Sometimes you hear people say that one cannot be a Christian by yourself. They make the case that participation in a church (we’ll define that broadly today) is essential. Even Jesus was part of a community of faith.
Other times you hear people explain their lack of church participation by saying that they are religious but not spiritual. Or perhaps they say they are a believer but they can’t find a church that teaches from the Bible, has meaningful worship, or is friendly.
Of course it’s not either/or. Being in community doesn’t automatically make you a Christian. Being a Christian does not place you in a perfect community. Nevertheless while individual relationship with God is vital, our individual faith is nurtured and shaped by our community.
Community is a wonderful thing.
The difficulty of course is in the ‘getting along” with others. It sort of like Lucy’s comment in Peanuts “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.” It can be difficult to get along with everyone. In large churches it’s easier to come and then leave without encountering difficult or unpleasant or simply different people. In smaller churches, our socially acceptable methods of avoidance don’t work as well.
Modern culture doesn’t help us with this, the call to community.We do give lip service to it. How many times have you heard someone say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” How many times have you seen your local or state community BE a “village”?
Our culture doesn’t help us. We idolize the individual and individual effort. “Have it your way.” ” You deserve….”, “Reward yourself….” You can think of more. The rugged individualist. The Lone Ranger.
It is amazingly easy to only know, to only live with, to only worship with those like myself. You would think in this age of the internet we would all take advantage of its opportunities to broaden our knowledge and engagement of others. But the reverse seems to be happening. Most of us only read and interact with those who think like us. And it’s all too easy to attack and demonize those with whom we disagree.
At its worst this behavior to stick with the like minded breeds intolerance. If we don’t agree we split. At its best it manifests as not caring. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.
The difficulty with getting along is, to over simplify, why there are so many kinds of protestants. Our emphasis on a personal relationship with God and on personal belief runs the very real risk of splitting churches. I wonder if the complexity and difficulty of life is community is why so many are “spiritual but not religious”. In a culture and faith that affirms individuality, its easier to go your own way rather than stay in what can be a difficult relationship.
Sadly many of us have experienced community at its worst, when is it hurtful, harmful and destructive. In those cases perhaps no community truly is better than bad community.
And yet we all long for community, for true and real relationships. Deep down we know, at it’s best community nourishes us, community supports us. Community is where we flourish. We are created to be in community, with God and with each other.
I suspect most of us, miss both extremes. We end up in average communities, not terrible, not great. Not too demanding. Comfortable. Not challenging. Familiar, safe.
If we do think about community and what it should be like, we tend to romanticize it. We fondly recall the good old days. Or we imagine a utopian world. The reality is being in community is hard work. Even if the community is fairly homogeneous, it can still be difficult to get along. Marriage is a community of two, and you don’t have to be married for long to realize, it’s hard work.
It’s no wonder communities tend to be gatherings of the similar. Churches tend to attract people who are a lot like the people who are already there. We go where we think we will fit in. We want to avoid messy or difficult or complicated relationships. As many people have noted, Sunday mornings remain the most segregated hour in American life. People who are part of intentionally diverse churches will comment on the amount of attention and work that is involved. It is truly difficult to be in community with those who are different from us.
Community and our calling to it, is one of the big themes that runs through the Bible. Abraham, the father of Israel, is called to be the one through whom all the nations are blessed. Israel’s mission is to be a priestly people, priests to the rest of the world. They are the way the rest of the nations come to God. In the New Testament, Jesus commands the disciples to go into all the world, making disciples. Revelation offers us the image of all coming to worship God and live in the new Jerusalem.
What was God thinking when he asked us to do this? To show- not just show but embody, to incarnate- the embracing, wide ranging impossible inclusiveness of God. I think its one of the main callings of the church. And part and parcel of this is for us to demonstrate how people who disagree about some things are supposed to love and care for each other.
We need to acknowledge it is hard work. If it was easy, God wouldn’t need the church to do it. If it was easy we wouldn’t so desperately need God to help us.
Once again, dear readers, I offer no solutions. I must confess, I’m not very good at this. I’m not as intentional as I ought to be. So I’d like to know,
What do you do to foster community with those with whom you are already comfortable?
What do you do to foster community with those who are different?
What do you do to foster community with those who are difficult?