Monday, July 9, 2012

Church Community: Ends or Means?

Perhaps you have noticed that one of the buzz words circulating in the church world today is "community." Recently I listened to an interesting and eye-opening talk by Chris Rosebrough on some of the origins of this movement (if you are interested in listening to the 90 min talk you can click here). It is quite interesting to trace some of these modern roots, but there is a lot of biblical warrant for a focus on community. After all, the Greek word where we get our word "church" ekklesia means gathering or assembly. What I am troubled about is that "community" has become the end rather than the means to an end. Let me explain.

In recent years, seeker-friendly churches have moved away from small group Bible study classes to "community groups." The goal of these groups is personal connection and interaction. I see a fundamental problem with this:

The last hold out in the church for true, transformative discipleship has been replaced with watered down conversations focusing on subjective experience (this is right in line with a postmodern/existentialist worldview). This might seem like a bit of a hyperbole, but talk with your average seeker-driven church and you will probably find something like this:

You: I've noticed that your sermons focus on life topics rather than on in depth teaching of the Bible.

Church Staff: Our Sunday morning experience is arranged to be accessible to everyone. We don't want to push people away with a lot of heavy teaching. Hopefully they will find a home here and get plugged in deeper.

You: So, if I want more knowledge of the Bible, I should go to a Sunday School class?

Church Staff: We are moving away from these type of classes and pushing for community groups.

You: OK. So that's where I would go to learn more about the Bible?

Church Staff: Actually, the primary goal of community groups is not in depth Bible study but fellowship and connection within the church--a good place to bring your unchurched friends. They are designed to be a safe environment for unbelievers.

You: So...where do I go to learn more about what the church actually believes, more about the Bible and theology?

Church Staff: Well, you can study on your own or start a study, but Christians need to quit whining about going deeper and wanting to learn more. We need to be out in the community "loving on people" and not be bickering about our beliefs.

You may think that I am exaggerating, but I as have researched church trends, talked with friends in ministry or who are looking to plug-in to a local church body, scrolled through dozens of church websites, and read articles and books, I assure you I am not.

I hope you can see the problem with this model too. Namely, no true discipleship ever happens. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus calls us to baptize and teach them to observe everything that He has commanded.

If community is the end goal or service is the end goal, then let me ask what the fundamental difference is between being in a book club or a service organization like the Rotary or the Lions clubs? Why go to church?

Community is important, but the identity and center focus of that community must be Jesus Christ, as revealed by the Scriptures, if the church is going to be fundamentally different--if it is going to be salt and light in the world. Thus, community is not the ultimate goal--Jesus is. So if the body, the church, the ekklesia isn't focusing on helping us be more like Christ (and not just in the narrow focus of service to others) it isn't Christian community. Jesus didn't die because He was a really nice guy that helped people. His theology got Him killed. He didn't found 4H. He founded His church (Matt 16:18). A casual glance through Stephen's speech in Acts 7 will show that God has abandon rebellious and hard-hearted projects, such as the tabernacle at Shiloh and the Temple, before. For the "church" to be the Body of Christ, it has to be the place, the community where the Spirit of Christ resides. Jesus thought little of the masses. Jesus focused on discipleship.

Does this ring true to your experience? I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Going Where the Wild Things Are

Several years ago, I reread Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. I had also recently read John Eldridge's Wild At Heart, so I was immediately struck by an observation that I might not have noticed without the juxtaposition of the two books. Normal people would probably read this popular children's book in the understanding that it is about a young boy named Max who starts acting out and gets his rightful punishment of bed without dinner. After visiting his wild and aggressive side, he is tamed by the love and care of his mother who fixes him dinner in spite of his behavior. 

This is probably a healthy("normal") reading of the book. However, at the time I was looking through a primary lens of "masculinity studies" and as they say "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." In my rereading of the book I saw a controlling mother who wanted a docile boy that would stay neatly within the confines of tame domestic living. I saw in it the taming of a masculine soul, and I was sad.

A few years later, now that I am a father, I have changed the way I look at this story and think that Max got off pretty lightly by way of punishment. However, my goal here is not really to discuss Mr. Sendak's ultimate intentions for the book or even to force my subjective interpretation upon the story--though, as an English major, this is tempting. This particular reading may or may not be fair to Where the Wild Things Are, but part of my original thoughts on this topic still stand.

Eldridge makes an interesting point when he writes, "Man was born in the outback, from the untamed part of creation. Only afterward is he brought to Eden" (Wild At Heart, 3-4). He also rightly points out that many heroes in the Bible went to the wilderness: Jacob, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus to name a few. As a matter of fact, Mark's gospel says that after Jesus' baptism "immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness 40 days,  being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals..." It sounds like Jesus went to His very own place where the wild things are.

So why do the biblical heroes go to the wilderness? What is it about the wilderness that allows them--perhaps even allows us--to hear from God?

A short time ago I went on a hike and could not get rid of these thoughts. I was wondering what it is about wild places that works on our souls so powerfully. As I hiked, these thoughts came to mind:
--God created a perfect environment for people to live. It was controlled, safe, and totally on God's terms.
--When Adam and Eve sinned, they where doubly naked--no clothes and no home. In a word they were vulnerable.
--When Cain killed his brother, God cursed him to wander the wilderness for the rest of his life. But Genesis 4:16-17 says that "...Cain went out from the LORD's presence and lived in the land of Nod...then Cain became the builder of a city." In other words, people rejected God's way of life and His plan for safety and security which made them feel naked and vulnerable. But rather than turn to God and rely on Him, people began constructing their own forms of control and security.

When we go through wilderness wanderings, the point is so that we can release our control and rely on God. That is when He can truly speak to us. At home, in the city, in the car (wherever we have our technology) we feel like we are in control, but when we are not in control of the world--in the wilderness where the wild things are--we become aware of our need. And God meets that need. He comes as a burning bush. He sends bread by His messenger ravens. He sends angels to attend. If we want to hear a fresh word from God and have Him move powerfully in our lives, then perhaps we need to spend more time in wilderness wondering, vulnerable and depending on God. When we come out of the wilderness, I think that we will find our supper waiting on us, just like Max did. 

Have you ever had a "wilderness experience?" What did you learn from the experience?