The Problem of Church Community

Community would be much easier if people weren’t involved.  I meant what I said in my last post that God values community and that the community we experience in the church should mirror the oneness of the Trinity.  I would even go so far as to say that the community we experience with God and with one another IS the Church.  Yet, we often do not have that experience of church.  Church, for many, is an unsafe place full of judgmental people.  If that is the case, how are we supposed to have community with judgmental and unsafe people? Let me tell you about two people I have actually met in my time in ministry.  We will call them “Mrs. Bad-theology” and “Mrs. Busy-body.”  You might have met someone like them too.

Jesus is the only way to Heaven.  That truth unites us as the body of Christ,” I preached from the pulpit with all the excitement of a sports fan during the play-offs. That morning, after what I thought was a great sermon (I also had all the hubris of an early twenty-something) I was told by Mrs. Bad-theology that I could not preach that Jesus is the only way to Christ because her niece was Buddhist.  I kindly disagreed with Mrs. Bad-theology, but she wouldn’t have it.  So, she complained to the head pastor about my sermon.  As I sat in the pastor’s office, he explained that I shouldn’t preach those types of sermons because we don’t want to upset anybody, particularly not Mrs. Bad-theology. I was devastated.  This doctrine is essential to Christianity and I was being told to “keep it to myself.”

I ended up leaving that little church.  A few years later, I met Mrs. Busy-Body as I served at a different church. Mrs. Busy-body was very active in gossiping with anyone who would give her an ear.  At some point, Mrs. Busy-body got it in her mind that the head of deacons and I were trying to take over the church so we could sell the building and split the money (a completely ridiculous and spurious claim).  She believed this so fervently she even called ‘big tithers’ in the church and asked them to withhold their tithe so that the church would have to let me go.  She did not convince anyone. Yet, I struggled in knowing that Mrs. Busy-body was present in our congregation.  As a pastor at the church, I am called to serve and love this woman who did not reciprocate the same kind of love for me.

Community would be much easier if Mrs. Bad-theology and Mrs. Busy-body weren’t around.  Yet, when I reflect on community, I realize that these are the very people for whom Christ has died and the very people with whom He has called me to be in community.  This is expressed in what we call “Church.”

What do we mean by ‘church’.  Church is the expression of community that is analogous to the Trinity.  Every Christian (no matter how difficult) is part of the church universal.  If you are a believer in Christ, you are part of the Church or the body of Christ regardless of your attendance at a local church (Mayberry Baptist Church, etc.) or not.  Christ is the head of all Christians, and all Christians are His church; this is not determined by local church attendance.

However, we have local expressions of that Church (all Christians) which I will call for clarity sake local communities of faith (think of the local church building where people meet; Mayberry Baptist Church).  It is in these local communities of faith where we practice the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, where we offer our tithe, where we have officers such as elders and deacons.  These local communities are segments of the larger Church or Body of Christ.

Here is the problem.  There are people who have identified with a local community of faith who are not Christians and therefore are not part of the Church.  Mrs. Bad-theology or Mrs. Busy-body may fit into that camp (that’s for God to decide).  They claim to be Christians, they identify with a local community, and they may even live like a Christian externally.  We know that neither external behavior nor identifying with a local community make a person a Christian; only a saving relationship with Jesus Christ can do that.  However, there is nothing we can do about this group that claims to be Christians and identifies with a local community, but is not Christian.  It is up to God to judge the hearts of people.

At the same time, there are those who are Christians, but not part of the local community of faith. Often, this group feels justified in not being part of the local community because of people like Mrs. Bad-theology or Mrs. Busy-body.  Because Christianity is not determined by behavior or by joining a local community, they focus on the “private” relationship with Jesus.  In other words, they love Jesus, but not the church (a sentiment expressed by both John Lennon and Mahatma Gandhi).  However, there is a fundamental flaw in this: Jesus is the had of the church and commands community with one another.

Colossians 1:18 tells us that Christ is the head of the church.  If Christ is the head, He calls the shots and we follow His commands.  One of His primary commands is that we share community with one another.  In John 15, He considers all believers to be one as we are united to Him (He uses the analogy of vines and branches).  He states emphatically that if we are His disciples, we must love one another as Christians. Paul, in Philippians 2, says that if we have any comfort from being united with Christ then we will be one with others in community (in Spirit and purpose). In John’s first epistle, he goes so far as to say that we cannot be believers if we don’t love our brother (meaning other Christians).

Clearly, it is important to God that we are in community with one another.  So, why are people not in community with one another? At best, it is that there are so many expressions of the local church, the community of faith, that it muddies our understanding of ‘church’.  At worst, we look, as a community, nothing like what God intended.  After all, many church people are not unified, not loving, and are not the type of people with whom we would want community.  Who would want to attend a church with people Mrs. Bad-Theology and Mrs. Busy-body?

Yet, it is to this type of community we are necessarily called. It is the type of community that is committed and loves others regardless of how others treat us. After all, that is what God does for us.  “God demonstrates His own love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  I demonstrate my own love toward Christ and toward Mrs. Bad-theology and Mrs. Busy-body in that while each are trying to get me fired, or have wacky beliefs that need to be dealt with, I love, serve and care for them.

In my weaker moments, I hated Mrs. Bad-theology and Mrs. Busy-body. Division is the first place my heart would go.  I felt like if they were not part of the community, it would be much better and more effective.  Like Lennon, Gandhi and many today, I loved Jesus, but not the church (represented in these two ladies).

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, in “Life Together” (considered by many to be the best book on community) says this:  “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial”.  If we fall so in love with some ideal vision of community that we fail to love and have community with the people who are actually in our lives, we will actually become destroyers of the possibility of community.  Put differently, community requires that we love and commit to each other even when we are difficult to love.  If we break community with people because they are difficult to love, we can never have community.  Why?  Because people are always difficult to love, always messy and always imperfect and loving them anyway is the essence of true community.

I must love the Mrs. Bad-theologys and Mrs. Busy-bodies of the world.  In the same way, if we judge the local communities of faith to be less than worthy of our time and choose not to be part of them, we have passed judgment on the very people we claim are judgmental.  We have divided from the very group of people we claim are not unified.  We have become the problem.  That is not the community Jesus commands from us.

We must to have community at the local level regardless of how broken and dysfunctional it might be; that is our calling.  Loving difficult people is the business of ministry and helping immature and difficult people grow is discipleship. We don’t get sinful people out of the way so we can have community, we have community by loving sinful people (like me).  It should not surprise us when the Church and local community of faith is full of sinful people; it is made up of sinners who are saved by grace who will not be perfect this side of glory!!!  The fact that we are sinners is what unites us in God’s grace.

C.S. Lewis said “When I first became a Christian, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; … I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”  But what Lewis ultimately realized the merit of it.  “Some (like you-and me) find it more natural to approach God in solitude; but we must go to Church as well.  For the Church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities but the Body of Christ, in which all members, however different, (and He rejoices in their differences and by no means wishes to iron them out) must share the common life, complementing and helping one another precisely by their differences.”

Just as Jesus, in the supreme loving act took on flesh and lived in community with us, we (as His very body) must live in community with one another and with Him.

One thought on “The Problem of Church Community

  1. Jim,
    They have a saying down at the AA meetings, “No one walks through those doors by accident.” That goes double for a church. As a minister you double down again.
    On the one hand for the most part (almost universally?) you are ahead of the people sitting in your pews. It is your role to provide them leadership.
    On the other hand almost every minister that I ever heard of just will look into his congregation from time to time and see Jesus staring back at him or her. That is one of the moments that makes being a minister worth while.
    So, where are we? I became aware of minister-congregation interaction in either the 3rd or 4th grade. Since then I’ve never been in a congregation that some one or two or three or even the majority of the congregation weren’t trying to chase the minister out of his pulpit. Said in different words, Jesus told us where two or three of us were gathered together he would be be there also — so is the devil. So far everytime I’ve seen the devil at work: if I managed to get my mind on Jesus and ask him to take it over — the devil got took care of. Yes, there have been a few times I didn’t get properly focused and those times I got whipped.

    There is an excellent psychological theory by Clare Graves; it is a take-off from Maslow’s theory of motivation, that explains our journey as Christians better than anything I’ve seen.
    According to Graves Theory, there are times when our religious practice is almost tribal; there is a time we are too full of ego to worship anyone but ourselves; there is a time that we go into a congregation as a devotee; and there is a time of being alone — as the old song says, “On the Jericho Road, just Jesus and you.”
    BTW, Clare Graves is a male. He is dead. He has living disciples but I can’t recall their names. His theory is widely available on YouTube both by those with good grasp of his theory and those that are clueless. Talk to Laura. You might as well get something out of your and her working for her degrees. GRIN.
    2nd BTW, I’ve talked to one of his chief disciples and asked, “Doesn’t that apply to Christian practice also? They jumped on my question to reassure me. Clare Graves had a universal theory.
    Ron

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