Tag Archives: Community

A Fellowship of Grace, Love and Table

We need diverse churches but we also need churches that are diverse.

We’ve been looking into Scot McKnight’s book A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together (Zondervan, 2014). We’ve said that bringing differents together is one of the fundamental things that makes the church the church. We also talked about the tension that exists between the need for diverse churches, churches that reach specific people, culture and language groups, while maintaining churches that are diverse in bringing differents together under the Lordship of Jesus.

We left the last discussion with the question, how to we maintain or become churches that are diverse? In his book, McKnight proposes six traits that characterize a fellowship of differents. These six traits will guide the discussion as we look at three in this post and three in the next post.

The first three traits McKnight mention are grace, love and table.

Grace

“Grace takes lonely people and gives them friendship with God. Grace takes our longings for love and ushers us into the presence of God. Grace transforms our yearnings for significance into gifts of significance. God’s grace speaks to us when we are alone and draws us into fellowship with God and with others” (42).

It’s not only God’s grace that saves us, it’s God’s grace that transforms us. It’s God’s grace that weaves people who are different, at one time hostile toward God and, perhaps, hostile toward each other and makes them into a family. Differents come together through grace.

Love

“For Paul, love is central. It was central because he knew the challenges of the Christian life for those who were in fellowship with one another in house churches dotting the Roman Empire. The only way they would make it is if each person learned to love the others” (52).

If that was true for Paul, how much more is it true for us? Just like churches in the first century, we still have to learn to love each other. It’s not something that we learn once, it’s something we have to continually learn, relearn and practice.

Table

“Against this background [the culture of status in the Roman Empire], the fathering of the Christians reconstructed everything from the bottom up: everyone was welcome, everyone got the same meal, everyone was equal, and everyone had one Lord, King Jesus. At the new family’s table they were one” (99).

McKnight is speaking here of Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. If status was a big deal in the Roman Empire, it remains a big deal in 2016 as well. So much of our lives is defined by what kinds of things we can afford. It defines what we eat, where we go to shop, who our friends are, what we do for fun and what we post on Facebook. As McKnight says, we need to rediscover the equality and unity within the act of Communion.

McKnight believes, and I think rightly, that if we can rediscover these traits, our churches will naturally begin to become more and more diverse. Differents will know that our churches are places of grace, love and equality.

We’ll look at the other three traits next time.

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Individual and Community?

9780310277675_1Last week I reviewed Ted Kluck and Ronnie Martin’s newest book, The Bridezilla of Christ: What to do When God’s People Hurt God’s People. If you read that review, you know that I was not impressed by the book. But what if you are looking for a book on church community, is there a better one?

There is a book I’m currently reading that I think answers that question. The book is Scot McKnight’s A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together (Zondervan, 2014).

McKnight’s book is not focused on conflict, it is focused on discovering how all kinds of different people can be in a community where each person is complemented while complementing the whole community.

He uses the image of making a salad. He says there is the America Way, where everything is thrown into a bowls and smothered with salad dressing. The problem is that everything ends up tasting like salad dressing. He says the right way is to assemble the salad ingredients and, instead of salad dressing, add just a little bit of good olive oil. The olive oil “somehow brings the taste of each item to its fullest” (14). The salad is good because each individual piece is brought it its full potential.

That should be the goal our churches. The whole is strong when each individual is strong and able to contribute to their highest potential. Our goal shouldn’t be to gather people together and smother them in “salad dressing” so that each person’s individuality and unique background, skills and calling are forced to be a single flavor.

So how do we do that? How do we allow each person to fulfill their highest potential while retaining the community? McKnight is going to give us some suggestions that we’ll look at next week.


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Why Our Metaphors Matter: Part 3

This is a series about the metaphors we used to describe the church- and if they are really helpful or if there are better metaphors that we could be using. So far we have examined if the church is like a gas station or a family and if the church is like a hospital or a Tough Mudder.

Is the church like a battleship?

Is the church like a battleship?

Perhaps you have heard this: The church is not like a cruise ship, it’s like a battleship. I’ve heard this metaphor several different times in sermons or in discussions on the role of the church. This metaphor tries to correct the spiritual consumerism that plagues Western Christianity- as that we talked about in Part 1. The cruise ship is equated with pleasure, consumption, entertainment, extravagance and a midnight buffet (wait, that really is only on a cruise ship). While the battleship is equated with mission, purpose, dedication and the whole being greater than it’s individual parts.

I know it sounds repetitive at this point, but I get where this metaphor comes from. It gives purpose and meaning to the Christian life and (again) combats the consumerism that plagues our churches and vision of Christianity. In part one of this series, I talked about how there are good metaphors and better metaphors. I believe the battleship metaphor is a good metaphor but there is a better metaphor. The reason we need a better metaphor is because, within the world in which we live, we must be careful using militaristic language to describe Christianity. What other metaphor could we use that expresses similar meaning as a battleship but without the militaristic undertones?

The US embassy in Brussels

The US embassy in Brussels

What if the church was like an embassy? An embassy expresses mission, purpose and a representative of something bigger. What makes an embassy unique is that an embassy is a piece of one nation inside of another nation. If I am in France and go to the United States embassy, as soon as I walked through the gates it is like walking in the US. The same is true for the French, Spanish or Dutch embassies in the United States.

The mission of the US embassy in France (or any country) is to look after the interests of the Unites States, to advocate for it’s interests within the government, to undertake diplomacy as the official representative of the US government. The embassy also exists to provide a resource to US citizens visiting, working or who have a problem in the country where the embassy is located. Additionally, the ambassador stands as the official representative of the US government- with all the responsibilities and privileges that come with it.

What if the church was like the embassy for the Kingdom of God within the world? What if Christians were ambassadors? That is what Paul calls us in 2 Corinthians. What if the church acted like the official representative of the Kingdom of God on the earth? What if we advocated for the interests of King Jesus? What if the church was a resource and advocate, not just for our “citizens,” but for all people? What if we lived like ambassadors, believing that each one of us is an official representative of King Jesus and the Kingdom of God?

Wouldn’t we be braver? An ambassador has the full weight and power of the government behind them, we have the full weight and power of God behind us and that’s even more powerful than a battleship.

Why Our Metaphors Matter: Part 2

In this series of posts, we are talking about the metaphors that are used for the church and examining them to see if they are the best metaphors to use- because our metaphors matter.

One metaphor I’ve heard repeated is that the church is like a hospital- a hospital for sinners. Once again, I understand what this metaphor is trying to express. This metaphor probably arises from Jesus’ words in Mark 2:17. There Jesus tells the religious leaders: “It is not those who are healthy that need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” This metaphor shows that the church (and the Jesus that the church preaches) isn’t for people who are good and who have their life put together but for those who have problems, issues and who’s life is a mess. Hospitals are the place to go if you are very sick and need to get better. The church should be likewise.

But.

The problem with this metaphor is that no-one wants to go to a hospital. Hospitals are quiet. Hospitals are sterile and clean. Hospitals are uncomfortable- both physically and emotionally. Hospitals are where all the problems are hidden behind closed doors. Hospitals are the place where people die and where you just want to get out as quickly as possible. The hospital metaphor also perpetuates the idea that the “doctors” (pastors, ministers, church leaders, other Christians) are different from the “patients” (the sinners, unchurched, those with messed up lives). It makes us think that pastors, ministers, church leaders and other Christians are the “cured,” and that they are there to prescribe the medicine- while never being sick themselves. In a hospital, the doctor and the patient are not equal and that idea can bleed over into the church.

The truth is that we were all sinners, we still suffer from sin, we are all in the life-long process of sanctification and we are traveling this life together trying to do our best to follow Jesus.

Maybe church is more like this:

Did you catch some of the phrases that were used in this video?

  • “Everyone here is your teammate.”
  • “That’s the name of the game: people helping people.”
  • All you have to do is decide, deep down, that you’re going to finish.”
  • “Challenges that foster teamwork and camaraderie- things that are fun.”
  • “After this, you’re going to be a different person.”

I think those phrases could and should apply to the church and to our Christian lives as well. The church shouldn’t be a hospital where all the problems are shut behind closed doors and the professionals prescribe solutions. The church should be like a Tough Mudder. Church should be a place and Christianity a lifestyle where we help each other, push each other and get down in the mud with each other. Where we see challenges as obstacles to conquer- with the help of one another and through the power of Jesus Christ. And then, when we have conquered, we celebrate with each other, share our war stories, share about when we got knocked down but got back up again and how God remained faithful. That seems like more fun than a hospital.

So what is the church? Is it like a hospital or like a Tough Mudder?


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Why Our Metaphors Matter: Part 1

I’ve written more than a few posts on the church (local) and Church (universal) but there’s always something that draws me back into this topic. This time it’s metaphors, specifically the metaphors we use to describe the church. Metaphors are helpful in the way that they help us understand one thing but relating it to another thing. However for metaphors to be helpful the relationship has to make sense and one has to use the best metaphor available. For example, it makes more sense and it is a better metaphor to say that someone’s kindness is like the smell of a rose in early morning rather than saying that someone’s kindness is like a tsunami that sweeps away anything in it’s path.

In the next three posts, I’m going to share three metaphors for the church that I’ve heard and share why they are misguided, though well intentioned, and share three better metaphors that will help Jesus followers as we interact with our culture.

A few weeks ago I was flipping through the Christian radio stations pre-programed in my car (I normally don’t listen to Christian radio but I was probably channel surfing during the commercial break of ESPN radio) and I heard a sound bite from a pastor/evangelists who was using the metaphor that the church is like a gas station.

To be fair, this was only a 15-30 second piece of a talk that was edited for an “encouraging word” but the church is a gas station, really? His point was that just like when your car is out of gas, you have to stop in at the gas station, fill up, then leave. Then he said that church was the same way; you run out of spiritual gas during the week, go to church to refuel, then go out again until the next time you need a fill-up.

I get what he was trying to say. But this metaphor breaks down quickly and reveals much of what is wrong with modern Western Christianity. This metaphor perpetuates the idea that church stands as a place for consumption. When I’m empty, I come and consume. When I need to refuel, I come to consume. If I’m not empty, then I don’t consume. I take what’s given to me and I use it until I’m in need of a refuel. The church gives, I take. The church produces, I consume. Church become all about me and fulfilling my needs. If this church (gas station) doesn’t have what I want, I just go to the one on the next corner.

If a gas station is not the best metaphor, what is a better metaphor?

The church is a family. Not only is this a metaphor found in the Bible, it turns a metaphor based on consumerism into a metaphor grounded in identity. I am no longer a consumer, I am a participant, I am a member, I am a needed to help fulfill the needs of others, I have a role to play that influences the whole. I’m part of the family, I’m always part of the family.

What I appreciate about the gas station metaphor is that it shows how there is a going, a sending aspect to following Jesus. However the gas station metaphor supports the other major fault of Western Christianity: individualism. Can you see how egocentric this metaphor is? There’s no community, no relationship, no interaction. I go to church to fill up my spiritual tank. Then I go into my world and do my thing until run low again and stop in for another fill up. I don’t have to care about you and your spiritual life, just my own.

In a family, every member is supposed to work for the good of the other members of the family. Family is community, relationship, interaction and caring about the needs of the other members- even above your own.

Is the church like a gas station or is the church like a family?

 

Praying Prayers Together: Why I Don’t Sing at Church

It’s been over two years since I’ve sang at church.

It’s not because my church plays one kind of music while I prefer another. It’s not because I’m angry at God. It’s not because I’m deathly afraid to sing in public. I just don’t sing at church.

But isn’t corporate worship part of going to church? Isn’t singing a huge part of that corporate worship- at least within the modern day church?

Yes, I guess you could argue those points and on one level I would have to agree with you. My response, however, is why? Why do we sing?

Bonhoeffer said that church singing is a way for a group of people to pray the same prayer. It’s a way for people of different ages, genders, social classes, education and spiritual maturity to all say the same thing to God at the same time.

I love the picture that Bonhoeffer creates. It’s the same picture we see in Revelation when people from every nation are gathered around the throne of God and sing “worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” If that were explained in church then I might be able to sing. Instead of standing to sing because standing to sing is what we do at church, the church was lead- shepherded, pastored- to the throne of God to pray the same prayer to God that would completely change how we sing church music.

Two other things also hinder our churches from realizing Bonhoeffer’s vision.

1. We must have prayers worth praying. In our conversation this means that we must have songs worth singing. Have you ever really paid attention to the words to some of the songs we sing at church? There are many songs that have well developed theology but there are many songs that do not, they just string a line of adjectives together and apply them to God. It brings me to the question, what does it mean to praise or worship God? Is worship merely describing God- God is holy, God is loving, God is full of grace? Is worship thanking God for what God has done? I’m not an expert on worship and I honestly haven’t done much research on the topic but when I read the Psalms or the early hymns of the church I see more than just assigning adjectives to God or thanking God for what God has done. Though I see those things, beyond them I see a change in the relationship between God, who is being praised and worshiped, and the one offering that praise and worship. In the Psalms we see the psalmist moved to steadfastness and action or we see evil crumble before God. When Paul writes or quotes an early Christian hymn, it ends with every knee bowing and tongue confessing that Jesus is Lord. I may be wrong and I may change my mind, but I don’t see many of our church songs causing a change in the relationship between God and the worshiper.

2. We must have community that is worth belonging to. If singing is praying prayers together, then it reasons that we need to know each other. In Romans, Paul tells us to rejoice with those rejoice and weep with those who weep; if we don’t know who is rejoicing and who is weeping, how can we rejoice and weep with them? If I don’t know what is going on in the lives of people around me, how can I pray prayers of thanksgiving with them, or prayers of comfort, or prayers of distress, or prayers of hope? What happens is that I sing or pray my little song in the context of my world in my rejoicing and my weeping and you sing your little song in the context of your little world in your rejoicing or your weeping and we are singing two individual songs instead of singing one song together. It’s only though really knowing those around us that we can truly sing and pray together.

As I said earlier, I really love Bonhoeffer’s picture of what church singing is suppose to be. Above that, I think it’s the picture we see in the Bible and in the example of the early Christian church. God hears enough of us singing our individual prayers- everyone in the world can do that- what we need more of is singing prayers as one body and that means having prayers worth praying and knowing what prayers to pray by being in true community with each other.

 

The Story Behind the Story: Confession and Community

Confession stands as one of basic Christian disciplines that has been largely forgotten in our modern Christianity. I have written about this previously in Benchmarks, “Confession is the speaking side of solitude. In solitude one is still and listens; in confession one is honest and speaks. [Richard] Foster speaks of confession as the acknowledgement that Christian community is not a community of saints but rather a community of sinners. When we are honest with who we are in confession, we are truly set free and transformed by God’s mercy and forgiveness.”

Modern-day Christianity talks a lot about community and it is one of the hot buzzwords that’s spoken and written about. As Christians we long for genuine community and we hold out community as an attractive element of Christianity to a world that is moving increasingly superficial. We talk a lot about community but we don’t talk at all about confession.


Community cannot happen outside of confession.


 The irony is, however, that community cannot happen outside of confession. Without confession, as Foster writes, the Christian community becomes a community of “saints” where pride and jealousy can breed comparison, envy and conflict. It can breed a community that becomes more focused on it’s own works rather than the work of Jesus. A community of confession, a community of sinners, understands that we are a community of fallen people, who continually fall short of God and must rely on the grace, mercy, forgiveness and complete work of Jesus. Simply put a community of confession lifts up Jesus while community of “saints” can quickly fall into the trap of lifting up it’s own accomplishments.


Confession cannot happen outside of community.


 Community cannot happen outside of confession and the opposite is true as well, confession cannot happen outside of community. If confession is speaking then one has to speak and another has to listen. Our confessions have to come within community- the community of the church, the community of family, the community of marriage, the community of friendship. That is the hardest aspect of confession. To be a confessing community means that each of us has to be honest about ourselves and honest to each other. Many times it’s easier to be honest with God than it is to be honest with each other. After all God already knows us and knows our actions, words and attitudes but we can cover up our actions, explain our words and hide our attitudes but those things destroy community.

I think that is what James talks about in James 5:13-18. In the passage, James gives three examples of things that destroy community: suffering, celebration (success), and sickness. We can probably see how suffering and sickness could destroy community but what about celebration, happiness or success? Typically, nothing makes us rely less on God than prosperity. And nothing makes us more aware of our heart’s desires than when we have a little extra money at the end of the month. To these destructive elements, James says that we need to call in the community, pray and confess. There it is again, confession linked to community and community linked to confession.


 

Confession is community in action.


The idea of confession is something that God has been working in me for a few months now and last Sunday I finally had the courage to go to my wife and confess some attitudes that I’ve had and that some of the things I did amidst the hurt, anger and frustration of the church job mess where wrong and I needed to confess and ask forgiveness. And you know what? It was hard. And it was freeing. It was community in action.

If true community takes confession and confession takes a community, how do we begin? It might be awkward to grab the first person you see at church and start confessing to them. But that just might be the way to start. Just image if the church was made up of people who confessed to each other the ways they are suffering, the ways they are celebrating, the ways they are sick. Imagine if the church was made up of people who prayed, I mean really prayed, for each other in the same power in which Elijah prayed? Imagine a church made up of people who confessed their brokenness and were healed. Never mind a church, imagine a marriage or a family like that! That is a community that would stand out to people far from God. And all it takes is the courage to say, “Hey, I need to tell you something…”

 

© Ryan Vanderland 2014