Archive for the ‘Theology of Community’ Category

Call me a curmudgeon.  Or an arch-conservative, allergic to all things new.  And I will freely admit that I romanticize earlier days, fully aware that they were never so rosy as I fancy them.  But I am just not ready to jump on the small (‘cell’) groups bandwagon like so many other Reformed folks.  I have already raised some questions on the subject in a previous post.  I really do question how ecclesiologically Reformed it is after all.

But here’s another thing that makes me nervous of them.  I fear that they detract from a robust pulpit ministry, from Lord’s day to Lord’s day.  In some circles, cell groups aim to provide meaningful biblical study for preachers who want their Sunday services to be ‘seeker sensitive.’   In my judgment, that makes cell groups a crutch for an impotent ministry.

Related, it seems that they are now being touted (or maybe I’m just noticing it) as suitable vehicles for ‘missional’ outreach.  Unbelievers need a ‘safe’ place to be welcomed, where they will not feel judged.  So we can win them over to church, with all its trappings, through the back door.  Now, I am all for loving unbelievers and making them feel loved.  But what about public preaching as a means of grace?   What of God’s choice of the foolishness of preaching?  What of the scandal of the cross?  And does that scandal come in bold face through the small groups, or is it in the fine print on page 236?

Why are Reformed people enthusiastic about this?  Am I off, or is this broad evangelicalism, low churchism, or even anti-churchism sneaking in under the radar?

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Our hyper-individualized society possesses a very low sense of corporate solidarity. Every man does that which is right in his own eyes. Every man isolates himself, tears apart what God has joined together, challenging, “and who is my neighbor?” Or, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Tragically, this thinking bleeds over into the mentality of the Church. We have become conformed to this individualistic world, not transformed by the renewing of our mind. Shame on us!

When, however, we begin thinking corporately – and for that matter, inter-generationally (should I say, consistently covenantal?) – we will find ourselves doing much more than confessing our own individual sins. For starters, we will confess the sin of individualism. But what is more, we will sense the guilt that we bear as members of families, states, and nations. We will sense a shared guilt by our association with the compromised Visible Church. And we will certainly feel, in addition to our own sins, the shared sins of our forbears.

Observe this principle in Leviticus 26:40, 42, “If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me . . . then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land.” When exiled as a punishment for their sins and the sins of their fathers, Israel ought to repent and confess both. And they should do so with the assurance that the God who shows mercy from generation to generation will do precisely that!

See this also with Daniel in his great confession. This holy man, far from isolating himself from the larger body to which he belonged, rather owned it and identified with it. Even if the nation would not confess its sin, he would do it for them. Or, more to the point, as a part of them. “We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land” (Dan. 9:6; see the reference to “our fathers” also in vv. 8 & 16).

Now we may not like this. We may complain, charging God with injustice. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezek. 18:2). But the Potter has power over the clay. And it has pleased Him to make us not bare, atomized individuals – but much more. We are also members of corporate bodies. We are waves in a larger generational stream, branches in a much bigger tree. This is biblical. This is covenantal. This is reality! Let us acknowledge it and confess our sins. Including those we share with our ancestors. And if we do, should we not expect the God of the thousand generations to remember his mercies towards us – and our children (Acts 2:39)?

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Key to understanding Thomas Chalmers’ advocacy of the locality (or parish) principle for urban missions is what he called ‘the gregarious principle.’  Man by God’s design was made a social creature.  And as a part of God’s moral government, there are certain social laws that men disregard only to their detriment.  The locality principle does not disregard, but presumes the gregarious principle and harnesses its potential.  As a minister adopts a territory for its spiritual cultivation, he removes not only the geographic, but the social distance between himself, his church, and the people he is seeking to reach.  And in the end, heart joins with heart. 

The following quote illustrates Chalmers’ view of the social advantages in a minister doing outreach on the locality principle.  Notice his concern with social ideas such as acquaintance, intimacy, friendliness, welcome, and fellow feeling:

In the first place, then, it is not so likely that a minister will go forth on his share of the population, when spread at random over the whole city, as when they lie within the limits of a space that is overtakable. He feels an incitement to move in the latter way of it, which he does not feel when his attentions are dispersed over a wide and bewildering generality. He, under the one arrangement, may have rare, and rapid, and transient intercourse with the individuals of a diffused multitude; but this can never ripen into solid acquaintanceship with more than a very few.  Under the other arrangement, he may, at a greatly less expense, attain to terms of intimacy with some, and of civility with many. And it would add prodigiously to this operation, were his hearers, on the Sabbath, also his parochial acquaintances through the week. By this simple expedient alone, he would attain such an establishment of himself in his parish, in a single month, as he will not otherwise reach, but by the labour and assiduity of years. The very consciousness that, in a certain quarter of the city, lay the great body of his congregation, would be enough to assure him of a welcome there, and a friendship there, that would ever be inclining his footsteps to his parish, as the fittest scene of promise and of preparation for all his enterprises. And he would find, that the business of the Sabbath and the business of the week, had a most wholesome reciprocal influence the one upon the other. The former business would immediately open a wide and effectual door of intercourse with the people; and the latter business would not only retain the people in attendance upon their minister, but would rapidly extend their demand of attendance upon him, whenever there was room for it. . . .

But the second influence of locality in this matter, is perhaps of greater efficacy still. The first is that by which the minister obtains a more intense feeling of his relationship to his people. The second is that by which the people obtain a more intense feeling of their relationship to their minister. It is incalculable how much this last is promoted by the mere juxtaposition of the people to one another. There is a great deal more than perhaps can be brought out by a mere verbal demonstration, in a number of contiguous families, all related by one tie to the same place of worship, and the same minister. It would go to revive a feeling, which is now nearly obliterated in towns, whereby the house which a man occupies, should be connected, in his mind, with the parish in which it is situated, and an ecclesiastical relationship be recognised with the clergyman of the parish. In these circumstances, where there was no interference of principle, and no personal disapprobation of the clergyman, attendance upon the parish church would at length pass into one of the habitual and established proprieties of every little vicinage. Old families would keep it up, and new families would fall into it; and the demand for seats, instead of slackening under such an arrangement, would become more intense every year, so as to form a distinct call for more churches, whenever they were called for by the exigencies of a growing population (The Christian & Economic Polity of a Nation, pp. 67-68).

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Rain (from www.eontarionow.com)It struck me recently that the formation of new Christian communities is like the formation of rain in two ways.  First, a droplet cannot form without a microscopic bit of dust in the atmosphere.  Water molecules adhere to and form around them.  So with new parishes.  There must be a center, a nucleus, for disconnected sinners to adhere and to gather around.  That nucleus is the true community-generating word of salvation.  Where it is preached, God gathers His people.  And since that word lives and dwells within us, those most likely to gather around us are those closest to us.  That means our neighborhoods – yours and mine – can be future parish communities.  As God re-forms these communities, people could be walking to church once again.

But there is also another analogy.  “Theorists and experimentalists understand this progression, but they cannot agree on how long it takes. ‘When you estimate the typical time you need to grow from micron- to millimeter-sized droplets, it would take maybe ten or fifteen hours,’ says Gregory Falkovich of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. ‘And empirically people noticed that often rain starts long before this–say in half an hour'” (http://focus.aps.org/story/v7/st14).  So with the re-emergence of Christian communities.  It is a phenomenon shrouded in mystery.  And we may not realize that they are re-emerging until the droplets suddenly form in conversions.

Jesus taught a parable on a similar analogy in Mark 4:26-29.  The Kingdom of God is at work today, renewing and re-forming true communities.  Let us tirelessly work for conversions and for new Christian communities, believing the One who calls those things that are not as though they were (Rom. 4:17).

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Anstruther Parish ChurchIn the modern day, old orders are forced to give way to new ones.  This is the inevitable process of capitalism.  In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter coined a phrase for this, that apparently became a buzzword in the dot-com boom of the 1990s.  He called it “creative destruction.”  It is a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one” (http://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/creativedestruction.asp).

As I was reading further in Greenspan’s Age of Turbulence, he illustrated the opposite of this principle on a holiday with his wife in Venice.  “Venice, I realized, is the antithesis of creative destruction. It exists to conserve and appreciate the past, not create a future. But that, I realized, is exactly the point. The city caters to a deep human need for stability and permanence as well as beauty and romance. Venice’s popularity represents one pole of a conflict in human nature: the struggle between the desire to increase material well-being and the desire to ward off change and its attendant stress” (181).

There we have it again.  A deep human need for the once-familiar and once-enjoyed ‘rootedness.’  We wish we could have it again, and enjoy what once was – true community.  “Sometimes you want to go / where everybody knows your name, / and they’re always glad you came.”  

The Anstruther of Thomas Chalmers’ childhood was his Venice.  It hadn’t changed in his memory, and it would never change in that sense.  Only, Chalmers wasn’t going to let Anstruther remain locked up in the past or remain only as a quaint tourist attraction for future generations.  He fully realized that the idyllic parish community of his childhood would never remain exactly the same; yet he sought to transplant its essential features to the slums of St. John’s in Glasgow and the West Port in Edinburgh.  That is, I think, part of the genius of Chalmers.  In an age of change, he didn’t pay homage to creative destruction.  He reckoned with its reality, yes – perhaps successfully, perhaps not so successfully.  But the past was worth preserving; or better, the past was worth reimplementing.

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“By 2006, nearly 69 percent of households owned their own home, up from 64 percent in 1994 and 44 percent in 1940.  The gains were especially dramatic among Hispanics and blacks, as increasing affluence as well as government encouragement of subprime mortgage programs enabled many members of minority groups to become first-time home buyers.  This expansion of ownership gave more people a stake in the future of our country and boded well for the cohesion of the nation, I thought.  Home ownership resonates deeply today as it did a century ago.  Even in a digital age, brick and mortar (or plywood and Sheetrock) are what stabilize us and make us feel at home” (Alan Greenspan, Age of Turbulence, p. 230).

Notwithstanding the subprime debacle that has thrown Wall Street into a tailspin since this quote, Greenspan’s last observation struck me.   The preconditions for community in the historic sense are vanishing in our day with advancements in travel, technology, and communications.  As we are annexed into the Global Village, we become the neighbors of all and none at once.  But we will never shake our longing for rootedness.  And as social beings, we want to be rooted together.  So as long as we have houses and as long as we have neighbors, we have the raw materials for the old community to be revived.  What is needed is the Spirit of God to breathe into these dead bones and constitute true communities again. 

But God’s Spirit is at work today, and He is rebuilding true community.  It can be found in the Visible Church, consisting of those who profess the Christian gospel and their children.  Yes, we bear the imprint of our culture.  More often than not, we no longer live in geographic community.  We have drifted far from that ideal that we discover in the ancient church of Jerusalem, “And all that believed were together . . . and they continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart . . .” (Acts 2:44, 46).  But though we must travel by car, call by phone, or communicate by e-mail, God’s people have discovered that God has preserved and is remaking community in a day when it seems past repair.  There is still a “togetherness,” a “one accordness” in our congregations. 

And yet I for one haven’t given up on hoping for the reemergence true, Christian communities on a large scale.  I hope to see the kind of communities that prevailed in Scotland, the Netherlands, and New England.   Communities leavened with the Gospel – people walking to church once again.  Neighbors enjoying brotherly fellowship, older matrons giving a helping hand to harried young mothers, baptized children playing together in front of their own houses.  Those same children growing up, falling in love, marrying, and ushering in third and fourth generation to the church of their childhood.  Ministers working in tandem for the Christianization of cities, regions, and states, not resting until the lump of the nation has been filled.

I hold out that hope because, as Greenspan has said, people still want to put their roots down.  And they still want to live in community.  And even more importantly, God is still at work, preserving and building true community up.  If He is building true community, and that community is constantly seeking to enfold the alienated (Eph. 2:12), then the neighborhoods in which our people live can easily be future parishes in the old fashioned sense.  Within our church communities, there are still ‘brick and mortar’ houses.  And these can – they must! – become beachheads from which our church communities expand and realize themselves. 

Greenspan is right.  Community is not dead.  But more to the point, God has said it – and He is at work!

“Thus saith the LORD; I am returned unto Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and Jersualem shall be called a city of truth; and the mountain of the LORD of hohsts the holy mountain.  Thus saith the LORD of hosts; there shall yet old  men and old women dwell in teh streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age.  And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof” (Zech. 8:3-5).

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