My long time friend in Denver, James, writes of the importance of the church communities we are a part of. He says, “I am convinced that we are creatures that are shaped by the communities we give ourselves to.”
I couldn’t agree more. The group of people we choose to align ourselves with will give form to our identity and when it comes to a faith context the church we choose to be a part of will play a significant influence in our own formation. This is not rocket science of course, but it does have significant implications for how we choose which ‘church’ to a part of.
James writes:”I believe at a very deep level that I need church if I want to be a faithful follower of Jesus. But I do not think it is wise to participate in a community of faith that simply reinforces the scripts of the dominant culture.”
Now therein lies the tension.
How do we participate in communities that actually choose to live counter-culturally and in critique of the dominant framework?
We have taken this as our primary motif (‘Upstream’) and find ourselves in a place of constant tension in this regard. We are as human and as prone to selfish indulgence as anyone else, but we want to challenge one another to live differently, yet with a spirit of grace. I think its a healthy place to live, but I am aware that for many this is not even on the radar.
I was asked recently if I know any ‘good’ churches in the area. (The person asking put ‘good’ in inverted commas)
I had to reply “that depends on what you mean by ‘good'”
If ‘good’ = catering to your personal wish list then that is very different to where ‘good’ = a community that will call me and challenge me to live in a Christlike way.
For many the dominant questions when picking a church are related to the music, the kids and youth ministries and the interest level of the preaching. Is it any wonder we find ourselves in the malaise we are currently in?
As I have said before we can only be disciples in community so this question of alignment cannot be overrated.
This needs to be balanced with the very real acknowledgement that we do have needs. The person asking me the question has a teenage son, so while I believe ours is a ‘good’ church I am not sure it would be a suitable church for him and his family as he may wish for his son to have a larger peer group.
So here is my first theological reflection for a long time! Any thoughts?…
A tantalising reflection to break the drought. I’m with you (as you’d expect). I remember reading for the first time your rationale for being ‘upstream’ and I was very encouraged by its conscious intent to be non-conformist.
One of my favorite phrases to describe this mode of embodying the church is ‘contrast society’. This is a phrase used by Gerhardt Lohfink in his book Jesus and Community. To my mind, it is precisely this that forms the church’s missionary disposition. To be ‘good’ (ie. gospel) is to embody something excitingly contrasting to the dominant society.
Thanks for the thought,
Great post. The reality of so many Christians I know in Perth is disappointment in church. And I think far too many of us are looking to what we can ‘get from’ rather than ‘give to’ a church.
The lack of churches that are counter-cultural means people who seek them often have to travel a long way to get to them. Which prevents strong community forming. You guys have found one good answer – deliberately moving to be close to each other.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot myself since I have a 12-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son.
A church should not have the goal of being counter-cultural. A church’s primary aim is to train people to live like Jesus.
If a group merely concentrates on being counter-cultural, the group will always be defined by the culture it is in. If a group concentrates on Jesus and how to train one another in living more like Jesus, the group will be defined by who Jesus is no matter the group or the culture they find themselves in.
If a church continually endeavours to live like Jesus, then that church can say it’s a ‘good’ church for whoever is curious about joining the group. In other words, a ‘good’ church has something good for anyone. A church that is not ‘good’ is good for no one.
Specifically as far as the teenage son is concerned, it is not the task of the church to provide him with a large peer group. The task of the church is to equip him for good works and living like Jesus in whatever group he finds himself in.
Yes – good point Lance. Our goal is to be like Jesus, not just to go against the mainstream. if the mainstream were following Jesus then it would be a tad self defeating!
However that said, I doubt we will ever be in a place where our culture/nation is devoted to Jesus so I imagine we will always be calling people to ‘the road less travelled’.
I agree too that your son needs to be helped in his discipleship. I guess the question is whether he would actually connect with a church community where he had no peers.
It seems that some level of peer support is important for all of us.
This is a good post. Something I have been thinking about also.
I think the real issue is to participate in a community that calls us to follow Jesus. Too much do I encounter forms of church that are just like secular society. Being in a community that chooses to live counter to the culture, in the way of Christ, is really on my heart.
I love the church and totally understand the tension that you speak of. Our plan is to just live out the gospel in the small community we are a part of. So many times churches try to copy the “successful” bodies, rather than just be open to what the Lord is doing. The Lord may lead one church different than another. The differences are good. We do not all have to be the same.
Totally agree Hamo and also with Lance. That for a community to be like Christ is the aim, not just to be counter cultural.
As far as peer groups are concerned I’m not so convinced. I agree to a point that peer groups have an impact both positively and negative but I also think that as a family unit and as parents, that maybe we haven’t discipled our own children or seen them as our mission enough.
I think that if maybe our own parents had taught us to chase Jesus more and not so much rely on the church structure to disciple us in a boxed form then maybe we wouldn’t be fighting against it so much.
I also think that even though I have in most of my formal ministry days been pro-youth, that there is not enough interaction across the generations. There is so much to learn from both directions and even though I may have argued against it in the past, there is not much early church or OT scripture that backs up ministry just to a certain age bracket. It seems all encompassing and inclusive and the role of the parent seems so important.
You also have to ask the question, ‘if Jesus was here, now, in the flesh, would a young person connect with Him?
Where’s the whole incarnation thing fit into that?
This is where those principles of Jesus of Love, acceptance, grace, truth, humility, forgiveness, hope . . . override all other perceived boundaries both as a generational boundary or cultural.
In looking for a church, a “follower of the way” may be looking for things that are of specific interest to their particular culture, that is they may have a special interest in organ music, healing, or meditation so they will seek out a church where they can feel accepted and comfortable. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that in the sense that all people gravitate towards a group of people who have similar interests. Sometimes we will also look for a group of people who provide some activities that will help us as parents feel that our children or teenagers are in safe hands, people who have similar values to us. Again there is nothing wrong with this as it shows a real commitment to Christian parenting.
The problem occurs when we become so comfortable in the situation that we forget that we have a responsibility to be salt in the world. Unfortunately sometimes churches forget that at a corporate level as well and encourage the “club” mentality at the expense of “salty” thinking. How to get the balance is the challenge we all must face. Since salty thinking is not the default position we have to work a lot harder to get there. Be encouraged. It can be done!
Good post and good comments. I’m probaly off the mark, but here are my thoughts.
As someone still in the midst of this question, I say this – “Be Careful”. It’s easy for us to become cynical of our brothers and sisters when we believe we have been ‘enlightened’.
I propose three things. First, we should all be humble. Humble ourselves before God and never forget to view others as better than ourself. We should critique ourself harder than we critique the church. Examine our conscience daily.
Secondly, pray. God will never forsake those who genuinely want to live an authentic life in Christ. Be attentive to His voice. He will lead us into the right community (or develop that community around us as we are faithful).
Finally, be the change that you want to see and don’t underestimate the influence that you do have. We have a tendency to look to the future – to dream about what the Church would, should, or could be like and hope to find that church one day. Let’s look at the ‘today’ and be an authentic Christian in our communities. We know what’s expected of us (the Gospels make it so clear) so there’s no excuse. Yes, true – iron sharpens iron, but sometimes we may need to be that first piece of iron.
I totally agree that our culture and our world may never be devoted to Christ before he returns. (Although, I could be wrong on that since I’m not a judge.) If we realise that following Jesus will not be accepted by large numbers of our neighbourhoods, why are we so concerned about the size of a peer group? Further, what makes us brothers and sisters in Christ? Our common age or our common faith in Jesus?
Lance – I think we need friends – I want to be in a community where I connect with people like me.
I don’t think that’s selfish. i just think its human. I can understand why our kids would want that too.
I believe the extended family is the best biblical concept of the church, but even within that there are people we get on with better than others.
When we truly ‘connect’ then i think we have better chances of discussing life’s more significant aspects
A lot of very good comments here, thanks for the insights.
I feel GOD made us for community. Jesus called us into a deep relationship with Himself and each other. The question is, “do we purposely look for a community that will call us to Christ like living or one that just feeds the flesh”? I am not trying to be critical here.
At this moment it is my supreme desire to be part of such a Christ extolling community.
Oh boy – my hearts desire too – but I think I am learning a hard lesson … I am not sure that the kind of “community” I had hoped existed somewhere, really does or can – at least not in our western, individualistic, post-colonial society. And to be honest, this thought scares (and depresses) me.
I don’t know if the idea of communitas (or whatever you want to call it) is really even achievable in our predominantly white, anglo-saxon society. People are too much caught up in living the life of independant, individuals.
It’s scandalous that I have time to even read a blog this week, but this is a great post. (‘Nuf said, I’m brain-dead)
You make a strong point. But I suggest we live out the New Testament model regardless of our environment. I believe the Spirt of GOD is moving across the globe and in many hearts. More and more people wanting to break from traditional evangelical church practises and move into something deeper.
“live it and they will come”.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what church involvement means, and whether our notion that you pick a church (out of the many in your area) and join it, is actually a good and/or biblical idea.
No answers yet, but thanks for the thought-fodder.
I have been thinking the same thing. Must be all that snow we had in Minneapolis.
The whole concept of picking smacks of consumerisum. then joining is more institutional. a person joins a health club for example.
None of these concepts are biblical in any way. I don’t have any answers yet. Let me know if you come up with something.
I think joining in some form is required – even if it’s just in joining a particular manifestation of the church in order to journey with them. I think what is most important is the motivation driving the action.
If people join for what they can get – which is so often the case in consumerist Christianity then there are problems, but if they join to journey and to play an active role in a Christ centred community then that is, I think, a good thing.
So it’s probably not really the joining bit that’s the issue, it’s the motivation behind it and the attitude with which it’s approached that matters.