Sunday, July 22, 2007

Non-Answers About Church and Community

Who are my church and community? My answer no longer fits in a tidy box.

Losing 20-year friendships left me wondering about the facade of community we experienced in church. I lost my sense of purpose in being joined with other believers. Every seemingly important thing that we had spent our lives on was a pile of rubbish.

When we first started going to the new church, I tried connecting with the people there. They were friendly. However, it felt like attending someone else's family reunion or like dating someone you knew you weren't going to marry.

I don't blame them. I am the one who isn't willing to commit. I just can't muster up the desire to serve in church programs. Deeper commitment = Deeper relationships. To be honest, I am unwilling to spend my time playing that game now.

Is this my church? Are they my community?

Then our former church family showed up at the new church. Suddenly, after 2 years of silent loneliness, we were reconciled with our friends as they left the CLB. It is wonderful to be surrounded by family once again.

Now we are like an entire family attending someone else's family reunion. We have made ourselves at home in the new church. There is no denying the strong underlying connection among those who are former members of the CLB.

Is this my church? Are they my community? Are they only my church if we join the new club?

The following quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been posted on quite a few blogs this week. This is something that we experienced first hand.

The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So
he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Our former church was a non-denominational church. It was a church family. Like most families, it wasn't perfect, but there was a depth of commitment and shared history.

When the church joined with the apostle, he came in with his visionary ideal of community. Much of the language sounded great - authentic community, shared life, one-anothering, etc. Here is a quote from his teaching.

"We are intentionally moving past Sunday morning religion or church toward building a community that flourishes through growing relationships with God and each other. The world will know that we are Christians by how we love one another. Community is the result of a commitment of the heart that we intentionally make to God and each other."

Sounds great, right?

It soon became obvious that his heavy-handed approach for creating ideal community was destroying the real community that already existed. He has driven away the majority of the families, accusing them of individualism and of being unwilling to commit to community. The following paragraph may give you a glimpse into why this approach to creating community is failing.

"The culture of our community is being built intentionally and can suffer harm by the intentional exertion of our selfish man. That old man within us must be brought into check continually by trusting the grace of God to empower us to change and by submitting to the body and the leaders that Christ has put into our lives. We must all willingly make ourselves accountable to kingdom rank and authority. Behavior contrary to the Kingdom of God cannot be overlooked at any level because it threatens the very life and security of the community we are building."

It is not exaggerating to say that this method has been disastrous and has created a culture of controlled conformity that is being held up as a model of true kingdom community.

What actually creates community among people? I don't believe attendance at a Sunday service automatically creates community.

An interesting thing among the former church members is that relationships of convenience are no longer taken for granted. People are intentionally pursuing fellowship with potlucks, dinners, and coffees. They have purposed to maintain their relationships outside of the club. Another interesting thing is that it seems that the relationships have become better in some ways. Former social divisions no longer seem to matter.

These are my people. It is so comfortable. Maybe it isn't supposed to be comfortable. Maybe I was supposed to find new people. Maybe I'm not supposed to have people. I don't know.

I do know that I don't trust Sunday morning church to provide community, and I don't trust people with plans for creating and organizing community.

Just don't ask me who my church or community is, because I don't know.

20 comments:

paul said...

grin, like your base covering plan and your non-answers :)

Cindy said...

grace, your experience sounds a little surreal! does it make your head swim? my experience with my CLB is so different- if a bunch of those folks showed up at my church today, i'd freak and run! I'll be interested to see how all this goes for you.

btw- what's it like to have real (skin on) friends you can go deep with - talk for hours about spiritual matters? i haven't had that in a long time.

Bob said...

Grace,

Great post. I live the remark about it being like going to someone else's family reunion.

My experience is so different that yours but I find similarities as I try to reconstruct my "church membership". Not really too willing to jump into programs and cast my lot in with a new set of folks. But I hear great teaching one place, a connection with the true Church in another, but honestly, my people are still at my CLB. It is there that I feel at home.

I find it striking that the value/importance of the rest of the Sunday morning activity (worship, preaching, prayer, communion) is absent from this. Is this more about community and less about church? Or are those the same thing? I really don't know.

Jeff Greathouse said...

I need to study up on the CLB and your situation sometime.

I think that you are asking some good questions and doing some real searching.

I don't think that it is wrong not to have the answers to your questions.

I do think that most people who "do church" are really not "doing church"

Joe said...

First of all, I'm sorry that you were so hurt by your last church. As a pastor I've been on the other side of being burnt. (I was lied right to my face by the people courting us to be their pastor) and I've been burnt as a congregant (whatever the right term is there).
What I notice about the Bonhoffer quote is that I think it has most aptly applied to me, my wife and our friends after we've been hurt by a church when we go to the next church. You mentioned this in your post here and other places.
We're not called to protect ourselves, at least as I read the Bible. Your last pastor hurting you doesn't mean this pastor will. (I've had to tell myself in that in 3 strait churches)
There is a great danger that those who left the CLB will start to form community around the hurts caused by the CLB. They need to be talked about and processed through but at the end of the day God has called all of us to forgive the CLB and move forward for the Kingdom. When I got to the point where I could honestly say I forgave those people and it didn't cause anger to rise up in me, that was an awesome day.
I hope this doesn't sound like preaching. I'm just trying to share my thoughts.
Peace

Inheritor of Heaven said...

Your Bonhoeffer quote comes from one of my very favorite books. For such a thin book it packs in so much about community that can apply in many different settings.
Trying to keep aware of my own wish-dreams regarding church is sometimes a difficult task, thanks for the reminder.

Robbymac said...

"Visiting somebody else's family reunion" made me smile. There's something about a shared history together that is very powerful.

We have other dynamics in place for us at this time: because YWAM has so many transient staff members, long-term shared history is not as common. So, we have to somehow "go deep" with people we've only known a short time, and who may move to another YWAM base in two years or so. We love the people we've met, but not having much shared history, it's not the same kind of friendship/community.

And because we merely "attend" a local church, while we've made some connections, it's like we're always visiting somebody else's family reunion, as you say. They're friendly and we like them, but there's not the level of "go deep" or even the casual familiarity of a BBQ with good friends.

We're still figuring out how this is going to work, so I'll quit rambling (for now).

Joe Martino said...

Robby Mac,
The thing that I had to learn about moving from the family reunion to true community is it takes time. A lot of it.

Alan Knox said...

Grace,

It sounds to me as if you've found both church and community.

-Alan

Erin said...

Great post, Grace. Made me think. In some ways I envy you for having found something, even if you're not sure what it is.

Robbymac said...

P.S.

That second statement from the apostle-wannabe is so pathetically obvious as blatant manipulation and control to those outside, but it's scary how those caught in that system probably won't/can't see it until it's too late...

So I Go said...

i liked this post, and found myself nodding in agreement on many points.

forgive me if you've covered this in previous posts.. but my thought, (for what it's worth) .. is that no matter how hard we try to the contrary, we always default anf fall back toward the gathering.. the mechanics by which we assemble and become, well, a church (as in the noun).

the mechanics and assembly are important, no doubt..(and my last desire is to be preachy), but i've found over the past few years that the most authentic church community happens when we somehow become the verb; instead of building a bigger church, we do our darndest to church a bigger area. loving and serving and just plain old bringing it to those who are hurting or in need of a friend. it isn't always pleasant, nor is it familiar community or fellowship, but i have a hunch that the kind of church we all seek somehow happens as an unintended--but all the same craved--by-product.

Gary Means said...

wow, awesome post. When I first read the Bonhoeffer quote I felt very convicted. It seemed to describe me all too well. Then I read it again and it didn't seem to fit quite as well. The key is the word "demand". I hope I haven't demanded that God or others manifest my vision for the church. However, if anger in its many levels (from irritation to rage) reveals the truth of our expectations about life, then perhaps I have been more demanding than I like to admit.

Yet, my vision for church is not so much my personal creation as it is my attraction to what I see God doing in the Church in various places around the world, especially in elements of the emerging church movement.

My family and I attend a church service most Sundays, but not always the same church. Last week it turned out to be a fundie church. -shudder- But my wife had family there, so at least we could visit with them for a bit. I blogged about it, fwiw.

I wish there was a church within 20 minutes of our house where my family and I could fellowship. There's the tension between wanting to be part of a congregation whose geographic proximity allows relationships and the desire to be part of a body whose mission and practice reflects what I currently perceive to be Kingdom values.

travis said...

Love your blogs! I am still laughing about the abbreviations that I read yesterday (sorry, I just now discovered your blog) about CCLB! Love it love it love it!

grace said...

Paul,
Yes, we are flying by the seat of our pants for now (following the HS sounds more spiritual).

cindy,
I would never have believed the things that have happened if I weren't living it.
It's great having friends to talk to again, although sometimes I feel like I should still be alone (twisted, I know!). I guess I just got used to that role.

bob,
Even though our stories are different, we are on a similar journey of trying to define what church and community mean. I wonder what constitutes the "at home" feeling at your CLB. I don't have the answers either. If you didn't have the Sunday morning activity, would you still have community? And if you have community, is that church, or not?

jeff,
I agree that there is often a lack of "church" happening at Sunday morning services.

joe,
Not preachy at all. It has been long enough ago that I am doing pretty well in the area of healing and forgiveness. Due to the fact that my views about church have changed, I'm not really looking for a pastor to "follow."

My complaints now are more towards the systems and politics that cause the hurtful situations that believers experience in church.

As we are around people who have left our CLB more recently, we are trying to be sensitive and allow them the time they need to detox without letting that become the focus of our relationships.

I'm sorry that you've been hurt in the church also. I know that it goes both ways. It just depends on who has the power.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

inheritor,
I think it's okay for us to have wish-dreams about church. It is what we do with them that matters, especially if attempting to impose our expectations on others.

robby,
Our friends in YWAM experienced the same frustration with the transitory nature of relationships. Due to the common purpose, I think it is pretty easy to go deep quickly, however, as you said, it is lacking the shared history.

I was especially interested to hear that you aren't deeply connected at the church you attend. I guess I just figured you would be.

And thanks for the confirmation about the statement from the apostle wannabe. I'm glad it isn't just me that sees it as control.

joe,
It does take time. That is how shared history develops. What's interesting though, is that it is also possible to have shared history with people and never really develop community with them.

alan,
I believe that I define them both relationally now rather than organizationally. Thanks in part to your ongoing teaching!

erin,
Whatever "it" is, I've become more comfortable with the lack of definition and just appreciate the moments and relationships for what they are.

grace said...

so I go (jeff?),
I said almost exactly the same thing in a comment at the naked pastor blog the other day. Here is my comment:

Do we all define ourselves? Possibly. However, lately I define myself according to my relationships, not as a noun really, but more of a verb. Instead of thinking I am “a Christian” (noun), I think of myself as relating to (verb) the Father/Son/Holy Spirit. The same is true of my relationships as wife, mother, and friend. It is especially true of how I think of church and community at this time. I define my church community relationally rather than organizationally. Rather than looking for a church (defined by place), I look for relational circumstances where church is occurring.

I love your thoughts about "churching" a bigger area, rather than building a bigger church, and also that community is a by-product of our act of being the church. Thanks for sharing your comments. They help me as I try to get a firmer grasp on all of this.

gary,
I had not thought of the quote in that way. However, I agree with you that our expectations could become a type of control or abuse that we carry with us into church situations.

As I said to someone else above, I think it is okay to have our wish-dreams about church. In fact, I think that much of it is from God and the things He is teaching us. It is also good for us to have an awareness of the danger of imposing our dream on others.

I understand the frustration of feeling unfulfilled with your current church situation. I have come to accept that even in my dissatisfied state, God is expanding my understanding of the kingdom, the church, and the body of Christ. He will use it all.

(Of course I read your blog post. I read them all!) Blessings to you.

travis,
Nice to meet you! I look forward to getting to know you also.

Inheritor of Heaven said...

Your last poster (in above post) is why I believe wish-dreams (OUR wish-dreams) are not what the church is or will be. The church is only what Jesus says it is and calls it forth to be.

Robbymac said...

Grace,

We're not "deeply connected" at our church in areas such as:

* we aren't in any of the home groups

* I'm not a "regular" in the worship bands although I have filled in here and there when needed (and it was a good experience each time)

* although we are missionaries, we receive no support from the church nor are we on any "missionary list" that I'm aware of

* my role in "youth ministry" at this church is (A) chaffeuring my kids to the Tuesday night meetings, and (B) hanging out with the youth pastor for coffee every now and then, where he picks my brain and I encourage him because he's one of the few in youth ministry these days who "gets" community and spiritual formation

Last but not least, part of what Wendy & I are doing over this summer (before the next DTS starts in the fall), is to intentionally build on some of the friendships that we are in the beginning stages of. Not because we're frustrated with YWAM, but just because we realized we were out-of-balance to a degree by not being totally "here" in Kelowna.

grace said...

Hi Robby,
Thanks for the continued conversation. I couldn't really picture you as someone who would hang out on the fringe, although I also can't really picture you as someone "playing the church game."

I came across an interesting quote at Hamo's blog this morning about this whole topic.

He goes on to say that ‘community’ is more than just developing friendships and looking out for others who are like us. He calls this ‘tribalism’. He suggests that caring for the stranger is more of a mark of real community and it raises the ‘moral’ quotient of society as we actually build bonds that are beyond simple friendship as good as that may be.

Now that I have a tribe again, I want to be careful not to settle into that comfort zone and neglect expanding my sphere of relationships elsewhere.

It is nice having that sense of belonging, but it still lacks missional purpose. There is a part of me that thinks that the concept of community is idealized or perhaps idolized because of the fear of individualism.

Anyway, those are my thoughts today.

GIG said...

Grace,

Just wanted to say that I feel for you as a Pastor myself. I think this person that came into your church was more on an ego driven trip then a call by God. When church becomes about us, or our building, or our ministry, or our anything, in a way it stops being the church. I've been working with a couple who have come from a very broken church life and I hate that the kingdom of God has been so skewed for them. I come from a church that splintered and some of the people I looked up to in the faith left the church instead of fighting for the church. Leaving many people angry and broken, never to recover. Church is definitely bigger than the buildings and denominations around us. Most of my ministry is that of redefining church and community. I enjoy reading your journey in this and am glad you haven't given it up. Thanks for your insights!