As I said before:
“I think the church must display an even deeper expression of community in our world. We are after all, a community which is modeled in some sense on the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can offer a manifestation of community which is counter to the false narratives of our world, shaped by reign of God values and led by a people of God who practice embodied love towards others. Why are we so slow to present this to our world? I’m not saying that there are not any churches which do community well. Maybe your church is one of those. But do I see churches courageously practicing the alternate values of the kingdom of God which create authentic Christ-centered spiritual community? Do I see the church leading in our society by building true community? Not really.”
There are impediments to building community, so we need disciplines that we can cultivate in our lives which help us to build community.
Community should not be romanticized, it is difficult and sometimes even an unpleasant work to nurture community when the kingdom of God is our inspiration and rubric. Instead, it involves engaging in regular practices which commit us to more seemingly ordinary things. I think that as we practice these ordinary disciplines, we will see the extraordinary take shape as the Spirit of God moulds his people towards true community.
The Discipline of Stubborn Loyalty
David Augsburger in his Book Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God and Love of Neighbor says
“Dissident disciples, in the communal practice of spirituality, stick together in a stubborn loyalty of community. This is not just any community. Not a community of consumption that gathers in a mall or at an auction; not a community of leisure in a health, fitness, or sports club; not a community of expression in arts, drama or literature group; not a geographic community of location, location, location. Not a community of contemporary megachurch worship-entertainment; not the temporary community of an exciting sports, music or political event. This is a unique sort of community that presses the word back to its origins, koinonia (the loving fellowship of co-disciples).”
How can we practice this “stickability” in a culture which is distracted, transient and essentially does not value loyalty? Can we express a kind of faithfulness and a constant reliance on one another and to the place where we live that will make the world gasp at our manifest fidelity?
The Discipline of Kenosis
How do we practice true kenosis so that a reign of God community is cultivated?
There is a slightly humorous but sad old tale in the Rabbinic tradition which tells about a prince who lived in a far away land a long time ago who longed for true community where each person showed loyalty and sacrificial service towards each other. So he called a meeting of his leadership to discuss this. As a part of the first gathering of this meeting which would start discussions about how to turn this land into a true community, he called each leader to bring their best wine produced from their ancestral vines. These wines would be poured into a communal vat and blended as a representation of true community. One of the winegrowers wondered how he would do this as it would compromise his wine. The unique grapes that he used would be spoiled, no one would be able to taste the uniqueness of his wine taken from his special vineyard.
So the night before the great meeting, he poured water into a wine bottle and took it to the meeting thinking that no one would notice. The next day the meeting started and the prince asked all to pour their wines into the one giant vat. Excitedly the prince then asked the leaders to take from the vat and drink as a symbol of community. They did so and discovered they were all drinking water. None of the leaders had wanted to compromise their wine.
No one was willing to let go of their own self in order to create true community. Truly surrendering to each other feels like we are losing our sense of self to some extent, and in our narcissistic society where individualism reigns, this is anathema. However, if our identity is grounded in Christ, then we do not need to fear letting go of our individuality. As we submit to one another, our true identity under Christ’s Lordship is built up. As Augsburger says, “In a tripolar community, each person’s individuality is affirmed (you can be truly you), yet joint participation is achieved (we can be truly we) because at the center we together recognize that God is present (we gather around him).”
The Discipline of Interdependence
I remember having a conversation with a friend a long time ago when I lived in South America for a while. I was about to step outside one day to buy the newspaper when he stopped me. “You’re going out dressed like that?” he said. I replied I was only going to get the newspaper. We had an interesting discussion after that which basically revealed the different cultures that we came from. I was from Australia where we are more relaxed when it comes to what we wear. We wear what we like when we like. However, his culture was more community oriented. People made an effort to wear nice things no matter what they were doing because they didn’t want to “let the community down.” Men and women took pride in their appearance because this meant that a nicer looking community would be fostered.
I found that fascinating. No matter what you think about aesthetics or whether you agree with the value that this culture places around beauty, what I found impressive was the awareness that each person had regarding fostering community. They realized that they affected one another. It was not just about the individual but each person keenly observed that the individual was a part of a community and so had responsibilities towards that community.
As we practice kenosis and interdependence we build a community which is strong in mutuality, sacrifice , accountability and service towards each other. Again, this is not always comfortable but I think it is a crucial part of a reign of God community which wants to run counter to the values of our world.
The Discipline of Welcoming the “Other”
Christian community which is shaped by the reign of God does not encourage homogeneity. As I have been visiting churches in my area I have encountered leaders who still practice the homogeneity principle stemming from the Church Growth movement decades ago. The idea here is that churches grow more quickly when like-minded people gather.
I find this principle so counter to the value of diversity that belongs to the kingdom of God.
Where I live there is a lot of homelessness, people with mental illness and people who have been affected by drug use. They are the marginalized ones in society. Some churches that I visit where I live, have no people in their congregation who are marginalized ones. Others might have a mixture yet as I walk into the sanctuary of the particular church I am visiting, I see the marginalized sitting on one side and the privileged sitting on the other. Other times I walk in and all the people are the ones marginalized by our society.
We have a long way to go in order to learn the discipline of truly welcoming the other. Women, singles, marginalized people, ethic minorities, refugees, these should be feeling at home in our congregations. Yet usually I hear the opposite. Many of these groups of people I have just mentioned crave community yet they leave the church gathering often feeling more lonely than when they walked in. Not only do they feel lonely but they feel as though their gifts are not being valued in the church. What is going on here? It is to our shame that those who are marginalized by the broader community cannot feel welcomed in God’s alternate radical, reign of God community.
Don’t Say It If You Don’t Mean It
Jesus said we are the salt of the earth. We are to add flavour, preserve and purify our world. However, this is not by default. We are salt if we live cruciform lives in Gods’ community the church. When we fail to do this, Jesus stingingly says that we are useless (Matt 5:13).
I think it’s time to stop using the word community unless we mean it. And we mean it when we start practicing some of the ordinary and difficult disciplines that I have listed. They might be uncomfortable but they lead to true life, joy and the full manifestation of God’s reign on this earth. Isn’t that in the end, what every human being deeply longs for?