The Church: What Kind of Community are We to Be?

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“Group inclusion is a kind narcotic, and a probably more powerful narcotic than adrenaline.” So says author Sebastian Junger, discussing his recent book titled War following the lives of the men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team fighting in Afghanistan.  He may just be on to something.  He later writes.

“The feeling of being included in a group, where you are absolutely sure about your role and you’re absolutely sure about your relationship to everyone else and their role and you’re completely necessary to the functioning of that group and everyone in that group is necessary to you. There is a security to that, there is a sureness there is a kind of necessaryness that every person has where they don’t have to wonder really about what their worth is, what their value is.”

This holds true across any and every spectrum.  We all wear our badges of belonging in the form of stickers on our cars, clothes on our backs or laptops in our briefcases. There is truly no such a thing as a man being an island to himself.  We all carry with us a sense of belonging to a group that is much larger than just ourselves.  And we wear that badge proudly.  Even those who would shun stereotypes and labels can’t escape it.  They belong to the group that shuns stereotypes and labels!  They have there own brand of musical preferences (eclectic: Dolly Parton to Snoop Dog to Death Cab for Cutie) and clothing style (Bobo’s rejected from Art School).  They even have the same mantra (“I don’t like to be categorized/boxed in/etc”) and rituals – reveling at much alike they are and unlike everyone else.  Together they bond in their uniqueness.  

We all long to belong to a group that we can identify with – who we get and who gets us.

But that never happens perfectly.  There is always some point of tension or misunderstanding or worse yet, alienation and exclusion.  When that happens, we usually jump ship and go form another group or seek to belong someplace else.  This is a common practice today.  We see it in church world with the phenomenon of “church shopping/hopping.” We also see it in the political world with the newly formed “tea party” party.  Apparently the republicans are not conservative enough, so we need to branch off and form a separate group altogether.

But this is not community; its affinity.  Its surrounding oneself with only those people whom we get along well with, and who think and behave the ways we are most comfortable with.  It’s a form of tribalism – where we erect barriers in order to preserve our groups identity and place in the world by keeping others out.  

That need for community is meant to be fulfilled, at least temporarily and imperfectly, in the church. However, for those outside the church other forms of community serve to fill that void. Video gamers find community at the local video game store and act violently when their space and community is threatened [illustrations see below]. Others seek to fill the that void with work, or leisure, or perhaps online communities become a way to achieve that sense of belonging without the costly commitment that normally comes with community and fellowship.

Among Christians, there is always the temptation within us to either preserve or reject the church and its community. Either we feel as though we don’t need the community, or we feel as though we must protect the community from any outside forces and from any changes.

People reject the community of the church for all sorts of reasons, but one of the most common is that the church is full of sinners. Anne Rice, a famous author and Christian convert, recently reported that she was done with Christianity because she simply could not be “anti-gay,” “anti-feminist,” “anti-science” and “anti-Democrat” and that following Christ did not mean following his followers. The comments section of the website on which this announcement was made was full of supporters who echoed similar statements. According to many, you don’t need the church to be a Christian. Living in community with other Christians is difficult, for sure. There is no doubt that the church is full of sinners and that means that there will always be messiness and frustration when Christians seek to pursue real community with each other through the church. However, just as Christ does not abandon us because we are sinners, or obnoxious, ignorant, or prejudiced, we are not at liberty to abandon other Christians for similar reasons.

Other people become obsessed with preserving the community exactly as it is, and for them, this means being very unwelcoming to outsiders. There is a security and a conformability that is lost when communities reach out and invite others in. However, one of the very purposes of the church is to provide a place of security from which Christians can reach out and minister to those outside the community. Just as Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” (Phil. 2:6-7) so should we be willing to release our grasp on the security and comfort that we have in order to minister to others. Jesus was willing to be abandoned by the community of the Trinity for the sake of the world. 

But the gospel comes in and it challenges our methods for seeking community through tribalism and through radical individualism.  It brings together a group of people who have one overruling allegiance to all other allegiances – their relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ.

You see the gospel isn’t about being conservative or liberal, bohemian or bourgeois, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Mexican, man, woman, child, elderly, hip, traditional, old school, new school etc.

The gospel is the ultimate relativizer because it is the most radical community builder. 

The picture presented in Acts 2 is neither of Christians who shun community, nor of Christians who are so concerned with preserving their community that they aren’t willing to reach out and grow. The picture presented in Acts 2 is rather of a group of Christians who were absolutely committed to living together in harmony and unity, sharing all things, including their burdens, with one another. That commitment to radical community and fellowship was attractive in a way that the community continued to grow daily.  And this community was formed out of Jews and Greeks, old neighbors and new strangers, living in and out of each others houses and good graces.  Why?  Because Jesus – the One who was the Son of God – had given himself for these people.  “He emptied himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race.” The gospel forms a new humanity out of the old humanity.  It doesn’t just gather like-minded professionals or urban hipsters, or chic soccer moms or organ-and-choir-please church people.  It gathers sinning, broken and arrogant people and proclaims to them that there is another way to live.  And this new way finds its most significant meaning living life in and with the community of fellow redeemed people. 

We are called to that same radical community in which we are in each others lives, knowing each other’s problems and struggles, and sharing each other’s burdens. When we can live in community and fellowship with one another like that, then we will truly exemplify the unity and love of the Trinity, and God’s love for us. That sort of community is not only healthy to us and pleasing to God, but it is also attractive to the world. Your neighbors, co-workers, and family and friends are looking for a community like that. Many of them seek it out in organizations like the Lion’s Club, the Rotary Club, the Free Masons, the Soccer Club, the local bar of pub, the various different boards or committees they are on, or internet social sites. However, most such communities don’t offer all that a person needs. They aren’t full of people who will truly sacrifice and provide for them, who will love them and support them. That is the sort of community that people want to be a part of and it is the sort of community that the church is called to be.

What sort of community will you be a part of? One that is relativized by the gospel so you can give yourself away to others? Or one that seeks to build up it’s walls of tribalism and live cut off from others?

It’s Been a While

I have to say that I have been a bad blogger lately – and justifiably so.  School has ramped up, and I have been unusually stressed out.  So this past week was a great opportunity to practice an area of much needed sanctification in my life, something I like to call rest!  It was absolutely fabulous Us as a Family at Halloweento take several days “off” – no school work, no running out to study, or meet with anybody, or be anxious about how much I have to do in the next two weeks (which is alot). Instead, I got to roll around on the floor with my two children – Maya and Alex, re-arrange our living room to decorate for Christmas, lay on the couch without a Systematic Theology book resting on my belly, and spend some time on the couch with my wife.  I also spent very little time on the internet, and think that I might need to make that a recurring practice every so often.I do have some things in the works though for the blog that I wanted to preview for you all.Pierced for Our Transgressions  Sometime in the next few weeks I am going to posting several reviews of books.  One of my joys is sharing resources, and as I come across good books from class, or from generous folks (thank you Michele!), I’d like to tell you all about them, and recommend to you the ones that are worthwhile.  So, be on the look out for a post or two on Pierced for Our Transgressions (a great book on Penal Substitution), as well as something on Piper’s (and others) recent works, The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World and The Future of Justification.Early on next year,  a friend here at seminary and I will be trying to read Communion with the Triune Godthrough some good stuff by some older generation, godly men.  We’ve talked about starting off with Communion with The Triune God – the recent adaptation(?) of John Owens’ classic.  I hope to make that a regular posting.  In addition, I’ll keep posting thoughts on faith, life, culture and preaching, because it seems those are the things that occupy the free space of my mind these days.

Francis Schaeffer Lecture Series – Emerging Church

Darrin PatrickHere is the content for the Covenant Seminary’s Francis Schaeffer Institute Lecture Series (that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?) on the Emerging Church. This was a series of talks given by Darrin Patrick, lead pastor of The Journey and V.President of the Acts 29 Network. Darrin is a guy who neither absolutely praises or bashes the Emerging Church movement. Instead, he gives a really good inside picture of it, while also standing somewhat outside of it and gives it a good critical assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. If you’re out there and you’re the least bit curious, or cautious, of anything that bears the label “emerging”, then listen to these lectures.

Audio Content (page – you can download the lectures individually)

Written Content (abridged notes from the talks)

Evangelicals and Reductionism – Can we really have community and not mission in our churches?

I have to say that I’m sorry its been so long since I’ve posted.  Its been a crazy few weeks, with a 4 day trip back home to Augusta.  Anyway, here’s a great post over at The Resurgence site, dealing with Evangelicalism and reductionism.  There’s alot in it, but this last thought is really great.  What do you guys think about this?

The danger I face…is that I, too, can reduce the Church’s real problems to simple solutions just like the next person. The real problem is a spiritual and theological one, not a management or programmatic one. This calls for spiritual and theological solutions, not pat answers. This frustrates busy, pragmatic Americans who want programs that will solve their problems. Thus the reductionistic problem just keeps getting recycled over and over again.

The place we must begin to counteract this reductionism is in seeing that our mission is not merely an activity of the Church, but rather that the Church exists for mission. Mission is the result of God’s activity within the world and that mission is to restore and heal creation. The Church is a community of the redeemed and exists to serve that mission. This is the meaning of John 20:21. God is a missionary God and we, as his people, are a sent people. The Church is not the purpose of the gospel, or even the goal of the gospel. The Church is the instrument and witness of the gospel. Only when we get this right will be begin to be the community that God intended for us to be.

So, do we as North American evangelicals operate in ways that reduce the gospel – in our gospel “presentations”, ministry objectives/approaches, etc?  Do we tend to see the church as serving our need for community, or as God’s ordained instrument in accomplishing His mission? 

Thoughts, comments, suggestions!

CT Article on Gospel Coalition

The Gospel CoalitionColin Hansen has an article for CT about The Gospel Coalition.  Its a good excerpt, and worth reading to understand what I think is an exciting and important trend for the shaping of future ministry, particularly in the U.S.   Here are a couple of good quotes (from Keller, yes!), but do go read the rest of the article (click here).

“I want to see more churches and leaders joining hands across denominational and network lines to think out how to do effective mission based on the historic, classical understanding of the gospel as it has come down to us from the Reformation and through the Awakenings.”

“If we seek service rather than power, we may have significant cultural impact,” the statement says. “But if we seek power and social control, we will, ironically, be assimilated into the very idolatries of wealth, status, and power we seek to change.”-Tim Keller

Signs of an Unhealthy Church

Anthony BradleyAnthony Bradley has another great post over at The Institute regarding two things: 1) Some great sermon series’ from some solid, missional churches (I’ve only listened to the series from the Journey, which I highly recommend listening to, but the others look pretty good as well), 2) some thoughts ans signs of unhealthy churches.  I found them pretty interesting, what do you all think?  Here they are (click here to go to Anthony’s full post):

Here are some signs of possible immature and unhealthy churches and/or dying or dead churches:

(1) Little or no adult baptisms. That tells you A LOT about who the church is NOT engaging. (Acts 18:10) Fellas, did you know that there are actually Christians who don’t think it is odd that their church hardly ever has adult baptisms. Some don’t even at an eye at that. Shouldn’t that be kind’a embarrassing? The most I’ve ever personally been involved with, as a church employee, was when I worked at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philly). It was an amazing number.

(2) It’s mono-ethnic( except for rural churches). If the church is in or near a major city and the church represents a segregated mono-culture (by race and/or class) in leadership and membership you are right to think that is kind’a odd. It’s 2007 not 1907. And, sadly, church leaders and members avoid living in the epicenter of major cities. (Rev. 5:8-14; Eph. 4)

(3) The church has no social witness. Members and regular attenders are not personally involved in local, state, or national social issues (wherever the curse is found) at any level. It’s not a regular part of their family life. (James 1:27)

(4) Infrequent practice of the sacraments.

(5) Non-Christians are not involved in the life of the church, the personal lives of church goers, or attending worship (Lev. 19:33-34).

(6) The preaching, teaching, programs, aesthetics, music, etc. primarily appeal to 40-something women and their children. The men may be physically present but are bored and/or dead.

More good thoughs on “missional” and denominations

There’s a great post over at ‘Conn’-versation regarding the shape of younger Christian leaders and the whole “missional” conversation. I appreciate the post because it has put words to my scattered thoughts, particularly in relation to missional conversations within reformed denominations. For anyone trying to live and move in both worlds, this can be more tricky, and require a bit more awareness and discernment with the things we say or do. Anyway, here’s a great quote to wet your appetite:

“The adjective Missional will likely have its day in the sun and end dried up in the field of other helpful, but not bygone categories, but the changing ecclesiology it sought to capture will remain until and if we experience the Southern Hemisphere shape of Christendom to come (spoken of by people like Philip Jenkins) expanding into the landscape of our Post-Christian West in a culturally transforming manner.”

Check out the whole post here.

(P.S. – I have yet to read Jenkins book, but have heard great things about it, and with this post, I will most likely end up reading real soon. Anyone have any thoughts on the book itself?)

What does it mean to be “the Church”?

Anthony BradleyAnthony Bradley has got some good thoughts and a great quote over on his blog The Institute about being the church, and having more of a gospel-centered, “revolutionary” mindset regarding where and how we live as Christians in the world.  I always appreciate the way Bradley challenges me with his thoughts, but even more so, I love it when anyone draws my attention to the fact that Christianity is a “forward” religion – its meant to be lived out on the “offensive” rather than the “defensive” end (for more thoughts on this, check out The Prevailing Church by Randy Pope).

Here’s a quote from a missionary that Bradley includes in his post, and I think it sums things up quite nicely (but do go check out his blog to get the whole sha-bang!):

We need to recover the grand, cosmic significance of Jesus’ saving activity that moves the gospel out of the narrow realm of our self-preoccupation…The gospel properly understood, is much broader than our concerns for personal survival, security, significance, success, or even self-centered sanctification. The gospel presents us with a Jesus, not meek and mild, but One come to set the world on fire. It presents us with a plunderer, and it bids us to throw ourselves away in the pursuit of this new world order. –Bob Heppe, Missionary

Idols – Near and Far

I have a great privilege to go to The Journey church here in St. Louis.  One of the things I am most thankful for at the church is the solid, dynamic, idol-exposing, sin-shattering and gospel-driven preaching that comes through each week, no matter who is preaching.  The past couple of weeks we have gone through a series on Transformation, with some great thoughts on identifying Near and Far Idols.  Below I’ve linked two posts from the church’s website that I would highly encourage you all to read at some point.

Discerning Your Near Idols  (MP3 here)

Peeling Back the Layers – Far Idols (MP3 here)

Guys who call a spade a spade

Ed Stetzer has written a great little article over at the Catalyst site regarding the Church. The title alone is great (You Can’t Love Jesus and Hate His Wife), but here’s another great quote:

Paul was willing to take a beating for the church because Jesus submitted to a brutal murder “to make her (the church) holy, cleansing her in the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:26-27 HCSB)

Seems like fewer and fewer people are willing to take the church seriously, let alone take a beating for her.

In a way, this is good reality check for me (and maybe for the rest of us who are wanting to plant a church/are planting a church). It’s making me ask, “Am I desiring to plant a church because King Jesus has called me to do it, or am I taking the easy way out and not take a beating for Christ’s bride in my local context by remaining and pursuing her holiness?”