Isolation in Communal Clothing
The following represents my own internal struggle with experiencing community and how “church” is faithfully lived out. I am often torn between expressions of the gathered and scattered church; it is sometimes difficult to see how best to faithfully live into both sides of the coin. If you think my depiction of disciple-making in “organic” missional contexts doesn’t describe you...you’re probably right. I’m not setting out to describe you. I’m working through my own inconsistencies. However, it is my prayer that my journey is beneficial to others, if only to help you feel a little better about your own pathology! :)
A friend recently commented on how often I write about community while carrying certain burdens on my own. He’s right, I repent.
I'm sure there are a number of reasons why that is the case, but I must begin by acknowledging the most obvious - I am drawn to write about community out of my desire and longing, not the expertise of experience. And I need to continue addressing that longing in my own life.
I know community is messy and dangerous. I have seen that first-hand. And sometimes, as much as I want to enter it anyway, I’m still guilty of holding back. Whether its from fear or my introverted personality doesn't really matter. That my fears are based in real-life experience is of no consequence, I need to embrace community more fully.
I do want to say that I use the word “sometimes” intentionally. This is something I’m aware of and have tried to address. It is far from dealt with, but that doesn’t mean its being avoided.
I’ve written/said before that it seems many of us are drawn to certain things not because of gifting and success but rather because of need and failure. We may be drawn to champion and lead a program like Celebrate Recovery not because we’ve seen how well it sets people free from different addictions but because we recognize that we ourselves still struggle with addictive tendencies. We may be drawn to contemplative spiritual disciplines NOT because we are that contemplative but precisely because we are frenetic and undisciplined.
Similarly we may well be drawn to things like community and missional engagement because we are withdrawn and isolated.
When we feel a powerful draw to critique a particular vice, we should consider carefully how that vice is manifested in our lives. It is easy to see our own dysfunctions played out in others, even when we cannot see them in ourselves. So, perhaps when we can clearly see a dysfunction is someone or a group of someones, we should carefully examine how that the same dysfunction may well be plaguing our own life in some way.
So maybe, in a strange way, I am an expert on community. Not in that I have the course mapped out, but because I am acutely aware of the pain caused by its absence. First and foremost, I need to continue addressing the need for connection to others in my own life. And I will.
However, first and foremost does not mean solely and completely.
My own need for community and connection to something larger than myself - namely the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of God (two separate but closely related things) - is perhaps more than just a personal deficiency. In 2 Corinthians, Paul tells us of his own experience in learning that our weaknesses are the venue for God’s power to be made known (12:9 grossly paraphrased). This means lots of things, perhaps including that through our own weaknesses, God reveals where the Spirit is at work - not only in our own lives, but in the Church and in all creation.
Those who know me well are aware that I struggle with the current tendency to reject anything that appears structured or organized. On the one hand, I agree and lend my voice to the symphony of critiques against the overly-programmed approach to church that dominates the landscape.
I agree that when we connect with a group of people, the compulsion to get them out of the place we found them and into a worship assembly can be quite destructive.
I see the wisdom of coming alongside people and helping them become devoted disciples without extracting them from the places where they already have relationships.
I agree that too often we’ve failed to help people become disciples of Jesus right where they are and instead converted them to CHURCHianity...effectively converting them to passive consumption of religious goods and services.
I get all that.
However, I fear that we (I) may run the risk of getting the emperor to run around naked in more appropriate places...while still convinced he’s wearing clothes.
Is it possible that those of us who used to function as “professional clergy” in a context where people were dependent on us for their spiritual feeding, haven’t really changed the script all that much? Could it be the case that we’re still doing the same thing when we attempt to cultivate discipleship relationships that are cut off from a body of believers? Here’s a possible test: what happens in the life of the new disciple when (not if) we drop the ball in the relationship? Even if there’s another person or two in the mix, is it the case that when it gets difficult to juggle our schedule and we miss a couple opportunities for coffee or beer that we’re still fine...but they’re not?
This, for me, is why church planting is still important (or connection to a church, new or established). It is good to talk about planting the gospel. It is good to recognize that “church” happens along the way, during the week. But, while we cannot ignore the need for the scattered church, the gathered church still has an important function and one that we should feel compelled to share with new friends as well as old.
This does not mean that everyone needs to be plugged into a traditional church, with well-funded programs and paid staff (though perhaps we shouldn’t discount the reality that some disciples may still flourish in those contexts). It does not mean that everyone we meet and develop relationship with should be coerced into gathering in one place each week.
But it does mean that part of inviting people to follow Jesus is introducing them to the Body of Christ. It is God’s design that humans experience life in community, and disciples experience the life of faith in a community of faith.
This may mean that a church is born in a local pub, or on the lake or wherever. It may mean that people you connect with do not worship with your community on Sunday.
But, it also means that they do need a worshipping community beyond your occasional contact...and for true discipleship to take place, there needs to be an expectation that they will invite others to come and see this Jesus as well.
We can bemoan the “numbers” focus all we want, but we can’t forget that those numbers represent individual people who are loved by God...people that God desires to be reconciled to, and whom the Spirit has been working in long before we came along.
So, yes, church happens “on the way,” and we are inviting people to more than an event. The kingdom of God is about more than the church, but it isn’t about less. If the worshipping community is important to us, why would it be unimportant to new disciples?