Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Building Christian Communities

Today's post will be generated almost entirely using quotes from a book I recently finished reading.


We are actually facing the need, not simply to reorganize the institution of the church... but the need to create something that is not there now -- a community; that is, an environment that has a real unity to is, an organism. Organisms are not legislated. They grow naturally. In other words, an organic process of change is needed to form basic Christian communities... Leaders in the Church today need to understand community dynamics and not just organization dynamics.

Today's church is primarily a service institution, providing worship services and sacraments for all who come to them.

Churches instinctively look for a specific solution to the specific problem (a structural solution to a structural problem, a financial solution to a financial problem, etc.). They can accept the fact that spiritual renewal is important, but they cannot see how it has direct application to the specific problems which are clamoring for attention. And so they naturally try to deal with the pressuring problems first and do not get around to turning their attention to the problem of spiritual renewal.

This approach has to begin by the recognition that the church needs subcommunities and that these should be considered an integral part of the church life. It should involve forming the communities in an organic way -- that is, not be assigning people to form a community, but by fostering the beginnings of community among a group of people -- and encouraging and guiding their growth into a basic Christian community... Eventually, as there were a number of these communities that were successful, everyone in the church might find a place in such a community, and the church building would be a service unit at which a number of communities might gather and it could also provide some services that basic communities might find difficult to provide out of their own resources.

Although there are many factors which go into making a community vital, the most direct source of vitality is purpose and the commitment of the members to that purpose. If a community has a purpose that is clear and compelling, one that seems to be of real importance, and if its members are committed to that purpose and therefore put as many of their resources as possible into fostering that purpose, the community will be a vital community. If the community has no purpose, it will not last, no matter how well-structured it is. might be possible to think that what the Church most needed was sociologists or community organizers. But this is not at all true. What the Church needs most is men of God, men who can and will function as pastors, evangelists, spiritual directors... Communities are not formed primarily by sociologists and community directors. They are formed by leaders of men who are dedicated to something.

A functional approach is work-oriented. It is oriented to getting a job done. An environmental approach is interaction-oriented or value-oriented. It is oriented to getting a group of people together who share certain values or concerns. It focuses on the growth of the relationship among people and on how people are being changed for the better... Some business executives are effective at getting production but poor in their ability to draw people together.

...From this point of view, much of what happens in the Church today is not very effective. There are many activities and many organizations. They do things which are good. But they do not build up a community of people committed to Christ and so they are ineffective in meeting the main pastoral needs of the Church today... [Even if] the Church were primarily an institution which was supposed to provide certain services (educational services, worship services, and social change services), it lacks... But if the Church is primarily supposed to be a community of people committed to Christ, there is an even more serious problem -- the lack of any community being built up through these activities.

A good term for the type of leadership that is natural to a community is "elder." An elder has a position. He is one of the recognized heads, and he has an openly accepted responsibility for the order of community life. But he is chose because he really is one of the elders, and not only in name. He is chose because he has a natural positions of respect and leadership in that community. His opinions and decisions "count" more than most people's... This would be true even if he did not have the position. In a properly functioning community, the position reflects the reality.

Watching for leaders as they emerge does not mean making the mistake of picking the people who are already in Church organizations, because they are usually there because they volunteered and are frequently ineffective in forming Christian communities. Nor does it mean electing people, because there is not enough community in the Church today where an election would be a good indication of how the community accepts a person as a leader... It means observing where real Christian communities are being formed effectively and picking the people who are responsible for that process.

The solution to the problem of climate and of coordination can be provided only by those who have positions of pastoral leadership in the Church. For instance, acceptance and understanding on the part of Church leadership is of great importance to those who belong to a movement. It can make all the difference in their loyalty to the Church and their willingness to work for it. The lack of it can lead to alienation among those who could be the strongest supports of the Church.

The process has to begin by putting the emphasis on community formation, not on programs or activities. If what is needed is forming communities which make it possible for a person to live a Christian life, the beginning is to actually have such a community. A person cannot begin by forming structures and programs and expect communities to come out of the hopper on the other end. Communities grow, they are not produced. If a process of renewal does not begin with an environmental approach, it will probably never get to one.


The book is Building Christian Communities: Strategy for Renewing the Church, by Stephen B. Clark. The fascinating thing about this book is that it isn't some brand-new, 2008 book from Willow Creek Press. This book was published in 1972, by Ave Maria Press. Not only is it 36 years old, it was geared specifically to the Catholic church. I took the liberty of substituting the word "church" for the word "parish" in most of the quotes above.

This is a fairly short, simple book, but I've heard that it was used as a stepping stone for a number of intentional communities that were formed in the 1970s. Much of the book is geared towards Catholicism, and there are a number of issues that are specific to issues and movements of the late-60s and early-70s, but as you can tell by the quotes above, it's still quite relevant for churches today.

Many of us have been talking about this type of thing for quite some time, so while this "organic approach" is fascinating, it's not exactly a huge revelation. The book isn't exactly a step-by-step instruction manual for how to create Christian communities -- it's not intended to be. But it is intriguing to see some of these relational/holistic ideals being suggested, and then put into practice, before I was even born.

How cool that those crazy Christian hippies were so emergent!

The question remains, how do you foster this kind of attitude? How does Big Huge Megachurch encourage the formation of these Christian communities? Even if it begins as a movement within a church -- can it happen at all in a large church? Can it happen if leadership doesn't have a passion for it? And would a large enough percentage of the attendees be able to understand what it means to throw your life in with a group of people, rather than just showing up at a building for a weekly ritual?


void77 said...

Regarding part of your closing questions, a large part of the answer lies in the 4th paragraph:

"This approach has to begin by the recognition that the church needs subcommunities and that these should be considered an integral part of the church life. It should involve forming the communities in an organic way -- that is, not be assigning people to form a community, but by fostering the beginnings of community among a group of people -- and encouraging and guiding their growth into a basic Christian community"

Inotherwords, as much as we (I) would like to NOT believe it, in a mega-church, it will require TOP-DOWN leadership to facilitate the change.

Oh, and: FIRST POST! w00t!

(couldn't resist)


scott said...

Agreed. The second-to-last paragraph sums it up as well --

"For instance, acceptance and understanding on the part of Church leadership is of great importance to those who belong to a movement. It can make all the difference in their loyalty to the Church and their willingness to work for it. The lack of it can lead to alienation among those who could be the strongest supports of the Church."

Without the backing of church leadership, it would remain just a small "movement" by a little group of people. The passion from those people might even be considered bothersome by some leaders, which would possibly make the movement look like a rogue pocket of people with weird ideas.

Joe B said...

I borrowed a copy of the book. It's gonna be a great read!!

I found these gems in the Introduction, listed as the 5 theses of this marvelous, old, crumbling, jet-age book:

1, The main goal of pastoral efforts should be to build communities in which enable the christian life;

2, the thurch should be restructured to form basic Christian communities;

3, vital christian communities are formed only through christian renewal;

4, the church today needs leaders who can work with an environmental approach;

5, constructive change should be fostered thru the intelligent use of movements (NOT through judicious policy making.)

Joe B said...

Guys, this book is EXcellent! This is the best practical ecclesiology stuff I have ever read. Thanks, catholic dude!

Big Doofus said...

I want to get a copy of this book, too. Now, let me comment just a little about my own church. We've been attempting to do many of these things since we set out in the early 80's (and I wasn't there back then). We view the church as an "organism" and not an "organization." Thus, we are always skeptical when it comes to applying business practices to the church. Currently, we have a strong emphasis on what we call our "care groups." This is where community takes place. Again, they are not highly organized "mini-churches" or anything like that. Each one takes on it's own form and they are entirely relationship based. We don't elect leaders but allow them to emerge naturally.

So, what is the result? Well, we're not a megachurch. We're not even a big church. We wish there were more leaders. We have people who visit and ask us about "programs" and then never come back. We've had some financial struggles recently, but currently we're doing ok. There's no building program or even a growth plan. There is no offering plate--just a box in the back of the building (and we rarely talk about money). We don't teach members to tithe but to give joyfully. Imagine how tempting it would be to teach a tithe or ask everyone to give a certain amount when we're faced with a financial burden--but we don't do it. God keeps providing.

The people that come to our church and stay usually get very involved with others--i.e. relationships. When someone gets sick or laid up, they will get so many meals delivered to their home that they may never need to cook again.

It's not perfect. It's not even close, but it's something that I treasure.

A lot of this kind of teaching on the church can be traced back to Gene Getz from Dallas Theological Seminary. He sort of spear-headed the "Fellowship Church Movement"--but not intentionally. Therefore, it doesn't surprise me that this Catholic book was written in the early 70s as that's when much of this stuff was taking off. You see, we're not the first generation to look at the church and realize that something isn't right.

You guys are moving in the right direction and I sense that you're all incredibly sincere. Moreover, you've showed great respect to the church and your leaders in your actions.

Joe B said...

I like your church!

You're right, there was quite a movement in that era that recognized the doctrine of the body. It may be a chicken-and-egg question, but it coincided with the charismatic revival.

That's a good catch, Scott's book was from the same era as Robo's book.

Joe B said...

Come on peeps, there's so much great stuff to discuss in this post!

scott said...

One interesting note: Many of these communities I hear about are ecumenical -- they stretch across denominations. Catholics, Protestants, living and serving together! What would the neighbors think?

void77 said...

How many of us would *really* be willing to sell all our posessions and live communally?

It wouldn't be difficult from an execution standpoint in this day of eBay and online yardsales. All you'd have to do is make a list, snap some pics, and wait for the cash.

Then, pile all the cash into a big bank account - or stuff it under the communal matress - and everyong just takes as needed.

Sound fun?

I'm betting we'd have to assign at least one person as an accountant. Then there'd be forms and rules to fill out to get access to the money. Then there'd be a hearing to make sure that the need was real.

And exactly what things would I put on eBay? Am i really wiling to get rid of my Wii? Or my LCD TV? And I must keep my computer because it links me with the online Christian world. God would understand.

Seriously. How far would be go?

Folks, we're utterly addicted to America. And I'm afraid the detox would probably kill us.


scott said...

The majority of the communities I've seen aren't people all living together under one roof. I'd think that would be pretty rare. This book isn't talking about that type of thing... Not quite what I meant by "living and serving together." (sorry)

Here's a group of them, for example, that we've talked about in previous posts.

void77 said...

Okay. But even talking about this "lighter" form of Acts 2:42-47, how does a modern day American citizen live this out? I mean, when I think critically and walk through all the little details, it looks incredibly difficult and darn near impossible. Maybe if it were just me and my wife, and we were still in college, yeah, I could see it. But five kids, two mortgages, credit cards, and career later?


Joe B said...

Maybe you would build a gated community that would keep out the undesirables? And have a contest to see how many lessons our kids could attend?

Nah, that's not it either

Anonymous said...

well.. it's like I said!