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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

postmodern buzz word: "community"

why is it that community is so talked about today? it's talked about as if postmoderns were the first to think of it. i'm not critiquing the rejuvenated desire for authentic community, but i am critiquing the way it is talked about like it has never been discussed before.

dietrich bonhoeffer was a christian martyred during the second world war. he was a pastor and theologian and wrote the little book, life together: the classic exploration of faith in community. bonhoeffer wrote during the height of modernism in eastern europe and yet i bet his book would resonate deeply with postmoderns who are searching for authentic community.

the premise of his book is that community is a blessing and not everyone is so privileged to enjoy it. many christians are imprisoned or ministering in places where there are no or few christians. it immediately makes me think of my friends becoming missionaries in a muslim country where there are less than a dozen known christians in the whole country! they are going in to hostile lands in order to minister to broken people who ultimately hate their message.

but isn't this what jesus did? bonhoeffer writes this:
It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of his foes.
the call of the church is to be scattered among the world. it is only when jesus comes again that scripture tells us we will be gathered together for eternity with christ and one another. until then, it is only by god's grace that we even have local bodies of christians that meet and live life together.

this begs the question...how are we doing? are we living cloistered lives, afraid to rub shoulders with the world? brothers and sisters, this is not the life that christ wants for the church. even though the disciples all deserted jesus he re-gathered them together at his resurrection and then scattered them again into the world where they might proclaim his message. yet even in this scattering, they were united to one another by the holy spirit.

this is why we need christian community - to encourage one another as we live scattered in the world. rather than our communities existing for themselves, they should be existing for the world around us. postmoderns are longing for authentic community. we claim to have what they are looking for. but if we aren't intentional about interacting with the people god has placed in our paths, how can we offer them such a community?

is your christian community a place where you can invite unbelievers into, to be a part of the community regardless of what they might believe about jesus? is your community a place where someone might be able to belong before they believe?

18 Comments:

At 4:44 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Dang. You and Molly have both been reading this book. It's on my "to-buy" list, but I haven't got it yet. I can see now that I need to...

 
At 7:07 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

Mr. Annoying Comment Person says: "Bonhoeffer was martyred during the SECOND World War, after being arrested for plotting to assasinate Adolf Hitler."

 
At 7:15 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

That raises a very interesting question - do you think any in the Emerging movement today would have the courage to conclude not just that someone _should be_ asassinated, but then actually put their hand to the plow to bring it about?

What does "courage" and "justice" look like for a postmodern Christians? Would we be more comfortable in Bonehoeffer's pews, or in those of the mainline German churches of those days? Just something to ponder...

 
At 10:29 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger rs said...

Thanks Sage - your not nit picking - it's important to be accurate, so I changed the original post.

I knew he was a contemporary of Hitler, but for some reason I had in my mind that Hitler was during WWI. Shows my age, I guess. I'm part of the generation who thinks WWI and WWII are ancient history.

I apologize for the misprint and appreciate the correction. I should have re-read the preface to the book which spelled all of that out!

 
At 9:28 AM, January 11, 2006, Blogger Brian said...

So, I also just finished reading this book over my Christmas break, and really enjoyed it; even while being thoroughly convicted throughout it. The idea of community has found a sort of glorified importance especially in reformed churches today. As with anything, it can be overemphasised, but I also believe that at this point in time it can be a very edifying thing for the American church in it's fight to tear down our individualistic idols. God's people have always operated in "community", but we have forsaken that to some degree in this country I think, and so it needs to be talked about.
I also wanted to comment that I fully agree that community is designed to encourage, support, etc. God's people while they live in the world, but I want to make the point that Jesus spent a fair amount of time amoung the pharisees and the teachers of the law . . . He spent time in the covenant community, and amoungst his enemies at the same time. So I think part of building up covenant community and putting forth time and energy just for the sake of the covenant community helps keep unity and purity within the Church body, which in turn will make the Church more fit to witness to the world.

 
At 11:04 AM, January 11, 2006, Blogger rs said...

Hey Brian good stuff. Although I have to disagree slightly with what you are saying about Jesus' time spent with the covenant community. The covenant community was his enemy and his audience. Not to mention that there were specific reasons why Jesus came when he did to the house of Israel - reasons that can not be correlated to the church. Jesus had a very unique and specific mission and it was markedly different in many ways from the mission of the church (early and today). So, although I affirm the necessity of Christian community (and its purity), I want to first affirm that this community does not exist for itself and is a luxury that not every Christian gets to enjoy.

 
At 12:39 PM, January 11, 2006, Blogger Brian said...

RS - Thanks for your encouragement! I do think I failed to really think through my first comment as far as Jesus' mission is concerned (as you mentioned). I was remembering Timothy and his struggles against false teaching and fighting to keep unity within the early churches; but of course, he, himself has a different role as a pastor.
I do agree with all of the affirmations in your last comment, also. So let me add to my first comment where I stated that we have "forsaken" community, to emphasize that this means we have failed to be thankful for it, when we have it in such abundance in this country. One of my favorite points made in this book is the one that states that Christian community is not an ideal, but a Divine reality. It exists, because our Triune God exists, not because we created it (which I often like to believe).
At the same time, I wonder how we apply your comments on accepting non-Christians into the community. I am not against us extending our love to them, but at the same time, it seems that being "in the covenant" is somewhat of a membership requirement for the community. So I'm wondering how that works. Like, I would say that God strengthens His people (and thus the community) through the sacrament of communion, but it really only makes things worse for a non-Christian if he/she is involved.

 
At 3:18 PM, January 11, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Hey Brian, great comments. We've been talking a lot about "belonging before believing" lately - I think it first came up here last spring, when I responded to a book called Evangelism Outside the Box.

I think the concept on a whole is a good one - after all, when did Jesus' disciples believe? The probably didn't really get it until Lk 24 when Jesus explained it to them yet again, or maybe even Acts 2, when the HS came in power.

And what was the accusation against Jesus, anyway? That he was a drunkard, and a glutton, that he hung out w/ tax collectors and sinners. Evidently they were pretty comfortable around him, just like he was comfortable around him.

I think the Gospel as a whole fits this model - God comes to us while we are still his enemies, still lost in sin and unbelief. And even after we "believe," the rest of our Christian life is a process of dying to the unbelief that remains and learning to believe Christ in every aspect of our lives. As Christians, we belong even as we come to believe.

That said, I think we DO still need to be cautious (and this is what I was getting at in my original post last April) - there is a very real sense where it is impossible to belong until we believe, because part of what it means to belong to Christian community is to apprehend and experience (and confess) a spiritual reality - in other words, we HAVE to believe before we can experience the fullness of Christian community, of fellowship w/ God.

And at the end of the day, I think that's what we need to remember: our churches SHOULD be places where believers are welcome, as they are, even before they've changed. At the same time, we must help them to see that they will never experience the community they are looking for, until they stop looking for community as an end in and of itself, and start seeing Christ that way instead.

Long answer to a short question, but that was a great post and it triggered a lot of thoughts I've been ruminating on lately...

 
At 6:54 PM, January 11, 2006, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

It is probably important to make a distinction between churches that are true covenant communities yet welcoming to unbelievers and what has become known as "seeker sensitive" churches. In the latter, something of the covenant side gets compromised or lost in order to "attract" unbelievers. I think that there should be doors wide open to unbelievers, but when they come in, they should encounter another Kingdom.

 
At 9:38 PM, January 11, 2006, Blogger rs said...

I would only like to add two more Biblical examples of "belonging before believing" in this comment and I'll keep them short.

First of all are the references to the whole households of a few converts in Acts who are baptized. We assume this included children, but we can't be sure (although Peter does include children in the "promise" of Acts 2). Whether or not we buy in to infant baptism is irrelevant. What we do know is that the new covenant is one that is open to children. Anyone raised in a Christian home knows they belonged before they believed.

Secondly, is the fact that all of us actually belonged before we believed. "God chose us in Him before the foundation of the world." Long before we believed, God chose us. You also see this concept of God choosing certain people long before they followed him (and the whole nation of Israel).

 
At 8:17 AM, January 12, 2006, Blogger Brian said...

First, thank you everyone for taking time to answer my comments and questions . . . this is great!

Christian - thanks for linking your post on "Evangelism Outside the Box". I loved what you had to say, and you seemed to put everything together in a way that I've been looking for but couldn't quite get the pieces to fit together right.
One of my fears on this subject, here in Bozeman because of it's diversity (which can be a huge blessing), is that we are tempted to alter the Gospel for the unbeliever or we won't even offer the Gospel, but we offer community for community's sake. I'm even beginning to see influences of the emerging church movement here in town, and for some reason it seems to remind me of the "nice guy" who lives next door and shows up to comfort his neighbor's wife after she's had a fight with her husband.

RS - So here is where some of this gets messy I think (and not that messiness is a bad thing). I couldn't agree more with your last comments on the idea of belonging before we believe as children growing up in a Christian home, and as the elect. But the tricky thing is working that out knowing that we don't see the heart as God sees the heart. So, an infant who is born into a Christian home or baptised, is literally linked/joined to Christ, and therefore, a legitimate part of the covenant community (and faith or lack thereof will make that a blessing or curse accordingly). But I'm thinking that we, in the community, are called to view that child as a believer from the beginning. So I'm not sure we can compare that with someone who has grown up outside of the Church.
Your last example is good, and I think I need to think through it a little more, but it does seem to make your point well. What I do initially like about it, is that it relies on the promises of God. So along with our reformed theology, we hopefully will have a deep conviction to reach out to the world or to live in the midst of it, and hopefully do so with confidence and not with a less than hopeful urgency that we see in the "seeker friendly" churches.
I do feel a little cautious about saying that each of us, as indivduals, should seek to do this on our own though (and maybe you aren't saying that). You talked about Christ and the types of people He hung out with, but I think we still need to realize that He was Christ, and obviously a lot more resistant to temptation than we are.

 
At 8:57 AM, January 12, 2006, Blogger rs said...

Brian great points. This is exactly where community gets sticky. How do we make an unbeliever feel like they belong but also make them realize they will never belong without Christ because it is Christ that gives our community the authenticity that the unbeliever is attracted to in the first place! It is such an interesting paradox and I haven't exactly experienced it myself, so I'm not sure how it plays out. A lot of this might be theoretical and not realistic. Plus, we are all sinners living busy lives.

You see this in Acts 2. There seems to be this perfect picture of community happening at the end of the chapter. They have all things in common and are giving all they have so that others might have their needs met. But then a few chapters later in 4 and 5 we see sin enter into the community with Ananias and Sapphira. The perfect church has to quickly begin dealing with problems.

At the same time, our culture seems to be shifting from a message-oriented culture (modernism) to a community-oriented culture (postmodernism). This means the church needs to ask, "what is God trying to do here?" One thing we know is that we are still called to reach our culture and so we have to alter our approach. We need to join God in how he is working in the culture around us. What I'm seeing is that it is community where we get the opportunity to share our message.

I do think there are some excellent ways Scripture has provided to "protect" the covenant community from the unbelievers that might be among them and that also provide this rubbing point for those unbelievers where they see they don't have all the benefits simply by participating. One of these is the Lord's Supper. This is one area where we still need to be pretty guarded. It is a meal for believers in Christ. Baptism also functions in this way to a degree, but the Lord's Table is probably going to be more obvious to the community as a whole and it needs to be a glorious celebration in our churches.

Also, one other thing I wanted to point out in your last comment is that you sort of disagreed with my illustration of covenant children. But they are part of the covenant becuase of God's promise as well - just as the elect in my second illustration. So, while they are children and may not even believe (whether they are able to believe or not) they are belongers to the community and they don't get to partake of the Lord's Supper.

At the same time, we don't treat them as unbelievers. I want to be careful of saying there are different classes of people in the church, but it does seem to indicate a difference of status between true believers, children, and unbelievers. I'm not exactly sure how to articulate this, can anyone else help me here?

 
At 10:35 AM, January 12, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Great conversation. I think it illustrates the importance of nuancing what we are saying:

On the one hand, I want to affirm that you CAN'T belong before you believe.

On the other, I want to affirm that you CAN belong before you believe.

I'm not actually contradicting myself here - I'm affirming several different things, in unique senses. This is where these conversations can sometimes get tricky - because we have a tendency to reduce a very rich concept to a soundbite, and then evaluate people on the basis of wether they agree or disagree with the motto.

What we really need to understand is what they MEAN when they agree or disagree w/ something.

I think what Ryan's comments illustrated so nicely is that people today are looking for relationships and community where they can feel welcome and accepted as they are - imperfect, in process, full of warts, doubts, questions, even unbelief in many areas. And we want to affirm that the gospel is big enough to handle all of these things (and so the church should be able to handle them as well). You shouldn't have to clean yourself up before you come to church. The church should be a haven for those who are still wrestling w/ unbelief.

At the same time (and this is where some of the emerging types concern me, and I think what Brian is getting at as well), the church should never allow unbelievers to be content in their unbelief, to think that they are ok, have arrived, have experienced the fullness of community short of Christ. Now we need to be careful how we say that, to make sure we communicate it gently, etc. But we always need to keep reminding them that Christ did not come to build "generic community" - he came to build the church, and the church is built on faith in Christ.

So maybe we can summarize by saying "Unbelievers should be able to feel like they belong in our communities even before they believe, but the nature of our communities should constantly, gently, inexorably remind them that they can never fully/truly belong until they believe - our Christian communities should be a sign post welcoming them in out of the cold by pointing them towards the inn at the end of the road. Our community is not the end in and of itself; Christ is."

Something like that.

 
At 11:43 AM, January 12, 2006, Blogger Brian said...

This is wonderful! I'll try to keep my comments a little shorter this time. First, I want to ask RS the question: If we don't allow our children to partake of the Lord's Supper aren't we treating them as unbeliever's? (At times I don't like using the terms believer and unbeliever because as men it doesn't seem to be the categories the bible gives us to speak in, just because we can't see the heart of man as well as God does.) Our children are part of the community and the covenant, and so I think it would follow that they also should recieve the blessings of that.
I do really like what you mentioned of the church adapting to the change in culture, and I need to think through how all that applies too.

So, for both of you, how about this: We are looking to recieve non-Christians into our community and make them feel welcome there, but without compromising the Gospel and without presenting the idea that it is community for community's sake. So we need to show within the community, as you mentioned, how the gospel does apply and redeem every area of our lives. To me, the most profound way of showing this is through true repentance. We can offer a community where the lives of the "true members" show forth the Gospel through constantly admitting when they have sinned, confessing this, and growing out of it (individually and as a community). So it is a community that is humble, constantly shows their need for the life-saving work of Christ, and shows the power of the Gospel to change lives right before the eyes of the non-Christians in the community.
To tie Ryan's thought from Acts 4,5 and parts of Christian's last comment: it would seem that an "imperfect community" is the only type that can really witness to an unbelieving world.

That's my thought for now, I'll keep working on it; and I'll try to keep from resorting to any cliches or mottos -- they really drive me crazy too!

P.S. I love the "contradicting" statements about belonging! Another advantage of "story" over "systematic theology".

 
At 3:21 PM, January 12, 2006, Blogger rs said...

I hear you on the communion issue. It's one of often questioned of Reformed/Presbyterian circles is why we say children are part of the community yet don't accept them at the table. I feel a disconnect there as well, that's why I was trying to make a bit of a status statement between adult believer - covenant child (not yet making a profession) - and unbeliever.

I agree with you about using the terminology. I guess when I use the word unbeliever, I mean someone who would have no problem telling you they don't believe yet. I'm not referring to people who claim to be Christians, but might not be.

So, hope that helps clarify a bit. Going back to the communion issue with children - that might be a question for Rowe, but communion (for Reformers) is all about remembering what Christ has done for you and if children don't even understand what Christ has done, they can't do that very well.

This is a good discussion and I think Cryder's comment really helped.

 
At 5:20 PM, January 12, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Just to speak briefly about covenant kids taking communion (at the risk of getting very off topic).

I think you can actually make a good case for paedo-communion: if we make the connection between baptism and circumcision (as reformed folks do, rightly so imho), then we can also see a parallel between the Lord's Supper and passover. And in ancient Israel, any circumcised child got to partake of the passover, regardless of age.

Let the weight of that sink in for a moment. At the very least, it should make us charitable towards those who want to allow kids to partake at communion.

Ok, now ask this: how many people want kids to be voting members in their church? How many people in our society at large think a child of any age should be able to drive? Or carry a gun? Or drink? Or vote?

My point here is that we intuitively recognize that somethings are inappropriate for kids because they are important and carry grave consequences when misused. We realize that some rights and priviledges require a certain level of maturity before we allow just anyone to participate. We're not just talking about communion here - we're talking about all sorts of adult activities.

I think that's the dynamic that tips me in favor of the more traditional understanding of the Lord's Supper - that kids should abstain until they are mature enough to understand the consequences. Now that's not a line in the sand for me - it's more of where I come down in a "wisdom issue".

If we take the Lord's Supper seriously - and Scripture is pretty clear that there are consequences (severe ones) for NOT taking it seriously - then it may be a wise course of action to ask our young ones to refrain until they are mature enough to drink and eat responsibily.

Not sure if that helps or not, but that's how I'd approach the matter in the context of community - as a wisdom issue.

 
At 11:24 PM, January 12, 2006, Blogger Brian said...

Earlier this evening I thought about going into the issue of paedo-communion in another comment and was ready to start quoting from Exodus 12 and 13 on the Passover. But I thought I would just let it go . . . but now you've enticed me. ;o)

I think you make some very important and very good points Christian; but do we have the proper perspective of communion in mind? I agree that spiritual maturity is necessary for different blessings (like say getting married). This brings up another interesting idea I've been working through in the last year: Is knowing the difference between good and evil a bad thing? (And does responsibility come with it?) If not, then might God have let Adam and Eve eat of the tree after they were mature enough to handle it?
Anyway, getting back to the point. I see the sacraments as grace coming to the believer from God to nourish them, save them, and sanctify them. So it shares a closer resemblance to a non-Christian being called through the Gospel than to a teenager reaching the legal age to drive. Like you mentioned earlier about not needing to clean up before you come to church or become a Christian for that matter. Salvation comes by grace through the work of Christ, and it has nothing to do with ourselves. It is this same grace we rely on to remain Christian, and it is this same grace we hope in that we might one day be finally saved. I think this is more what is offered to us in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The body and blood of Christ nourish us so that we might understand what the work of Christ has done for us. It's almost as if we are telling our children, "Grow up to be strong and healthy, and then we'll start to feed you."
Put another way, grace comes through the sacrament and is effectual because of the faith that is in us. And this is all the work of God. But what we are teaching our children is that they must, on their own, be properly prepared and fit to take communion, and to almost keep an attitude of doubt. This really seems to go against the Gospel we preach and believe in.

Another note I like about the Passover, is that God instructs His people to continue to celebrate Passover (in connection with dedicating the first-born of everything to Him), and when their children ask why they are doing this, the parents are to tell them what God did for them in Egypt.

One last note: I think Reformed churches tend to take the few "fencing the table" scriptures to a little extreme and maybe a little out of context. Now, I do agree that the penalties involved with communion are severe, and I don't want to take away from that. At the same time, if we are to be so cautious in fencing the table, why did Jesus give the sacrament to Judas?

 
At 12:31 AM, January 13, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

As one church planter I met once said: "Yeah, but what kind of fence do you put around the table? A great big fence to keep out the Saxons? Or a little tiny fence just to keep out the rabbits?"

And of course that raise the question of what we're really trusting in to guard the table - the size of our fence, or Christ himself.

Off too bed. It's WAAAY past my bedtime...

 

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