With a bevy of new members this Sunday, let’s lift up what Christian community is and is not. As Americans, we are so highly individualistic that we wander somewhere between jaded about community (“Nobody will tell me what to do!”) and sentimental (“These people will never disappoint me!) Community, with its norms, needn’t be authoritarian, but neither is it a utopia.
A certain pastor tells his new members if they haven’t yet met someone in church they don’t like, it means they’re too much on the periphery. They need to get more involved. I like that funny, realistic way of finding our way forward together. When I came here, we could still trace divisions among us. Those rifts have healed. Now we can talk openly about conflict and its uses. Love in the abstract is tidy and perfect, like villages look as we fly over them, without problems. Love in the concrete is messy. Our relations must ever remain well-lubricated with forgiveness. While God is more good and beautiful than we can dream, humans are a disappointing species.
K. Chesterton helpfully observed, the real work of loving begins as soon as we fall out of love. I tell couples that during their pre-marital counseling sessions. Another thing I say is conflict is a normal part of healthy relationships. This is worth saying because the church is in the business of transforming people and society. But transformation means change, which most of us resist.
Friction, we could say, will result. Some feel any friction or tension among us is a sign of failure. I don’t believe that. As your leader, as preacher and teacher, using the Bible’s texts and stories, I want to throw you into creative dilemmas for which faith in God becomes the only answer. That’s what Jesus did with his parables, which seem like cute stories until they make their point.
Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and author, believes that those who create social change (let’s add personal transformation also) are disagreeable and even snarky sometimes. Maybe because my best hockey coaches got in my face, not to hurt me, but to get me to play better, I do not fear this. I do not seek togetherness at any cost. I want to stifle my need to be “liked” by everyone.
As a pastor in Colorado, my associate minister kicked me under the table whenever I did this, whenever we were experiencing pangs of birth in boards and committees, and I let it play out. Sometimes we struggle to recognize that pangs of birth can feel much like the pangs of death. A good leader knows the difference, and doesn’t spare us stresses and tensions that spur us on.
I am on the learning end of this as well. When we had the congregational meeting to approve a $2.4 million renovation to our church of 400 members on Cape Cod, one difficult woman stood up and said, “Adding air conditioning and more space means we will use more power. Are we being good stewards of God’s creation? Or just getting bigger and piggier like everybody else?” My first reaction was, “Why doesn’t she sit down and be quiet. She’ll ruin everything.” But the leader in charge of our rebuild, an MIT graduate, did an exhaustive cost-benefit ratio on adding photovoltaic cells. We expanded our footprint, reduced usage, and sold power back to the grid. May the church stay open to the power of the Spirit’s creative brewing of our disagreements!