October 23, 2017

Chris Smith: A Joyful and Vibrant Life: Cultivating Community as Slow Churches

Agape_feast_01

The Symbolic Supper. Early Christian catacomb

Note from CM: My friend C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and author of several books, including the forthcoming Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, (co-authored with John Pattison, IVP/Praxis, Spring 2014).

You can, and are encouraged to connect with the conversation about Slow Church on Chris and John’s blog on Patheos.

Thanks, Chris!

* * *

Chaplain Mike recently invited me to respond to this recent post that was shared here: Another Look: Some Thoughts on “Community.” The basic point of this post was that:

We simply cannot experience community today unless we take some different approaches to life. To have these kinds of relationships, we must disengage from things, even good things, that work against our own human formation and the formation of human bonds with others.

This insight is an important one, and one that has guided the work of many social critics over the last half-century, including Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman and Wendell Berry. But how do we move in this direction? And, to what end do we do so? And what role should our local church communities play in this cultivating of community?

These questions are ones that I have been wrestling with in my forthcoming book (co-authored with John Pattison): Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP/Praxis, Spring 2014). They also are ones that the congregation that I belong to, Englewood Christian Church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, has been grappling with for over two decades. (A brief snapshot of our story is available on the Christianity Today website). Following in the footsteps of other Slow movements – first and foremost, Slow Food, but also Slow Cities, Slow Money, etc. – we seek to offer in Slow Church, an alternative to the speed and industrialization of our fast food age that prefers quality over quantity and that is deeply embedded within and attentive to the local places and economies we inhabit.

But before I talk about cultivating community in our local churches, I do want to offer a caveat about nostalgia and the question of “to what end?” Among many folks who yearn for a more connected life in community, there is a powerful temptation to look back at some bygone, pre-internet era (say the 1950s, for instance) as the golden age of community. While there are things we can learn from such historical communities, the experience of community in past ages often came at the expense of diversity. It’s relatively easy to be in community with people who are similar – in age, economic status, race, language, etc. – to ourselves, but our call to community in Christ is not this sort of community. Our call to follow Christ as the people of God falls within God’s mission of reconciling all humanity and all creation. It’s good to have friends who are like us and who understand us, but that kind of community is fundamentally not what church is about, rather church is about learning to be a community with those who God has gathered, across generations, economic classes, races, etc. This sense of becoming a reconciling community is often obscured by the consumer Christianity of our age, in which we pick churches in which we feel comfortable and in which our needs are met. And, of course, the flip side of that is that if we ever begin to feel uncomfortable (or that our needs are not being met), we can check out and go find another church.

When we start to think about cultivating community in our churches, one of the first steps is coming to realize the ways in which our theology has been hijacked by the ideologies of the modern age (particularly individualism and consumerism). Essential to the vision of Slow Church is that the people of God are at the heart of God’s mission for reconciling creation. We have therefore intentionally chosen the language of Slow Church, as opposed to Slow Christianity, Slow Faith, or similar label. Part of the slowness of our calling is that we are called into the life and community of God’s people. We are so accustomed in Western culture to living and acting as autonomous individuals, that the idea of being God’s people in the world, as Israel was the people of God in the age of the Old Testament, can be a foreign one for us. Being God’s people is messy at best. We are broken human beings with fears, prejudices, addictions, and habits that are harmful to ourselves and others. It can seem more practical and convenient to keep to ourselves and minimize the risk that we’ll get entangled in the lives of others. And yet, as much as we are formed by Western individualism, and though we have allowed that individualism to shape the way we read scripture, our calling in Christ is to community, to a life shared with others in a local gathering that is an expression of Christ’s body in our particular place.

Lastsupp

Gerhard Lohfink has argued persuasively in his books Jesus and Community and Does God Need the Church? that the community of God’s people is essential to the mission of reconciliation. However, Lohfink emphasizes that the people of God are not privileged over the rest of humanity or the rest of creation. All humans are image-bearers of God, and God loves us all. But in order to redeem fallen humanity, God began the mission of reconciliation at a single time and place, and with a single people, Israel. God’s work in the world is focused on gathering a people. This started with Abraham and with God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the beach. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob multiplied, were enslaved by Egypt, and later led out of captivity by Moses. God gave the Israelites the Torah, which wasn’t primarily an instruction book for righteous living for individuals, but laws that gave shape to a holy people, set apart from the violent, cruel, and self-indulgent ways of the pagan nations that surrounded them. Israel continued to grow over the centuries, the era of kings came and eventually went, and soon Israel was an exiled people without a land.

It was during the Roman occupation of Israel that God sent Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, a backwater town that paradoxically confirmed Jesus’s kingship. There has been a strong temptation throughout the history of the church to place Jesus over and against the work God started in Israel. This temptation, called supercessionism, fails to see the integrity of God’s people-building work in the world. But the old tree wasn’t chopped down to make room for the new one; Gentile Christians were, in the words of the Apostle Paul, a branch grafted onto the olive tree of Israel (Romans 11:1-24). The reconciling work of Jesus extends outward from Israel. The people of God become therefore a sort of demonstration plot for what God intends for all humanity and all creation.

Though he often challenged the rabbis of his day, Jesus was firmly rooted in his identity as a Jew in first-century, Roman-occupied Palestine. As Lohfink observes, it is striking that the heart of Jesus’s work was located in the calling and teaching of a small community of twelve disciples. Far from accidental, this number indicated that Jesus’ work was oriented toward the fullness of Israel. Jesus called his disciples from among the Jewish people, but there was a wide diversity among them. For instance, Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot were two disciples whose backgrounds couldn’t have been more difficult to reconcile. Called by Christ, the disciples were a community. We tend to think of Jesus and his disciples in terms of their religious activities—preaching the Good News and casting out demons—but we shouldn’t forget that their common life was much broader. They ate together, traveled together, and shared in all facets of life. Centered as they were on Jesus, these seemingly mundane activities took on their own significance in the mission of Jesus.

Through the dispersion of the disciples after Pentecost, God’s work of gathering a people was extended beyond the boundaries of Israel. Out of Israel, after many generations, a messiah was raised up who would open the doors so that the blessings of chosenness would now be available to all regardless of their ethnic heritage. There is a continuity and integrity to God’s work in the world: the calling and shaping of a community of people that began in Israel has, through the work of Christ and the little community of his twelve disciples, been extended to Gentiles as well as Jews. “The Church did not regard itself as a new people appearing in the stead of the old people of God, having dissolved and replaced it,” Lohfink says, “but as Israel, or more precisely as the beginning and center of growth for the eschatological Israel. … The post-Easter community continued what Jesus had begun” (Lohfink, Does God Need the Church?, 220 – italics preserved).

With this basic theological narrative in mind, we turn to the question of HOW we go about cultivating community in our local churches? Reinterpreting the three cardinal virtues of the Slow Food movement, Good, Clean and Fair, we have described three aims that are essential for churches to focus on as we seek to slow down and cultivate community: Ethics, Ecology and Economy.

In relation to Slow Church, ethics is the pursuit of quality rather than quantity.  In following Christ, what we are seeking is not which will make us look and feel good, but rather what really and truly is in the best interest of our neighbors and ourselves. Seeking goodness is impossible without our maturing in practices like work and stability.  In contrast to the convenience culture of our Western world, we recognize that doing anything well requires significant work and effort. One does not, for instance, learn to be a master chef or pianist overnight.  Furthermore, goodness is cultivated in communities, not apart from them. Stability, the commitment to stay rooted in a particular place, is therefore very important to seeking the well-being of our communities. If we continue to conform to consumer Christianity (as mentioned above), the patterns of transition and upheaval will be seriously detrimental to our efforts to cultivate community in both our churches and our neighborhoods. Seeking goodness as churches requires that we stay put in a congregation indefinitely (not necessarily forever, it seems to me like there is room for thoughtful and robust habits of sending and receiving people from one church to another), and commit to working toward the cultivation of community. Both of these commitments, I would add, fly in the face of modern, consumer Christianity.

In talking about Slow Church, we use the term ecology to remind ourselves that our calling to follow Christ comes within God’s mission of reconciling all creation.  We do not act in a vacuum; we must be attentive not only to seek the ends of peace and reconciliation to which we have been called in Christ, but also to do so in a way that bears witness to the love of Jesus in our neighborhoods and beyond.  (Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way is particularly helpful as we seek to examine our means and ends). We seek our calling within all the social, economic and natural networks of our particular places; it is within the work of building collaborative partnerships with local agencies, organizations and institutions, that we slowly and patiently bear witness to the all-reconciling way of Christ.  Although work is an essential practice as we move in this direction, we also value the practice of Sabbath, as an important reminder that it is God who is healing and reconciling and not ourselves, and as a space in which our pausing affords us the opportunity to contemplate and envision how we are going to move forward together as churches and neighborhoods toward healthy and flourishing communities.

Economy, the third and final virtue of Slow Church, is essential for the flourishing of communities because God abundantly provides the resources needed for the reconciling work into which we have been called.  The economy of creation, as theologian William Cavanaugh has argued in his book Being Consumed, is one defined by God’s loving and super-abundant provision. Most of the world’s economic systems are built upon the assumption of scarcity: that there are not enough resources to go around.  As we are engaged with our neighbors in the journey of seeking the flourishing of our place, we bear witness to the economy of creation.  No person is expendable; everyone has gifts and skills that can benefit the work of seeking and healthier communities. The practices of gratitude (living as people thankful for God’s provision) and generosity (sharing abundantly as God has shared with us) will help us bear a deeper witness to the economy of creation. Our communities and places will flourish only to the extent that we are grateful for the people and resources that exist within them and to the extent that we share the abundance of God’s resources with one another.

I have named a number of practices here that are vital to Slow Church, but the one that is perhaps most essential is conversation. In our experience here at Englewood, it was conversation that enabled and drove us deeper into these other practices. Stumbling into the practice of conversation almost twenty years ago, we quickly realized that we didn’t know how to talk well together: people yelled at each other, some checked out of the conversation permanently, others left the church altogether. But, as we kept talking together, what emerged was not unanimity on every theological or practical question (though I’d like to think we have moved a wee bit in that direction over the years), but the forging of a deep trust that allowed us to work together even if we didn’t always agree on the rationale for how or why we were doing the particular work that we were. (I have told the story of our experiments with conversation in the ebook, The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities).

Our first priority as our churches as we seek to slow down and cultivate community, is creating spaces for open and meaningful conversation. What would it look like for us to have our life together centered – as the earliest church in Jerusalem was – on dinner-table conversation? I don’t think churches should abolish their traditional practices of Eucharist, but if we adopt practices of dinner-table conversation, we should see them as Eucharistic, by which I mean that we enter into conversation with the sort of radical self-denial that defined the life and death of Jesus and that we remember in the celebration of the Eucharist. It must be the Holy Spirit who speaks in our midst and guides our conversations. If we speak (or listen) out of our sinful nature, passions will be ignited and division will ensue. If we allow our selfish agendas to dominate our conversations (and particularly the “what’s in it for me?”mentality), we are setting ourselves up for power struggles and many other kinds of trouble.

Second, conversation should be open; anyone and everyone should be allowed to contribute. Open conversation in the church is rooted in the convictions that God has assembled us together in this place and that everyone that God has assembled is a gift given for the maturing of Christ’s body (for more on the significance of open conversation, see the chapter on “The Rule of Paul,” in John Howard Yoder’s book Body Politics). Our conversations should be both Eucharistic and open; everyone should be permitted to speak, but those who speak should do so not out of self-promotion or selfish ambition. Silence and careful listening are just as important in church conversations as speaking. Sometimes we need to hear the particular wisdom of certain people (e.g., in reading and understanding a particular biblical text); at other times, it is just as necessary to hear the questions of one who does not understand something that has been said.

As we explore the practice of conversation in our churches, it will eventually flow outward from our congregation and draw us into conversation with other churches and with individuals and organizations in our neighborhoods. God is at work reconciling all humanity and all creation; the way forward toward cultivating community begins with our churches immersing ourselves in this mission, actively seeking – in conversation – to discern the ways that God is leading us into deeper expressions of community as God’s people. Thus, we bear witness to our neighbors in our particular places of a gospel that is really and truly good news, the healing and the joy we find as we are slowly beginning to be liberated from the fragmenting and dominating powers of individualism. Our local churches can be a sort of laboratory, an environment secured by the love, grace and commitment we extend to one another, where we can begin to recover the civil arts that have been all but lost in Western culture at large. We will undoubtedly bumble along in this direction, failing perhaps as often as we succeed, but these failures become opportunities for repenting and extending grace, which will in turn drive us deeper in our calling as the people of God.

Our biggest failure, however, would be – in our stubborn conformity to the individualism of our age – to resist God’s calling to the joyful and vibrant life of community as God’s people (a foretaste, no doubt, of the reconciled community that God intends for all creation!)

Comments

  1. Mike,

    In the small number of church experiences I’ve had where there was real “community,” the people were diverse. We all felt a sense of being knit together, but by Chirst, rather than things/lifestyles in common. In fact, these people that were my friends I would in no way at all have anything to do with them, and had nothing in common with them, outside of being God’s people. They were eccentric, bizarre and had many earthly problems (I’m sure they viewed me the same way), yet I could eat with them, go to the farmer’s market with them, a ballgame with them, dig in their yard with them, minister to people in dark alleys with them, and just hang out at Denny’s at 2am with them. We were the church.

  2. At its best, iMonk is a place for open and honest conversation. The past week or so there have been some pointed – even personal – negative comments made. There was a deep division of views and personalities, but in the end things settled down. It seemed like folks let things slide. Not in a negative way, but in a way that was considerate of where folks were coming from at a given point in time.

  3. Something that I’ve learned relative to Conversation is that “getting stuff done” is not nearly as important as the process of talking with each other about what it is we think should “get done”.

    “Majority Rule” is a very bad system in a church community. Consensus building is vital for community. Consensus does not mean “total agreement”, however it does mean that no one is in strong opposition.

  4. A woman I take Greek with recently described an annual summer camping trip she organizes that includes extended family. “It’s a real pain in the @$$!” she said. But she went on to say she did it purposefully because in the long run, all the problems they go through trying to pitch tents, cook, deal with whiny children (and adults) in the great outdoors has the effect of binding them together. Striving together is a good thing and they laugh about it at Thanksgiving. I can’t tell you how that has made me think in the last two weeks about my introverted nature and also my desire to avoid conflict … and also the frustrations I constantly feel with the way things are going in my church.

    Then Mule wrote his post on acedia. One aspect he described is the desire to withdraw into oneself. Thomas Merton wrote similarly in one of his books (can’t remember which one) that when we express our desire to be alone, we are really saying we do not wish to know or be known. Eventually, we get our wish. God will say, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” Merton goes on to say that is entirely too much solitude. Actually, it is hell.

    St. Benedict addresses this issue in his Rule when he exhorts his monks to stability. In other words, stick with commitments and stick with relationships even at great cost and sacrifice. This is why George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” touches me so. He viewed himself as a failure and having wasted all his dreams and potential by staying in his little town. The truth of the matter is that he had spent his life keeping brothers. Striving with them gave him a very big family in the end.

    Just a few random thoughts. I’m really preaching to myself as I constantly struggle with this issue.

    • You’re reading my thoughts, Lisa, and preaching exactly what I need to hear!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Then Mule wrote his post on acedia. One aspect he described is the desire to withdraw into oneself. Thomas Merton wrote similarly in one of his books (can’t remember which one) that when we express our desire to be alone, we are really saying we do not wish to know or be known. Eventually, we get our wish. God will say, “Depart from me; I never knew you.”

      That too, can be abused. There have been IMonk posts about Introverts and Extroverts, and how the Evangelical Circus selects for not only Extroverts, but the backslapping, grandstanding, always SMIIIIIIIILING used-car salesman type of Uber-Extrovert. Where does that leave introverts like me, who do withdraw into ourselves a lot? I’m mostly withdrawn, but I do come out in non-threatening situations, often bearing the creative work I’ve done when withdrawn. Does this mean God hates me for it? There are those who would take the above to teach so.

      • I have a hikikomori son. I would appreciate your prayers.

        The introvert spending hour after hour in solitude avoiding his issues is no more nor more less vulnerable to acedia than the extrovert flitting fretfully from event to event, relationship to relationship, person to person for the same reason.

        • HGU and MCB both make good points. I don’t berate myself for being an introvert, but there are times (and I felt it when reading Mule’s piece) that the Holy Spirit shows me I am in danger of living in my own universe.

          I’d like to use the word “balance” here, but it’s not exactly the right word. Jesus would both withdraw into solitude and also allow himself to be pressed on all sides by crowds. It was a life of vacillation between both extremes and seems necessary to be in fellowship with both God and man. St. Augustine wrote in The City of God about three types, those whose lives are public, those whose lives are solitary and those whose lives are a mixture of both. He described himself as one of the latter, though he seemed to long for a bigger dose of the private as do I. But I have people and I love and care for them so much that I am willing to live outside of what’s comfortable … most of the time.

          • Lisa, I think the word/phrase you’re looking for is “non-dualistic” thinking–a way of holding onto apparent contradictions without immediately having to throw one of the contradictions away. The mystics call this “contemplation.”

          • don’t berate myself for being an introvert, but there are times (and I felt it when reading Mule’s piece) that the Holy Spirit shows me I am in danger of living in my own universe.

            Felt exactly the same thing (still do) while reading the acedia piece. Now to prayer and whatever the Holy Spirit brings as a result of that.

          • Lynn MacDougall says:

            Lisa – probably too late to respond but – mu daughter, who’s an extreme introvert recently read two books that she said were helpful : QUIET by Susan Cain followed by INTROVERTS IN THE CHURCH by Adam McHugh. She said they were very helpful in a world where being an introvert feels “sinful” (my words).

            Also your last comment about loving people resonates deeply with me. We can try to create community and conversation as much as we want but if people feel like projects it will be futile. We have a small home church, led by my ordained pastor-husband and we eat together each week and live life alongside each other – that is what transforms folks in my experience.

        • Christiane says:

          one of my nephews, the youngest of four, is more withdrawn than his siblings . . . the siblings are all accomplished people . . . a doctor (Navy flight surgeon), a pediatric nurse-practitioner, and a Navy nurse who just made Lieutenant Commander . . .

          the youngest did not finish college and eventually his parents pulled away from giving him funds when he was not employed steadily . . . and then a brother-in-law took him into his business where architecture and engineering skills are used, and the youngest was able to be involved in the things he was ‘good at’, especially his graphic and computer skills . . .

          so the positive work environment, surrounded by family and a healthy structure helped, and the possibility of the boy returning someday to university is becoming more and more of a reality

          his confidence is up and socially, he is out more with friends

          there are some kids that make it out of that isolation, but for many, the help isn’t there that works for them and people don’t give up trying to help them, but arriving at what ‘works’ is not all that simple and can take years to get it right . . . no one ‘gave up’ on my nephew, although funding of an isolated unproductive situation was withdrawn (which turned out to be the best thing in the end) and replaced with options for a ‘sheltered’ kind of work environment surrounded by family and caring professional

          It’s not over yet for my nephew, but he is better now, and we all have plenty of reason for hope

          • David Cornwell says:

            Christiane, I’m glad your nephew has a family and environment that takes the time, and has the patience to work with him. This is one of the strengths of family, one of the real meanings. Thanks for sharing about him and his needs.

            I think your hope is real.

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        I am an introvert, but I am not shy. Once I understood the difference, an awful lot of my life made more sense to me. I am perfectly comfortable with public speaking or interacting within a group. But it is tiring. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A long distance runner finds long distance running tiring, but actively seeks it out. The question is not whether I want to interact with other people. I certainly do. But I also need to recharge, just as a runner needs rest.

        How this translates in a church context is that week to week, it makes little difference. Half a day on Sunday? No problem. An hour or two in the evening for a meeting? Fine. Church supper? I adore church suppers. But when we move into special events, it is a different matter. Retreats, symposia, synod conferences, and the like tend to be over-programmed. There is some place I am expected to be doing some set group activity pretty much all day. One day of this and I am ready to climb the walls. If it is a long weekend, I find it unbearable. I find myself strategizing what activities I can make a brief appearance at and then disappear to find a quiet place to recover. Or, in practice, I avoid retreats, symposia, and synod conferences entirely.

        • Amazing, Richard. This describes me exactly. I’m a professor and love interacting with students — until I’m done, and then I want to read a book in the tub with the door locked..

      • HUG,
        The issue is trust. Trust is not something that can not be forced or compelled or programmed. And when trust is undermined, it takes a long time to rebuild, if ever.

        Some people have a greater innate ability to trust; some people have had their trust betrayed more than others. You can’t commandeer trust in the name of community building or cultivation. It just ain’t gonna happen.

        With all due respect to Merton, who received some rather bad treatment at the hands of his superiors and their psychiatrists (read about this episode of his life in th biography the Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton; it’s harrowing), God loves those who go inside as much as those who go outside themselves.

  5. The biggest barrier to conversation is the willingness to hear, and LISTEN to, differing views. In the two churches I have been a member of over the past 35 years or so open conversation was viewed with suspicion and fear. It seems as if people come to church to escape the normal conflicts of life. They crave unanimity, not consensus, comfort and not challenge.

    But the GOOD news is that there HAS been a smaller circle of people who COULD listen to views and ideas that ran counter to the larger consensus. The true binder of fellowship is to strip away those external presuppositions and center on the core of fellowship. It’s hard work, frightening and tiring at times, and MOST people are not willing to engage in the enterprise. Few ther be that find it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > The biggest barrier to conversation is the willingness to hear, and LISTEN to, differing views.

      Nah, not at all. The single biggest barrier to conversation is bullies. The two or three people in the room who will steam roll over everyone, dominate the conversation, and refuse to be squelched. Those they offend will, not surprisingly, leave. Others will wisely choose to remains silent – really, what is the point? [If you are the guy who responds – then *you* are the aggressor, regardless of what the first guy said].

      In my experience you are much less likely to hear the Apostle Paul than you are Ron Paul at a ‘conversation’. It is only a few people, but they crash discourse. [Maybe this is a regional thing? Here in the midwest, but in ~30 people you always have at least one, usually two, it seems no matter what].

      If you are going to have a dinner, and allow people to speak, you need a master of ceremonies who is deft at managing the situation, and dialing down the bullies.

      > open conversation was viewed with suspicion and fear

      Rightfully so, especially when the Pastor/Priest or whomever doesn’t have the stones required to restrain the raging egos.

      > It seems as if people come to church to escape the normal conflicts

      Yes. Because the normal conflicts are petty, and most are just stupid and selfish. I spend ~40-50 hours a week in ‘conflict’ and tension. Now I have to go listen to some guy defile my sanctuary with his thinly-veiled blather about how much he just hates the President?

      > and MOST people are not willing to engage in the enterprise

      Sensibly. It is only viable when the institution really stands behind the concept. But the current crew of professional clergy do not appear to be trained appropriately [at least in Protestant circles, from my experience RCCs manage this type of thing much better – but probably also have fewer ‘aggressives’ in-general than the more Evangelical groups who cultivate a kind of aggression].

      > Few ther be that find it.

      Unfortunately very true.

      • Definitely has been our experience here at Englewood that conversation works best with a facilitator that can keep things on track and dial down people who go too far afield or who ramble on without any sense of where the conversation has been or is going… ~Chris

  6. I’m sorry to be off-topic, but when I go to Internetmonk the lead post is always “Summer Sounds” (August 22).. I got here by clicking on the ‘Summer Sounds” comment section and going to the bottom of the page to more recent posts. Am I doing something wrong?

  7. Someone very close to me grew up in a evangelical church environment where they were being abused by someone who was both a pastor and kin to them. They were able to leave that situation as a young adult because of the mobility that our society enables, because they could break off from the dysfunctional life into which they had been born and start elsewhere anew; in former eras, it would have been much harder for them to make this change, if not impossible, precisely because of lack of social mobility and portability.

    This person’s experience is not unique, nor did such abusive social realities start yesterday. Any movement toward either societal or church communities that are structured less on the consumer basis and more on a communitarian one should take into account the invisible dysfunctionality that can develop in social milieus where individual mobility is discouraged or hampered, and where people are held in close social networks that can seem or be inescapable.

    • Robert F – so sorry to hear that, and yes, “community” can be a hothouse thing where bad stuff happens. (I got burned in a couple of different “charismatic communities,” back in the 70s-early 80s.)

      As with anything else, tread with caution!

  8. “It is understandable that — following the modern age, with its atomization of nature and its subjectivization of human beings — people should now seek for the ‘New Age’ of a cosmic feeling of community and a ‘self’ rich in relations. But this ‘new age’ would become a velvet-gloved conspiracy for the abolition of human being if the inward experiences of human autonomy and personal initiative were to be condemned. Anyone who casts a slur on autonomy….and who fails to respect it as part of human dignity, is laying him or herself open to the suspicion of a thirst for power. For when all is said and done, the spider’s web is not merely a symbol for the network of life, with its complex relationship; it is also an instrument for catching flies….”

    from Jurgen Moltmann’s The Spirit of Life

    Just to avoid misconceptions: “New Age” does not here refer to the religious movement of the same name, and although Moltmann was addressing a different set of issues in a different framework, his concerns are just as applicable to the above post as to his immediate context.

    • Robert, I understand from this comment and others you have made that you struggle with discussions about “community” and you often make many valid points. One reason I respect Chris and his perspective is that his church has been practicing fellowship and neighborliness in realistic and practical ways for over twenty years now. Nothing flashy, showy, or faddish. Just folks meeting together, talking to each other and their neighbors, serving together. I’m sure he could tell you many stories about how messy it has been, and of people who have been hurt and wounded in the process. Such is life, and I’m far past being surprised by it.

      As for promoting “community,” from my standpoint, the minute something becomes a fad, it’s already doomed to fail. But churches like Chris’s, that quietly go about their business, trying to share a common life while respecting each other’s freedom, give me hope that God’s still in the grassroots.

      • I respect your opinion, CM, and I don’t want to belabor the same point again and again. I will try to listen and learn; no promises, but I’ll try.

        And I by no means believe that Chris or those with him on this project are power hungry, just to be clear.

        • In my experience the purposeful practice of community in the by and by always brings out the worse in people because there is no place to hide from each other. In the immediate experience that seems like a bad thing–and it is because it confronts us with our fallen-ness. However, the result, which I think is God’s intent, is that each of us must confront the true and false of ourselves. I am learning something of God’s love for people when I learn how to love a community member who doesn’t realize that his somewhat passive aggressiveness is a bid for selfishness that damages others.

    • Honestly, I don’t know that I disagree much with the Moltmann quote you shared. Christian community is only healthy when it follows in the loving, non-coercive way of God. I’m inclined toward Anabaptist theology, and a big part of the idea of adult baptism is that participation in the Christian community must be voluntary. I don’t think autonomy is the prevailing rule of the universe (see the NT emphasis on dying to self, preferirng others to oneself, etc), but it can be useful in hedging against tyranny, and abusive communities.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        The quote contains an if-then clause.

        QUOTE: .. ***if*** the inward experiences of human autonomy and personal initiative were to be condemned….

        Can a spiritual commitment be anything other than a “personal initiative”?

        And the term “condemned” is a very strong word; I do not see in a desire for community a *CONDEMNATION* of personal initiative. Especially not in a day and age when opting out of a community is nearly the default act. The quote sounds like an antiquated ‘Red Scare’ world-view to me.

        Certainly communities can be internecine and cultivate their own forms of brutality. “individuality” eagerly does the same. Dignity granting and civil society are the answer, not a suspect part of the problem.

      • Chris – the irony re. anabaptist theology and practice is that the vast majority of anabaptists have created rigidly-ruled, culturally isolated groups, where rules are strictly enforced. (Not just the amish and Hutterites, either…)

        There are SO many pitfalls awaiting anyone who goes this road; the Catholic tradition is full of examples. It’s a *hard* thing to do well, no matter who’s doing it (or trying to do it).

        I don’t mean this as criticism, but observation.

        • And there are over one hundred different kind of Mennonites because when they couldn’t agree, they walked away from each other; that is, they availed themselves of the mobility at hand and disassociated. Without strong external pressure to hang together (and where would this strong pressure come from in our contemporary situation?), the centrifugal force of disagreement moved them away from each other, even so far as to shun each other.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      >But this ‘new age’ would become a velvet-gloved conspiracy for the abolition of human being
      >if the inward experiences of human autonomy and personal initiative were to be condemned.
      > Anyone who casts a slur on autonomy….and who fails to respect it as part of human dignity,
      >is laying him or herself open to the suspicion of a thirst for power.

      I agree, and don’t. There is the potential for a fallacy of the disambiguated middle here. One does not need to choose between community and individuality[1]. Nothing in an emphasis on community recommends someone not flee or rise-up in the face of *abuse*. There is a huge space between that and constantly being in a state of leaving because one is bored.

      There is little doubt that with community the individual is *safer*, as they are less likely to be abused in secret, and will not need to stand-up alone. Abusive environments I have experienced were emphatically anti-community; everyone minds their own businesses, as they do not desire for anyone else to know their business. Dignity is a social aspect, it is one that we give to each other, it is without community that there is no human dignity. The best communities give it abundantly.

      [1] I will not say “autonomy”, because I believe the concept of individual autonomy is totally completely bogus. No one is autonomous. Not even close. Hasn’t been for centuries. So, I suppose I do slur autonomy. But I still recognize the individual, he/she is just never, practically, alone. An autonomous life will be short, damp, and end nastily; it is only modern technology which provides the ***********illusion*********** of an autonomy that is certainly not autonomous at all.

      • Philosophically I agree there is no absolute autonomy; but the word expresses a relative degree of freedom from being made to serve other’s purposes and caprices. That’s what I mean by the word