Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Community: Day 1
Have you missed me? I've missed me. Since Christmas I've been frantically preparing for a class that started today. There were seven books and three papers I had to have ready this morning, and I'm proud to say I got it all done.

The class is called "Ethics of Community" and it's taught by Dr. Christine Pohl. So from 8 am to noon from Tuesday to Friday over the next two weeks I'll be in class. It's about the moral challenges of congregational ministry and looking at the practices necessary for community life. Four particular practices that will frame our conversations are promise-keeping, truth-telling, hospitality and gratitude.

I promised Kyle awhile back I'd take good notes, so maybe I'll let you follow along, too. Here's what I learned today.

As one of our texts is Life Together, we began our time reading Romans 12 and prayer reflecting on the passage. We had some general introductions of ourselves. There are about 20 in the class. Then we had some introductory thoughts on community. We were asked to reflect on a satisfying and fulfilling experience we'd had with community--the setting, what made it good, the tensions, and how it sustained itself. The first experience that came to mind for me was the small group experience I had with the good folks of Clear River in Centreville, VA just prior to my time here in Kentucky.

We then talked about what makes a community good and vital. According to Scripture, community is not an option; it is an expectation and a calling. Larry Rasmussen has a good quote about what it is exactly that Christian communities do: "Gather the folks. Break the bread. Tell the stories."

(By the way, while Googling trying to find Rasmussen's first name, I found this good article about Christian practices.)

So what does a congregation look like when its community is good? Here's what we bounced around, and feel free to add any more that you've experienced.
+Outward focus
+Attentiveness to one another and to God
+Openness in communication
+Eats together
+Sharing possessions/shared life
+Bearing one another's burdens
+Ability to tolerate weirdness in members
+Liking each other
+Shared prayer
+Intentional celebration
+Contact through the week
+Face to face relationships
+Mutual accountability

And here are some of the things that make community so hard:
+Having stuff/materialism
+Gulf between "have's" and "have not's"
+Cultural need of self-fulfillment, i.e., "What do I get out of it?"
+The three-headed monster of mobility, consumerism and self-fulfillment
+Shallow experience of community makes it difficult to build on new experiences

And then here are some of the things we talked about as being ways to sustain community:
+Discipline of leisure activity
+Accessing outside resources
+Daily rhythms of worship and prayer
+Openness to reinvent itself
+Discerning what is essential versus expendable
+Being a place to contribute
+Time together
+Freedom for failure

From Scripture we get a number of resources for community: Acts 2 and Galatians 3:28. There is also the imagery of the "family of God," the "body of Christ," the house of "living stones." In addition, the three-in-one Godhead embodies community in Trinity.

You can't do the practice of hospitality (welcoming strangers) without community, and the ability to sustain community is much more difficult that welcoming strangers. The trend among young people today is a deep desire for community, while at the same time a severe distrust of institutions and a wariness of commitment. And this makes the reality of community rather complicated.

There has been a recent emphasis on community in postmodern conversations as one critique of modernity has been the emphasis on the individual. N.T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas are two individuals who have emphasized the social dimensions of the faith. Robert Webber in his Ancient/Future Faith discusses how people are persuaded to the Christianity by community and not by rational argument. That's really not a new idea, as the old song goes, "They will know we are Christians by our love."

We can't live out the Gospel without being attentive to the social dimension of faith and communal relationships. But on the flip side, we really like doing what we want to do. We value privacy, and we resist calls for full disclosure. For busy people, it's hard to add more deep connections. When we make commitments, we forclose options, and we like having options.

In addition, fears of community are well-founded, as names like David Koresh and Jim Jones bring to mind negative reactions to the idea of community. Burnout, congregation manipulation and the poison of task orientation can all play a part in community. There is also the tension between loyalty to Christian community versus family relationships. People have been betrayed by the institutions they have been apart of, whether that manifests as suspicion of the government, corrupt corporations or disastrously fallen spiritual leaders. Our value of self-reliance and independence can tear apart community as can differences among leadership of the vision for the community.

There has not been a lot written about what a community does over time. A vital community is one where there is a high level of truthfulness and a place where forgiveness exists when practices collide. Through Christian history, these practices of promise-keeping, truth-telling, hospitality and gratitude have been viewed as duties, which seems to suck the life out of them. Other times they have been seen as virtues in an individualistic and abstract way. Rather, a community marked by these practices is what grace, truth and holiness look like lived out. The danger, though, is that it can turn into works-righteousness, i.e., "If we just get this practice right..." Instead, it's all about grace and the Holy Spirit working in us. Our lives are a response to Christ's love, so all springs from gratitude.

We brainstormed some characteristics of what a leader, or the people who make community look like:
+No fear of rejection
+Good storytellers
+Don't take themselves too seriously
+Reaching out to marginal people
+Not self-conscious
+Caring for people
+Willing to risk

When then began our discussion of Philip Hallie's Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed through the lenses of these specific practices. If you haven't read this book, you need to. This was the second time I had read it through. It's the story of a Protestant French village during World War II and sheltered and aided Jewish refugees, saving thousands of lives. It's kinda like Schindler's List, but it's a pastor and church community spearheading the movement. It's an amazing story. It's also been told in the documentary film Weapons of the Spirit.

That's where we ended the day and where we'll pick up tomorrow. We're also scheduled to start discussing Life Together and Bowling Alone.

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posted by Peter at 11:36 PM
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