I have come to believe that the pattern that developed among Christian Churches in which someone new was first taught what to believe, then they were invited to join and belong, and finally there was the call to “practice” their faith is backwards from the way Jesus operated. His was a call to change one’s practices (repent), then follow (belong). Beliefs about faith emerged from experience, not merely head knowledge. It was the community that shaped faith through practice and learning to live together “in Christ.”
We are hard wired for love and belonging. I sincerely believe the commandment to love God and love neighbor as we love ourselves is deeply imprinted on us. I’d love to win the lottery, obviously because I could manage the largess better than most lottery winners. Yet when I stop and take stock of my life, it is my family, my close friends, and my faith community at St. Andrew and AA that bless my life. I am who I am because of my desire to follow Jesus, but it is my fellow pilgrims who have shaped me and continue to challenge and push me toward completing the good work God has begun in me. (Philippians 1:3-6)
I’ve come to believe the forces pitted against God’s way of living, both within ourselves and the “principalities and powers of our age” fear community most. The easiest way to subvert the power of a faith community to empower our faith is to constantly bombard us with the tempting message that I don’t need anybody else to be a Christian, and in fact, most Christians are an impediment to my faith journey. I make it about me and God, even though, if God’s message in the Bible is to be trusted (and many of us say it is but ignore this truth), faith is always a community practice.
Yet the American Church has become more and more a collection of individuals who happen to come together for an hour a week to hear a preacher yak on about this and that. I’m hoping there is room for preachers to preach and teach, but church has become more and more like a family eating dinner together once a week with the TV on so no one is connecting around the table. We’re meant to connect with each other as the family of God. Richard Rohr nailed it: God’s basic method of communicating God’s self is not the “saved” individual, the rightly informed believer, or even personal careers in ministry, but the journey and bonding process that God initiates in community.
My biggest challenge is self-deception. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. A 2011 poll of who has the highest approval rating among Americans produced the expected results of Jesus, Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln getting pretty good numbers. What is staggering to me is they all lost to the most esteemed of all—ourselves. I guess you could argue that would point to healthy, positive self-esteem. But given our predilection for addictions, marriage failures, and a host of other dysfunctions, I’m not so sure that’s true. I certainly know it’s not for me. Left to my own devices, my life deteriorates pretty fast. Telling the truth about ourselves to ourselves requires a safe, loving, and vulnerable community around me. I need empathy, not sympathy. I need brothers and sisters around me who will love me enough to speak truth into my life and exhort me to live up to my calling “in Christ.” Proverbs 27:17 provides wise counsel: You use steel to sharpen steel, and one friend sharpens another. But in order for that to happen I have to show up and participate. Hiding in the crowd is to avoid what I need most.
I’m looking forward to hearing from Ellen Shepherd about how community has shaped her life as part of my message.
John 13:34-35 (MSG)
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.
Acts 2:43-47 (NLT)
A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need [Serve the world]. They worshiped together at the Temple each day [Connect with God], met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity [Grow in Community]— all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved.