The topic of Christian community is one that as been on my mind for many years now. In the years after college as I was searching out my faith, I remember reading a C. S. Lewis passage in which the simple words “Our Lord” struck me with a new force. At that time I was attending church infrequently, had few meaningful social connections of any kind, and was becoming deeply aware of the many individualistic influences both in my personal life and in much of American society. I realized how deeply I longed to be able to say “Our Lord” instead ‘My Lord”. The sense of what I now call ‘moral loneliness’ had been very strong in my life for many years. Eventually, as I worked out my relationship with God, I reached the place where I knew I was ready to recommit to church involvement. It took me losing my job and moving back home for that to happen, but the move reconnected me with a childhood friend who had recently planted a church. We grew up in the same church and had been on similar spiritual journeys over the intervening years. One thing that excited me about the church was my friend’s emphasis on growing a vibrant spiritual community. Over the years as I grew spiritually and began entering into leadership roles I have tried to remain focused on a Biblical view of community as I teach the youth in our church, and more recently as I had the opportunity to participate in the process of finding a vision for our local church. Through our committee’s discussions we increasingly came to the conclusion that a strong spiritual community is one of most important ‘gifts’ our church can offer to counter the brokenness in our local community. In this post I intend to examine what a true, deep spiritual community might look like, and attempt to distinguish deep community from tribalism.
Deep Community is Forged, not Discovered
It is no real secret that American Christians, especially of the Protestant tradition, have developed a very consumerist approach to choosing a church to attend. We want to find a church that meets our personal preferences in not just doctrine, but worship style, preaching style, length of service, child care availability, and numerous other areas. Some of these factors are reasonable; some can be quite petty (stories of major church disagreements over carpet color come to mind). The result of choosing churches on the basis of personal preference is that we tend to choose churches full of people who are mostly like us. The reality is that many, if not most Americans will attend churches where we rarely will encounter someone of a different race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or even of a different political party. (For background here is an article on the socioeconomic divide, research on racial diversity, research on political diversity in churches, and choosing churches based on preference.)
There are several reasons why this desire for homogeneity exists in churches. We are more comfortable with people whose views and values we already align with as there is less social friction and conflict. We feel safer to know that we are surrounded by people who are on ‘our side’ of the cultural conflicts. It is easier to find friends among people who are already similar to us. What we don’t realize is that by socially segregating in this manner we are actually exacerbating the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that is a growing presence in our culture. However, when I look at the formation of the New Testament church, I come away with a completely different perspective. The birth of the church came about on a day (Pentecost) when Peter preached a sermon that was heard by people from at least 15 different parts of the world (if I counted correctly). While we are not given a breakdown, it seems likely to me that the original 3,000 converts were a diverse mix of different nationalities, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes. These people did not have the option to shop around for the church of their preference. They had to forge a brand new church, not discover an existing one.
We can examine the church at Colossae for further insight as to how this forging of community happened in the early church. Paul writes to the Colossians,
“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with it’s practices and have put on a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of the Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all of these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3: 5-14)
Diversity within a Unity
As we look at this theologically rich passage, I want to focus in on Paul’s description of where the Colossians came from compared to where they are now. We can see that this was a diverse church- Paul’s reference to “Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free” gives an idea of the likely composition of the Colossian church. (Barbarian referred to anyone who didn’t speak Greek, and the Scythians were a nomadic, tribal people from around the Black Sea area and the Russian steppe.) It should be noted that Paul paired terms together -Jew and Gentile, slave and free, uncircumcised and circumcised – that were in opposition to each other. (Scholars are not sure what opposing values were found in the comparison of Scythians and barbarians, if any.) It seems that Paul wanted to highlight not just God’s ability to unify diverse groups into a whole but that deep divisions could be overcome when ‘Christ is all, and is in all’.
The many divides in our society today- rich and poor, black and white, conservative and liberal, college educated and high school educated, rural and urban- can and should be overcome within our church communities. But to do this requires us to make changes in our thoughts and lifestyles. We have to abandon the consumerist mentality that seeks to discover a existing church that meets our preferences. We have to move past the tribalistic, fear-based ‘us vs. them’ perspective and begin to see building bridges across social divides as essential for the health of our churches and the spread of the gospel. As we look back over the passage from Colossians we can see what it took for the Colossian church to reach this place: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature”, and “you have taken off your old self with it’s practices and have put on the new self”. As people from a multitude of various backgrounds entered into that community, they entered into a process of a spiritual formation that would change them into someone- a new self- that they had never been before. Their old desires, habits, and identity had to die and be replaced with the image of Christ until that identity became the most important one for each person; superseding their prior identities as ‘Gentile or Jew’ etc.
I think it is important at this point to mention that this new identity in Christ, while superseding all other identities does not obliterate our other identities. The man from a Scythian culture would always retain certain cultural characteristics of that culture, and a Greek woman would forever remain Greek even after Christ became her primary identity. Often in a discussion of race or ethnicity a statement is made to the effect of”‘why can’t we all just be Americans”? This reflects the desire that every person has to be united with our fellow human beings, and to that extent it is understandable and a desire I share. Where this goes wrong is when we expect others of different backgrounds to essentially hide their unique cultural or racial identities, and then to adopt ours in the name of unity. The biblical perspective is one that I would describe as diversity within a unity. The passage from Colossians is an excellent example of what it takes for people of different cultures and social stations to forge a truly deep, Christ-centered community.
I find that in the broader culture there seems to be two contrasting mindsets: one pushes towards unfettered diversity that is destroying nearly every unifying factor in our society; the other mindset seeks an artificial unity based on cultural sameness rather than spiritual transformation. It is in the church where we should be able to find the truth behind both the desire for diversity and the desire for unity. Paul’s discussion of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12: 12-30 makes it clear that the unity found in the body does not destroy the unique identity of each individual person; rather it gives purpose and meaning to each person as they find fulfillment in offering their unique perspective and gifts for the strengthening of the entire body. Paul’s teaching was an extrapolation of Jesus words,” Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) If we are to move beyond the current deep divisions and forge deep, spiritual community we must abandon our attempts at discovering the church that fits us, and instead commit to a Christ-centered community, and then allow ourselves to be transformed and molded together into a new community.
(As a side note, I do not regard the question of homosexuality and gender identity as a question of diversity in the same manner as racial and ethnic issues. The broader culture views gay rights/gender identity rights as a subdivision of civil rights; to which I must respectfully disagree. I may address homosexuality/gender identity in a future post.)
I also want to emphasize that while hot button issues such as racial diversity or gender identity tend to be the first thoughts in our mind when the topic of diversity comes up; I believe for most of us the challenge of diversity is far more subtle. It comes at us in the form a very poor, possibly homeless couple without access to means of good hygiene. We see it in the people in our church whose values were formed in a different generation. It may be a wealthy businessman who handles amounts of money we can only dream of. Learning how to forge a deep spiritual community doesn’t require us to live in a racially or ethnically diverse area. It requires a willingness to allow God to change and challenge us through those around us, and to die to our own selfish interests. If we do allow God to challenge us through these less obvious forms of diversity our hearts will be prepared when we encounter a divide that is more difficult to overcome. And as demographics shift towards a more racially and ethnically diverse culture this heart preparation is essential for the future survival and growth of the church.
Forging a deep community also requires us to move beyond belief into action. A favorite quote of mine comes from scholar Francis Schaeffer “Love is not an easy thing; it is not just an emotional urge, but an attempt to move over and sit in the other person’s place and see how [their] problems appear to [them].” Some people have taken this idea further than what most of us would consider to be reasonable. A few years ago I heard the story of a white couple, Scott and Linda Roley, who were ministering in an African-American community near Franklin, Tennessee. They finally came to the conclusion that the only way to truly minister and connect with those they were ministering to was to move from their predominantly white, middle class community and into the impoverished African-American community called ‘Hard Bargain’. (You can listen to the story on this podcast starting around the 33:50 mark.) We may not all feel God leading us to go to that extent, but every one of us needs to be willing to move in a spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical sense. This is how we can move from a tribalistic, homogenous church culture into a deep, diverse, Christ-centered community where we can each play our interconnected role in the body of Christ. These communities can then truly serve their intended role as light in a dark, broken world.
This is excellent book that offers a thoughtful approach to engaging society while focusing on community building. *I earn a small percentage of any sales generated through these links.*
|The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
By Rod Dreher / Sentinel
How should Christians respond to a faith in the margins? Is there a middle path, between those who call for a complete separation and rejection of the world in which we live and those who rationalize and accommodate the world to preserve comfort and privilege?
In a radical new vision for Christianity, Rod Dreher issues a manifesto and clarion call for American Christians to consider how the practices of an ancient Christian way of life—the Benedictine way initiated by sixth-century monk, St. Benedict of Nursia—can be applied and lived out within today’s Church.
Here is the eBook version for those who prefer electronic reading.
|The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Conservative Christians in a Post-Christian Nation – eBook
By Rod Dreher / Sentinel