Community, one of the most overlooked aspects of Christianity today. People will honestly look me in the face and tell me that they don’t need the church, they don’t a pastor, they don’t need a fellow Christian, and here it is “because it’s all about me” and then, almost incidentally, and God. Often times not even bothering to define what/who “God” is, but whatever makes me happy. At the same time describing the 12 with Jesus as His “ Apostals” (sic) vs the correct context would be disciples, students. Apostle is actually a messenger, almost in the sense of an ambassador. Henry and Richard Blackaby wrote a great devotional on Christian community. “Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion, But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up. (Ecclesiastes 4: 9-10) (Experiencing God Day by Day p 327) As the Blackabys point out we were made by God to be in community and for those that God chose, starting with the nation of Israel and then progressing to Jesus and those saved in Him, God’s church has always been the community of His believers.
Certainly the Trinity is the original “community” God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Godhead working together to fulfill their roles and guide the people of God. The Blackaby’s note: “…the success of our endeavors depends upon our interdependence. This is why He established His Church and released His Holy Spirit to empower the community of believers to spread the gospel. We are to be a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9).” Obviously we can only support and build each other in the context of community. One thing that always bites me is someone telling me that they can worship God on their own. Certainly we can come to God and lift up our prayers, we are certainly, in Jesus, in relationship with the Father. But that is done through the church of Jesus. When we baptize we baptize as the Body of Christ, His Church, in the presence of the Body and through the authority of His ministers who administers the sacraments. I didn’t invent baptism, that was given to us in the Bible and passed down through His church. We only become a child of God in baptism, we become that new creation in Christ. If that is not done in and through His church, sorry, but it isn’t baptism. Can we as Christians, in extremis, baptize? Yes, and we should. If someone is right there dying and aren’t baptized in Jesus, we can’t wait for them to get to church for the normal baptism ceremony, absolutely baptize that person. But that baptism is still recorded in His church and done under the authority of the church.
The Blackaby’s write: “…if we have cultivated supportive friendships, we will find strength in the comfort and encouragement of those who care about us. Interdependence is also a safeguard for us when we are lured by temptation. The consistent testimony of those who have fallen to temptation is that they isolated themselves from other believers and were not held accountable by Christian friends.” The attitude today seems to be: “I will do whatever I stinkin’ want to do and if you do like it too bad for you.” Yea well the downside is that their particular sin finally bites them and who do they turn to? Or, in many cases they just let that sin drag them down and condemn them. Name it, being the pastor of a downtown church I see pretty much the whole span. People who have sunk in their sins of drugs, alcohol, sex, gluttony, covetousness etc. Always seem to mess them up and then they expect someone to be there to pick up the pieces for them.
Yes, I should try to help those who’ve really become lost in their sin. But on the flip side, I have a congregation of people who faithfully supported their church with their time, money and talents. Only so much time and how do I justify to them that I have to put ministry off in order to pay attention to someone who, by the sin of presumption, thought they had it altogether and could sin nice and safely and now they’re knocking my door down for attention? We are supposed to take responsibility for ourselves as adults and not engage in things that are inevitably going to hurt us. Yet in today’s world everyone is a smart guy and is sure they can handle drugs, alcohol, fornication, adultery, etc and then when the consequences hit them, as they will, “well someone’s got to bail me out”. That is what community is for. Pull that person back from the edge, pick them up when they fall. Not when they’ve created a situation that’s going to require extensive attention, or when it really is too late, but at the outset. We love to think that we know it all, but over and over I hear the same thing: “I should never have gotten involved and now I regret it, but now you have to help me.” News flash, I don’t have to help you. There are plenty of those have faithfully live their life and do innocently fall into difficulty. Have to tell you, there’s barely enough in resources to help those I really have to help. Why would someone compound their sin, with the sin of presumption and assume I’m just waiting around to jump through hoops for them? And quite often I just don’t have any way to help. Sorry, but there are times when I just have nothing.
Of course the whole “don’t judge me” attitude so prevalent in society plays into this condition. Not only that, but the attitude seems to be do what I want, enable me in my sin and then I will go on my way. Yea, no, that’s just not going to happen. The attitude of the world seems to be that the church is only there for their individual convenience. Because of this attitude that “it’s all about me”, more and more church’s just don’t have the resources to be there to provide. I have to hoard my meager resources just to make sure I have something to provide for those in the church who have faithfully supported the church. Why would someone presume to tell me that I have to just hand over what others have faithfully given to me to be a faithful steward of? The answer of course is that because “it’s all about me”.
It’s not to say that we don’t have individual lives that God has a plan for. God certainly wants us to live the life that He has made us especially suited for. But that life is always in the context of the church and how God puts the pieces together in His church to effectively serve. If people punt on that responsibility and expect to be served, but to never serve, how effectively do you think that plan’s going to work? Too many people just don’t seem to grasp, or probably more likely, don’t want to because they might have to do something for someone else, how God tries to pull each person together so that together we grow in the synergistic impact of the church. One person punts on their part and everyone loses. Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that by choosing to do only live for yourself and ignore those in Jesus’ church that the person that rides off alone gets picked off by the world and makes things a lot tougher for those who stay and faithfully serve? That also goes for those who are part of the church, but expect that the church simply entertain them and just hand over the benefits.
An article in Christian Counseling Today (vol 20 No. 4 pp 34-39) certainly does convey the impact of community, the context being in terms of healing community, generally 12 step programs. These programs certainly have grasped the concept of healing and support in community and many have not just benefited from that community, but have also paid back by becoming an active part of that community to support others. I have seen in my own experience a very effective community, and one that is effective, but is also abused by those who, again, expect to just have it handed it to them and still expect to live in their one way life and continue to be abusive to others. My life has been made a little tougher because some who participated in a 12-step program thought that everything was there for their convenience unnecessarily stepping on the toes of others and of those who were trying to help. I don’t mind the extra effort, but I get tired of having to answer for those who think that the world is there for their convenience.
As I said I’ve seen those groups do great work and it should be supported. Henri Nouwen is quoted in the Christian Counseling Article: “’When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares”.
Certainly that is the look that the church should have, but on the other hand, how far can the church go with that when everyone wants attention and few want to support. When the church was being supported, pastors could truly care for those who genuinely needed attention, there was the time and resources. But now with the attitude that “I know better, I’m going to do what I want, when I want”, there’s only so much, so far. In the same article Dr. Henry Cloud is quoted: “’It is interesting to compare a legalistic church with a good AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) Group. In the church, it is culturally unacceptable to have problems; that is called being sinful. In the AA group, it is culturally unacceptable to be perfect; that is called denial. In one setting, people look better but get worse, and in the other, they look worse but get better … The sad thing is that many of us come to Christ because we are sinners, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to pretend that we are not!”’ (Changes that heal). OK, point taken, and I think that is one reason why the church has wounded itself in the past. But I also think that the cultural paradigm has changed so much that churches today are putting up a fence is because there are so many who have decided that the process should be the other way around. Before the paradigm was, I’m part of a church, I support the church. But at some point I fall and need help and those in the church help me. Now it’s I don’t do anything for anyone and when I need help everyone’s supposed to jump to my aid.
Absolutely, we are all sinners and we need the church and none of us is going to come into the church perfect. We absolutely should stipulate that we are there to help each other grow and overcome those things in our lives. The Lutheran Church is certainly different than other Reformation churches in that we start worship with Confession and Absolution. Yes, we are sinners, we are here because we know that, and we are in need of continual forgiveness. So yes, in terms of “big-box churches” that I think Dr Cloud is referring to, we in the Lutheran Church all start from the same flat-footed start, we are all sinners, now what?
The problem with 12-step programs is that the person’s presenting issue is what constitutes their entire life. Well we in the Lutheran Church would say no. We are all sinners and we all need to deal with issues. Sure some of us need a particular way to deal with that, and if having someone who has gone through that experience helps you in that, great. The problem is that you become so immersed in your narrow issue, you really begin to lose real world perspective. The entire world is not in terms of your alcohol problem. The attitude of these 12-step programs is that only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic. I would submit that the best thing for a person is to be discipled in the church by a faithful, godly person of the same gender, who has lived their life as a Christian. They’ve had to deal with the sin, the world, all the stuff, but they’ve had a much more well-rounded life, that hasn’t consisted of only primary issue. The whole world is not about alcoholism. It is about being saved in Christ. We all have a sin issue and that is what we need to confront, not how do I deal with alcohol, or whatever is the besetting sin. I would submit that for most people who abuse something, and yes that’s all of us to some degree, being a part of a Christian community and dealing with a real world of all kinds of sin is more realistic than your little 12-step enclosed culture. The 12-step program is a good initial answer, but that should only be for a very short time and then time to get back and deal with the real world. Despite what you think that real world was made by God and is all about Him. Not about the places and people you used to hang out with as an alcoholic.
The same article quotes Richard Rohr: “’Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.”’
Amen, couldn’t agree more, but is that change going to effectively take place in a very narrow demographic of people dealing with a particular 12-step issue? No, I really don’t think so. It’s going to be more effectively addressed in a community that includes Grandma and Grandpa Schmidt, and the Hispanic kids, the folks who live here, work there, people who have really lived the life or are trying to get up to speed in the life. A genuine slice of contemporary society. The guy in the Men’s Group that works at the Insurance Company, the Computer Company, the auto dealership. Yea, they have issues to deal with too, but sorry, too often in 12-step programs it is more enabling someone in their particular sin, then genuinely giving them the help that will be life changing in a genuine Christian community.
I can hear the objection now; “they’re going to be so judgey”. Yea, that immediately tells me, that they’ve been more enabled in their very close 12-step program, instead of having to deal with the reality of the world. Sorry folks, time to be a part of genuine diverse Christian community. I get it, too many big box churches are fairly affluent, pretty much lilly white and do, as Dr Cloud claims, tend to exacerbate people’s sin problems. However, a church like First St Johns, that is slowly becoming very diverse, is still, white, but has been in a downtown location for many years. It is a community that fully gets the fact that there are people out there with serious sin and abuse problems and accepts them, because those same people don’t live under some goofy delusion like the big-box churches that everyone there has it altogether. While serving in the Coast Guard I would once in awhile be rotated down to a sub-station that was in a very affluent community. I got the chance to talk to the local police officers down there and I once made the observation to one of them that it must be really nice being a police officer in such an affluent community. He understood what I meant, but he quickly pointed out that their biggest problem was dealing with domestic issues. Physical abuse, substance abuse, sexual on and on. As much as we would like to think otherwise, the police there were expected to keep such situations under very confidential wraps. They were expected to basically cover over the issues and make everything nice and pretty. I agree with Dr Cloud that there are too many big-box churches that are like that. “Don’t you worry about that sin thing dearie, you’re a good person, just keep plowing money into the ministry so we can keep providing expensive entertainment and maintain an expensive facility and everything will be just fine.”
Yes, just by virtue of being a down-town church does not necessarily make you a spiritually healthy one either. There are too many who let their churches dwindle down to a couple of dozen, actively resist anyone different from being a part and expect it to be all about them.
I submit that there is a movement, especially among the denominational churches, admittedly still very much in its infancy, but to turn around churches so there will be genuine Christian ministry. That people can be a part of a church of people who are very much aware of the world around them in many aspects, not just the narrow aspects of substance abuse or some other 12-step program. Who want to reach people for genuine Christian ministry. Who are trying to grow as Christ’s disciples and who are ready to disciple others, effectively/real world, as well as be discipled. That is in a true Christian model, based on the Acts church, the churches that Paul describes in his epistles. Has the church messed up and been messed up? Absolutely. Is that a reason to shun the church? Absolutely not. Sorry, but more and more we are all realizing in society that we can’t go it alone, that there are not any institutions that will genuinely reach out to people and be there for them as well as have others be there for you. You can use all the hypocritical justification you can think of, but the only way to salvation is through Jesus. It is only through the Body of Christ that salvation and true life can come through. Otherwise you become lost in your sin and become a part of the ever growing angry and bitter world, that thinks that everyone else is supposed to be there for them.
As the Blackabys write: “If you are not a part of a caring community of believers, you are missing out on what God designed you for. You are also in danger of falling into sin. You must link your life with others who are seeking God’s will. Seek to be a person who willingly joins others in carrying out God’s assignments. Strive to be a source of support and encouragement that those around you need.” And I would add that you need too. The church is the only place that is going to do that. And a church that lives in a very real environment like First Saint Johns, is going to be that truly diverse group of people who will welcome you regardless of where you’re at, so long as you’re willing to serve and be served. Live in denial if you want, but serving and being served will only happen in the church of Jesus Christ. Being a lone ranger is only going to make you an easy target for the sin and death of the world to take you down. As smart as you think you are, you will go down.
 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life).