catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 15 :: 2011.09.02 — 2011.09.15


Within, and without

I don’t remember thinking of “community” as a bad word until I first became involved in a “community church.” I had always viewed the term in its more common usage, that of a group of people sharing a common space and/or working toward a common goal. You know, as in “community of faith.” That was the meaning of this word to me then, a word as useful and inherently innocent as any other in the English language.

As is usually the case, though, a perfectly normal and neutral word quickly becomes a “burn word” when Evangelical ecclesiology takes it over as its own.

Quickly enough, the word “community” came to mean an energetically intentional group of people, a group of complete strangers to whom I was expected to tell my life’s story without hesitation, the local church organization where spending dedicated time in a “ministry” each week was not optional. This “community” was something that was raised rhetorically to become a central tenant of our faith, something without which it was questionable as to whether or not my faith was even legitimate. This old/new doctrine was read into every exegesis, every call to action. Being “in community” was an action in itself, the “next step” that was to be the most easily accepted as we moved forward in our journey. In fact, it came precariously close to being emphasized as the only necessary step. Relationships with each other in near-mandatory “small groups” was prized above any intellectual teaching, and was the ultimate goal of growth. That is to say, it stopped being a means to an end, and started being an end unto itself. The underlying assumption was that, if you were growing close with others, then you had to be growing closer to God. Scriptural knowledge faded to the background, with the exception of those Scriptures that could be taken (often out of context) to mean that “community” was a central doctrine in and of itself to Christianity.

I’m not certain if my experience is typical of this new trend in Western Christianity. Certainly, these trends come and go as we in the West suddenly discover some “hidden” part of our faith that we assume we’ve been missing all of these years, and become certain that implementing this newly found lost thing will solve all of the problems we’ve experienced with how we’ve been “doing church.” I find it relatively obvious that “community” is this new trend. Eventually, it will fade to being recognized as an important part of our faith, but not one that is as critical as it has been made out to be. Rather, community will be seen as a practice of our faith, alongside baptism or communion, but not as important as those, which were Biblically mandated, after all.

Essentially, I see in “community” an example of the pendulum swing that marked the so-called Emergent Church movement in Western ecclesiology. In a generational desperation to put legs to our faith, to find an orthopraxy to match our orthodoxy, we’ve pounced on every actionable item that we can find. This is an honorable impulse, but we forget that, in order to do so, we must first know…that to live our faith, we must first have faith.

This is to say nothing of how the trend of “community” in our churches has even further alienated (if that were even possible) those of us who are introverts. We were misunderstood enough, but the unspoken assumption that we will spend all of our time around extroverted and talkative fellow-Believers in “community” does even more to push us away from those around us. Talking to God, after all, is sort of a necessary pre-cursor to talking to others. Being in “community” is the new speaking in tongues: the desire to be there seems to be a sign that we truly have faith. Thus, the introvert’s faith is invalidated. He or she is looked upon as someone who requires more intentional prayer and attention because they don’t want to be around others all of the time. In fact, we do want to be around people. We want to do so for brief periods of time, and in primarily dyadic relationships, rather than being with many people at a time.

And therein lies my issue with “community” as it is now treated. I have no illusion that we can effectively live our faith alone, that I am an island, or that my actions don’t impact others and vice versa. I simply long for the recognition that my relationship with my wife and with God is community; that my small group of close friends, who have earned the trust I place in them and whose trust I endeavor to earn, is community. I long for the recognition that desiring peace, quiet and an absence of people in which I can talk to God in deeper conversation is not indicative that my faith is somehow not as strong as those who are energized by being in large groups of people most of the time.

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer warned that he who cannot be alone should beware of community. He also warned that he who cannot be in community should beware of being alone. This balanced and nuanced perspective is an example of the theology that the modern “community church” movement seems to eschew, a deep and introspective look at our actions, a recognition that our orthopraxy does, in fact, pre-suppose an orthodoxy. Perhaps we can endeavor to adopt this approach, to meld our faith and our action into balance, and to begin to realize a true and functional “community” in the church, as opposed to the narrow definition within which we currently operate. Perhaps we will recognize that this “community,” while important, is perhaps not so superior to the central doctrines of our faith which were recognized and identified by many wiser believers who came before us, and who helped frame the foundation for the Church as we now experience it.

Some great reading about introverts recently appeared in the Atlantic. Also, Adam McHugh has written a thought-provoking book on how the Church can better accept introverts.  I encourage you to read both, as they may just work toward re-defining what “community” really looks like.

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