My faith is necessarily shaped by community

Can a “church leader” be churchless?

My friends and I were discussing this article, one that received some attention in certain segments of Twitter, and I was sort of startled at how divisive it was. I think the author is describing a process that many people go through as they church shop. They are Christians, they have ideas about how to express their faith, and they often find a church to be stifling at best or oppressive at worst in accommodating their well-formed faith. I am moved to have compassion on people who have faith but can’t find a community and thus express their faith individually. That’s a really hard thing to go through. I am sympathetic, to be honest, and I tweeted as much.

But some folks I was talking to really thought it was arrogance that caused someone to never find a community. Arrogant to consider yourself a church leader without a flock to shepherd, or, what’s more, to also hold you accountable. Some people thought Christians just needed to be disciplined in their participation in a church. Personally, I think that’s a good point too. It’s better delivered with a spirit of empathy, of course, but there is some truth to it, if you ask me.

Because I really do think that it’s impossible, or at least irresponsible, to not be a leader of Christians without a community to serve in and participate in. This is part of the problem of celebrity Christians in general, ones that are seeking their own notoriety, instead of discerning the spirit. I understand the temptation to want to be in the spotlight, and honestly, a lot of celebrity megachurch pastors pastor much more than just their flock. I laughed the other day when a well-known pastor in Anabaptist circles Tweeted that he pastors people, not Twitter. The irony of the statement was lost on him.

I’m disappointed that our post-Enlightenment society has individualized faith so that you can think you’re having a “Christian experience” apart from a church, to be honest. While I’m not saying you can’t be a church leader without a church, I am praying you find one if you don’t have one.

I have to admit, though, I am often frustrated when I can’t meet the needs of someone who is looking for a church or is a Christian. Sometimes it’s a good learning opportunity for me if I listen to them, and sometimes I can even change to make them feel more welcome or included. Other times, we’re just not going be a great fit and that’s OK. But it is frustrating when I think I’m doing my best and I’m still not good enough for someone. It’s hard not to judge myself personally for that; or feel like a failure. I need to make sure those feelings aren’t leading me as I resent someone for not choosing us, or something.

My faith needs a frame

I’ll be honest with you, I need a faith community, because it grounds me and frames the faith for me. I’m a philosophically curious guy, often shackled by my own thoughts. My contemplative practice is about self-emptying, it’s about losing my thoughts so I don’t lose my mind, so to speak. But I won’t be able to escape my thoughts this side of heaven, and I don’t want to. So I can imagine a lot of possibilities for my faith and its development. Left to my own devices, I’m not sure where I’d end up. I need the community to hold me and form me. I don’t want to be without it, or else I might get into some wacky shit, or at least whatever I felt like at the time. I think that’s what Paul’s talking about in Ephesians 4:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

We are bound together in a body, by Jesus, so that we aren’t tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine! I love it. There are many winds of doctrine that can color us. But we’re bound to Jesus, not ideology. Being bound to ideology, even Christian ideology, is much less secure than we think. You’ll get a new one soon enough, and soon your religion will be something else. Case-in-point are Evangelical Republicans (but you can make the same argument for social-justice-minded Christians). Honestly, it’s hard for me to trust someone who can’t seem to find a church to serve in, and is just at their own whims. I can sympathize, but I can’t prop them up.

Sometimes people’s exit from a church is because the church couldn’t contain their “intellect,” so to speak. They expanded beyond the church, usually, to put it crudely; they grow more conservative or more progressive. Churches get divided all the time over these matters. It was the United Methodists this year, and the Mennonites a few years ago. We don’t learn to allow ourselves to be contained without a community; we define ourselves by something as abstract or ephemeral as our thoughts.

It’s ironic because some of our most codified thoughts in the church are known as doctrine and sometimes canonized in the creeds. The creeds serve the church, though, and the church is a body. The body is required to hold the creeds and enact them in fact. That is the Anabaptist way, anyway. The church is people and to be a Christian is thus to be in a church, especially for me.

Church shopping is hard

I know that I need to be in a church community because I want to submit myself to being formed by one, but also I want to be active in the formation of one. I think that is good for everyone, as well. But it’s hard for me to make a very strong rule about that because people just do have different experiences.

But I can’t let the potential for me not to be a good fit or the fact that someone else might have a different take on their faith stop me from sharing the opportunity that we are. You can build something good with us. You can help include people who are looking for us. We can change the world together. I believe that. That’s why I’m in the church.

So I want to keep sharing who we are with the world and see if it doesn’t stick with someone. That’s the idea behind “evangelism.” I told my friend the other day I was a proud evangelist, and she thought that word was a little icky. And I told her, “But you want people to know about how much you love Circle of Hope, right?” She totally agreed, especially because she couldn’t find a church that was a good fit for her (speak of the devil) in her Brooklyn, where she lives now.

I share about who we are and what we do because as the author above suggests finding a church is impossible. When we don’t share about who we are, we make it even harder for someone to find us. You are doing someone a favor by making it clear who we are, what we do, and how they can connect. My invitation it meant to help others, invite them into what we are doing. They might not find us or know we could be what they are looking for without you. Do your part.

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