Tag Archives: community

Books that build community

What’s on your summer reading list? Along with sunscreen and shades, what do you have packed in your beach bag? While the summer allows us to take a break, it can also provide the necessary time and space to strengthen areas of our faith, namely the practice of Christian community.

An outgrowth of hospitality, Christian community- building is a natural progression. Sunday morning was never meant to be the end of our fellowship. Family in Christ, we should expect to spend more time together. The New Testament church models this time and time again. Books can call us back to community and away from the temptation to “go solo” or “go at it alone.” Besides, our faith was meant to be practiced together.

So, use these books begin a book club that builds community. Like the early church, go from house to house, share a meal or light refreshments, pick a topic and then discuss it. Add community service projects and it allows the words to literally leap off the page, both practicing what you are reading and strengthening your fellowship.

This summer, I am all about community- building. Here are a few books that I hope encourage you to join me.

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus by David Janzen, Paraclete Press, 2013, 333 pages.

The Post- Racial Church: A Biblical Framework for Multiethnic Reconciliation by Kenneth A. Mathews & M. Sydney Park, Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011, 280 pages.

Why We Live in Community by Eberhard Arnold, Plough Publishing House, 1995, 62 pages.

Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland, IVP Books, 2013, 220 pages.

Table Talk: Rethinking Communion and Community by Mike Graves, Cascade Books, 2017, 163 pages.

Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing House, 2016, 359 pages.

The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society by Jonathan Sacks, Bloomsbury, 2007, 273 pages.

Race and reconciliation do not go together

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“16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

| Second Corinthians 5.16-20, NRSV

Recently, I led a series of workshops on racial reconciliation.  I did not choose the title but welcomed the challenge of a conversation with the two words.  The attendees saw no conflict between them, at least not at first.  I thought it necessary that they be clear of the meanings that they brought to the words.  As expected, the definitions were most often the total opposite of each other.

When I asked what words they associated with race, there was nervous silence.  After I reminded them that they were in a safe space for which they would not be penalized for learning, they offered words like hatred, division, anger and apathy.  It took quite some time before anyone mentioned color or prejudice.  And when I asked them what came to mind when I said reconciliation, there was almost a sigh of relief with each answer: apology, love, redemption and unity.  It was obvious that they knew and favored reconciliation over race.

The gathering focused on being an ambassador but it was clear that they wanted to get as far away from race as possible.  Though participants understood intellectually that race was and is a social construct, socially and emotionally it remained very real.  And this is understandable as there are real life consequences and implications for those on the last rung of its social ladder.  As we saw recently at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, two African American men socially identified as black were falsely arrested and imprisoned for asking to use the restroom and while waiting for a friend.  Not ordering immediately is apparently a crime for some people.  These men posed no threat but the perceptions associated with the social coloring of their skin prompted the manager to call the police.

As a result, I have given up my grande, seven pump, extra hot chai with whole milk, no water, no foam.  It had been my favorite morning drink for almost ten years.  But, when I saw the video and the faces of the men being arrested, I lost my appetite immediately.  I need authentic community more than I need caffeine.  Race and community simply do not go together.

To be fair, the social construct of race never aimed to unify human beings.  It never claimed that it would create community, that after it was finished with American slavery, lynchings, the Black Codes, Jim Crow segregation, redlining and the like that it would bring us back together again.  Its purpose was to justify a caste system, which enabled persons socially colored white to oppress and enslave those socially colored black.  There is nothing of this relationship that can be reconciled.  The two don’t go together.  Instead, we should spend our time reconciling the fact that we hate persons who are our siblings.

Reconciling ourselves to race is not apart of this ministry; reconciling ourselves to each other and to God is.

Here is the church

“Here is the church.

Here is the steeple.

Open the doors

And see all the people.”

Life in community is not as simple and straightforward as this children’s rhyme would lead us to believe.  There is more to the church than the building and more to the building than its members.  Instead, we gather each Sunday to experience the transformative message and ministry of Jesus Christ.  But, we do not come without our own cultural expectations and values of what Christian discipleship, fellowship, worship and ministry should be.

Instead, we bring competing and often, cultural Christs, rooted in our family history, social location and personal relationship with the Divine.  Separating cultural identity from Christian identity, cultural values from Christ’s values can be difficult as our faith is expressed through this lens.  But, when our lens becomes the vision or worse still, the image of Christ, what then?  How do we discern between them?

God created the diversity for which we stumble to find words and opportunities to include all people.  Still, conversations centered around culture, community and our Christian values are deep, rich and necessary ones.  Not a simple venture, it is a part of the journey of self- mortification and transformation.  Charles E. Moore writes in Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People, “Forming community is not just living close to one another.  Prisoners do that.  Rather, community demands personal sacrifice and personal transformation.”   Life in community is not as simple and straightforward as Sunday morning participation.  No, it will require authentic, courageous and intentional change as the Jesus community.

“Here is the church…

The Jesus Community

Image result for Community Drawing

“All who believed were together and had all things in common…”

|Acts 2.44, NRSV

These past few weeks, I, along with my Young Adult Sunday School class, have been in conversation about what Christian community looks like– not in appearance but application.  We don’t just want to talk about it; we want to experience it.  Sunday morning does not count.  A community does not meet once a week or exist in one hour increments.  That would be more of a community meeting.

Without our cultural expectations and familial traditions, we are looking for a way into church that does not involve a velvet rope and long lines, that is desirably unfamiliar, that places us on the heels of Jesus and allows us to practice what he preached every day.  We are in search of a community not tied to political party affiliations or geographic location but bound together by the love of Christ.  And this is not the sweet and sappy stuff.

There were no teddy bears and roses left at Christ’s cross.  There is a song that asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  I can tell you who was not– Cupid.  Jesus was not pierced by his arrow.  No, this love is sacrificial and will cost our very lives in ways both meaningful and painful.

But, we want to belong with people authentically, deeply and truly.  We don’t fit anywhere else– without cultural and social assimilation.  And we lose more than our selves, exchanging our souls for some semblance of similarity and sacrifice that which makes us unique individuals.  Because we don’t want to upset the image that a chosen few have in mind.  Apart of this kind of group, we are separated from ourselves, unable to be who we are for fear of losing our membership.

Joined with Christ, we are members of his body.  No assembly required on our part, we are brought together and held together by the very hands of Christ.  Builder meets material, community is created in ways that cannot be blueprinted.  Life in Christ requires no hard hat, no gloves– because this life does not require our labor.  No falling debris, the Jesus community is a safe space.  (But, if you need a plan in case of emergency, we could hide in his empty tomb; there is “plenty good room” there.)  The Jesus community is supported by the beams of his cross and is sustained by his blood, sweat and tears– not ours.

Not an ideal, this is the life promised to all who believe.  It is not a gated community and requires no passcode.  There is but one door, Jesus and entry is shared with all.  For God so loved the world that he gave us… community in Jesus.


Segregated Sundays: Genuine Community

Cross- cultural, multicultural, multiethnic or intercultural, whichever is your church’s claim to inclusivity, please be sure that your invitation is sincere, that your congregation understands what these words means and what they mean for the congregation.  It’s about relationship and how we relate to persons across cultures not just during Sunday morning worship but throughout the week.  Because Christian community is not a Sunday morning commitment.  It’s a way of life.

It won’t happen in an hour.  It is not a slogan, a stock photo of diversity or a handshake and a close-lipped smile.  After receiving the “right hand of fellowship,” does your church have anything more to give its new members to make them feel like they belong?  More than giving them a church bulletin and pointing them to a Sunday School class, what are you doing to build a relationship outside of weekly church services?  What do you serve after the fellowship hour?  What do you say when the coffee is gone and there’s no more hot water for tea?  Community- building takes time and Christ’s community is more than food and drink (cf. Matthew 6.25).

Some church specialists suggest that it is now “sexy” to say that your church’s membership is diverse.  It is attractive to new believers and those seeking a faith to believe in.  Never mind the fact that Jesus asked his disciples to do share the gospel with all nations more than 2,000 years ago, now it’s popular for our sacred spaces to reflect the diversity of its communities (Matthew 28.16-20).  But, this desire for inclusivity is not true of every church and certainly is not the norm.

And it is quite a turn off when a church presents itself as diverse only to reflect the culture’s affirmations of white privilege and the positioning of socially colored white people in all the positions of church leadership and influence.  This plantation- style of ministry where the socially colored white people are in charge while persons of other social colors do the work of ministry is a sad commentary on the impact of the social construct of race in Christian community.  We simply do not share the gospel’s vision but instead, perpetuate the image of American slavery and its systems of dominance.

It is evidence that persons of different cultures do not share the same faith in Jesus and are not sharing in the same faith, that we are believing in Jesus for culturally- specific things.  We also do not share the gospel outside of our culture– unless, of course, it’s on a missions trip.  While the kingdom of God is not just for “me and mine,” it is hard for us to share our faith and worse still, to share a faith with those of different cultural backgrounds, experiences and expressions.  We would rather worship God separately, segregated on Sunday mornings according to the social construct of race: White Christians go here.  Black Christians go over there.  Red Christians go around the corner.  Yellow Christians go across the tracks.  Beige Christians go over the river and through the woods.

I suppose we believe that Christ is walking with each culture separately, that there are separate discipleship paths, different salvation tracks, that Christ divides his body and his time based on our social categories.

Drawn by Christ’s hands on a cross, we are unable to see him reaching for those whose hands do not “look like” ours.  Assuming that Christ only speaks English, we, perhaps unknowingly assume that Christ doesn’t understand what they are saying either.  Though Jesus is the Savior of the world, we have managed to reduce his salvific power to our area of the world.  And we call this faith.  We call ourselves the body of Christ.

Cognitively, we know that believers of other cultures are our siblings, that we share the same faith.  But, we stop short of accepting that God loves them just the same and offers them the same promises, the same blessed assurance.  Instead, we have to believe that God loves us more and differently.  Because the social construct of race says that human beings are physically different in ways that affect value, worth, treatment and life outcome.  We believe then that God loves us according to the social construct of race.

As a result, we invent cultural and racialized representations of divinity that affirm our practice of faith and ours alone.  This Christ is one of us– and not them.  This Christ is in our circle and understands why we worship without them.  This Christ supports our decisions to exclude and the witness that Christian community is a gated community.  These socially colored idols say that we are worshipping the right way, that we are the right people for the work of the Church, that we are the best hands and feet that Christ has ever seen, that we are the only hands and feet that God has in the world.  This god works for us.  We can accept and appreciate this kind of god.  But, God doesn’t work for us, at least not as a cosmic employee who has a serious commute to work each day.

Consequently, intentional inclusivity requires work and that we be willing to work with others.  This decision to accept and model the Great Commission as well as the Great Commandment is well- informed, personally practiced and a coordinated effort on the part of the entire church– not just the pastor, the worship leader or the outreach committee.  This calling to genuine community will require us to inspect the Christ we are following, to make sure that his path does not conveniently line up with our own.  Does he look like us?  And if so, why?  Who made him this way?  why is this a requirement in order for us to follow him and to remain in fellowship?

Because fellowship goes deeper than looking the same and sharing a password.  This isn’t about matching outfits and hairstyles, sharing a culture or a language.  It is more than sharing a pew or even singing in the choir together.  It is more than what takes place on Sunday morning and if you are not sharing your life during the week, then I would question if there is genuine fellowship at all.  Our community has something much deeper in common.  We share in the life and body of Christ.

So, if you only see each other on Sunday morning, why?  Why do you not live among, play with, work beside, rejoice and mourn with those you share a faith and hymnal with?  “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” still persons come to church and expect a cultural representation of their faith (Ephesians 4.5).  Who told us that this was an option?  That this was a requirement for belief?  That Christianity was to be practiced in cultural silos?

Genuine community requires that we not open the doors of our church until we open our mouths, freeing our tongues of our terms and conditions for acceptance.  We need to be freed of pretense and perfunctory greetings in order to speak to the presence of race in our churches.  We need to have candid conversations about its impact on our fellowship and cultivate a desire to belong to Christ’s body and to each other– not just our own.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “For where the brother (or sister) is, there is the body of Christ, and there is the church.  And there we must be also.”