes that we have "confused freedom with the isolation of self." As Western, independent Christians, we lack a common story and "confuse community with being in a crowd," (xiii). Similarly, in the introduction, Charles Moore asserts an interesting diagnosis for how to destroy community that comes directly from our dearest, Western ideals. He notes that our current culture is made up of the very things that are designed to break down community and keep it from happening. The danger is in the clever veneer of community-like variables that do not, in and of themselves produce community.
For example, we are more connected than ever but connectivity does not equal community. We are proximate to each other but, as Moore observes, so are prisoners in prisons. Proximity also does not automatically create community. So if proximity and connection are not enough to have community, what is missing? "Community demands personal sacrifice and personal transformation," (xix) It is not enough to have an idea of togetherness or to organize people into groups. Church strategies have too long relied on the existence of community groups to further discipleship and church cohesion. Yet, organizing folks into proximate, regular gatherings and providing a devotional primer does not even begin to curate a biblical understanding of discipleship or Christian community.
"Community demands personal sacrifice and personal transformation." - Charles Moore
Moore observes, "We need more than new structures. We need a spirit-filled life that is capable of combating the corrosive ideologies of our age. Only when the church lives out its original calling, as a contrast community and foretaste of God’s coming reign, is there hope for the world. And there is hope," (xvii) But how will we know what it means to be a "contrast community?" Designing new structures is not nearly as needed as an orienting theology of discipleship where community and friendship become the vehicle for God’s kingdom work through the Holy Spirit in His Church. And we are hungry for it.
I work on a residential college campus and I see Christian students who are more proximate than ever to other wonderful individuals. Yet they still struggle with isolation, loneliness, and privatized spirituality. They hunger for a gospel experience that matters and a gospel story that includes them in a family of Kingdom agents. Moore notes, "A radical renaissance is unfolding among disenchanted Christians who are no longer satisfied with either Sunday religion or social activism. Today’s Christians want to be the church, to follow Christ together and demonstrate in their daily lives the radical, transforming love of God," (xvii) But how can we do this? While the hunger is good, loneliness can create a dangerous kind of hunger. Henri Nouwen once noted that fearful distance is awful, but fearful closeness (improperly handled) can be just as awful. So if the answers are not quick and bite-sized, then how can we hope to navigate the frustration of isolation and the mess of closeness?
This is the journey I want to go on with you.
As I work through this book, I will be writing reflections about the passages in hopes that together, we can learn what God’s will for "together" really looks like. And as we begin this journey in a time of national quarantine, my hope is that we can resurface into our communities with a more robust understanding of what we are meant to be in life together.
[In the "to be continued" saga of posts to come, I invite you to lend your own thoughts, stories, and observations about community. Let's do this together]