Today’s post is the third in a series introducing three key factors that I think the church needs to engage well and deeply with if it is to to move forward into the new future that the Spirit is unfolding. I began with an introduction which you can find here. The first factor was theology (find the post here) this week I want to start a discussion about community.
Community – if I am honest, as an intellectual introvert, even the thought of community causes anxiety and feelings of overwhelm to rise in me. But then I read the bible and it is clear that as a Jesus follower I have to have a deeper commitment to community than my personality and upbringing are quite comfortable with.
There is much written about Christian community, many books on it’s theology, it’s theory and how to do it. I suspect they are mostly written by people who are more socially comfortable than me. I hope you have read some of them, I have enjoyed the ones I have read.
Finding ways to develop deeply connected well functioning inclusive life-giving communities where our faith can grow is central to building a church for the future.
As I reflect on community, I find myself wondering – why are there so many books about it? Perhaps we need so many books about people’s experiences and theories about community becausewe struggle to do it well, and need the extra prompting of people writing about it. My observations and experience of the church certainly support this theory. I am encouraged that so many churches and individuals are committed to community and I think overall we have good intentions. The majority of Jesus followers understand that God calls us to live with the deep interdependence of lives connecting. But often we lack the skills and structures to make it happen in our faith community. My experience is influenced by my context (Auckland has some strange characteristics) and my personality (lots of social interaction – not my thing).
As we build faith communities for the future we need to start with a deep understanding of why God calls us to interdependence with each other. It starts at the beginning with God. God who is a community of being, three individuals who share in the life of each other and express and enact unity, allinvolved in the act of creating the world and humans. We see our communal God create humans in their image, made for relationship. Created to live in relationships with each other and with God, and with the world. As we read further in The Bible we see the trajectory of a people that follow this communal God in a culture that values group identity, interdependence and by today’s ideas would be described as collectivist. A collectivist culture stresses the importance of interdependence, of making decisions that benefit the whole community, of putting community goals and success above that of the individual. Western culture is generally described as individualistic and we value autonomy and independence over community.
Our faith was birthed by a community for a community, and yet from those origins slowly but surely it has moved to one that is individualistic in emphasis. Western evangelicalism as we know it has certainly promoted this emphasis with its heavy influence on individual decisions and personal practices such as quiet times. We have reshaped our faith to give it the individual emphasis of our culture. Those non-western cultures that are collectivist today have much to teach the western church about living in community, and we should be listening better to their wisdom.
Idealism versus Reality
Our faith contains a call, a thread that leads us to community, as part of our commitment to God and following their way. Yet as someone immersed in and socialised in a individualistic culture I struggle with this. I value the community of the early church that I see in the bible, I am committed to struggling with community as that is where God leads, but it is difficult and challenging.
Something I have noticed about New Zealanders is that although we live in a primarily individualistic culture with capitalist values we have enough exposure to collectivist cultures (Maori, Pasifika and Asian) to idealise what it means to be part of a community. This creates a tension between our ideals and the reality because becoming a community is hard work. Especially for those of us who are not socialised to do it well, and who often lack the structures and systems that collectivist cultures have for keeping the community functioning.
We have a longing to belong a desire for community that our lifestyles and independent upbringings are unable to support.
We see the vision in the bible but often (especially those of us who are introverts) can’t naturally make it happen. Our urban busy lives and the disconnection present in larger cities makes community difficult. As churches we need to think of ways that we can teach people to relate well and healthy to each other. There seems to be an assumption that if you put people in a room together then community bonds will form. We need to be more intentional about teaching people the skills needed to create and maintain community.
As we consider the gap between our ideals and the reality, I want to challenge you to consider have you confused comfort for community?
It is easy to assume that because we feel comfortable and connected we are doing community well. The type of communities that God calls us to form where we are living out the Kingdom of God in restorative relationship, are often uncomfortable and challenging. I have observed two problems that are often present if a community is comfortable. Firstly if we are comfortable is often because our connections lack diversity and are made up of well-established cliques based on age, economic or ethnic similarity, (often even all three), these are very hard for new people to enter. Secondly comfort can indicate that we have created a Christian subculture where belonging is based on similarity of belief and activity, with an unthinking assumption that this is how we do things because we are Christian – often without room for deep learning and questioning.
As I observe the churches around me I see that we have confused homogeneity with community and belonging with agreement.
We need to go beyond the superficial, beyond our comfort levels and create interdependent communities where vulnerability is cherished and diversity is welcome. To create a deeper sense of community that is centred on being God’s household we need to address four issues.
Homogeneity versus Diversity
It is time to challenge the homogeneity of our faith communities. The communities of God that we need for the future are diverse. I have noticed in Auckland that our communities are becoming more stratified economically and culturally. Part of our call to be the community of God on earth is to create something that can demonstrate a unique and God centred way of being together where diversity is valued as an important part of community. This creates a tension between being locally contextualised (if our localities become more stratified) and reflecting the diversity of God’s creation. Yet it is a conversation we need to be having.
I struggle to feel like I belong and sometimes that has caused me to get over-excited when I find somewhere where I might just find a place. At those times it is easy to do things that reinforce my belonging that may make others feel excluded or uncomfortable (this may be as simple as telling in-jokes). A piece of advice that stuck with me about working in diverse teams was that if I am feeling comfortable I am most likely making someone else feel uncomfortable. Our communities need to express that all belong to God, so all should feel welcome whether from diverse economic situations, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, cultural commitments and ages. It is through this diversity that we engage together to build a community of God that stands as a prophetic sign of God’s redemptive work in the world.
Part of the diversity I mentioned above was age group, but it is worth mentioning in it’s own category because I believe that the church has a communication gap between age groups that needs to be addressed, if we are to move forward as a healthy community. Each time the age gap or the failure of the church to engage well with younger people is raised it feels like each group is talking past each other with little real shared understanding developing. This communication gap needs to be acknowledged and addressed before we can move on.
In the late 1920’s theories of child development began to influence how churches conducted their children’s programmes. Sending children out for their own programme became the norm, and then we began separating teenagers out for their own programs and then we began separating young adults out for their own programs. We created a generation gap by increasingly separating out age groups and inventing programs for them. The result of this is that the age groups have become so separate that they can no longer communicate well with each other.
We need to begin to envision what it looks like to be a multi-generational community. Being a multi-generational community would mean much more than simply providing programs for each age group. Control of the community would not rest in the hands of one age group, rather all age groups would shape and influence the community. A multi-generational community would have gatherings where age groups interact and develop relationships with each other, where all age groups are included and learn from the gathering, which is done with excellence.
As essential part of creating community involves fostering deep engagement and connection between diverse people. Mistakes and conflicts will occur, it won’t always be comfortable. But it does need to be a psychologically safe community. Organisational Psychology brought us the concept of Psychological safety, which describe an environment in which people are free to engage with their whole self, cognitive, emotional, physical and we could add spiritual to the list. It is an environment where people don’t need to protect themselves by disengaging on any of those levels. In a psychologically safe environment it is ok to bring vulnerabilities, mistakes and weaknesses, it is ok to challenge the status quo, to ask questions. It creates an environment where we experiment and explore together rather than have everything perfect, and it increases the ability to innovate. Our faith communities need to be places of psychological safety where I am not holding back on bringing my whole self, where it is ok to question and doubt. Where we are all on a learning journey together, and none of us have all the answers.
accountability vs control
Our faith communities for the future will be transformational, our communities will be growing to become more like Jesus. As we form communities so that lives can shape lives, we need to grow in accountability to each other. New Zealanders particularly dislike accountability, we are distrustful of power and have seen accountability misused and abused. We need to get over that because part of interdependence is accountability to each other. Now the accountability that we put in place needs to lead us all towards Jesus, it is part of the way that we will ensure that no-one in our community is left stagnant but that all are spurred on to growth.
Recently some-one shared with me that Mike Breen states that many of our churches are high control and low accountability, and that is a mistake. He has found that for missional communities to grow well they need to be low control and high accountability. I think often we confuse the two, and need to spend some time clarifying the difference between control and accountability.
Accountability is being held responsible, control is being told what to do, and asked to conform. In our faith communities for the future accountability will be to our peers, we will be accountable to each other not necessarily to leaders and people with power. Too often we are not feeling psychologically safe enough with our peers in the church to allow accountability to develop. However accountability helps us take action on what the Holy Spirit says to us, it helps us to follow through on commitments we may make, and support us to be transformed.
Community isn’t easy, there are many challenges but we need to start engaging with them to move forward.
I’d love to hear from you either here or on the Facebook page:
How do you struggle to put your ideals of community into practice?
Is your community homogenous or diverse? How could you increase it’s diversity?
How have you seen the communication gap between age groups in your faith community?
Is your community psychologically safe? What can we do to increase the psychological safety of our communities?
Think about a negative and positive experience of accountability, what made the difference?