Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Genuine Church Community vs. Atomization and Individualism in American Culture

Image: www.goodreads.com
One of the most important priorities for the church right now is recovering genuine community. The health and effectiveness of church community for doing what the church is supposed to do has been severely weakened. Here are some examples and perspectives on this I have shared in the past from Rod Dreher and Carl Trueman and from Chris Martin (discussing Pew Research results on what Christians think is essential to spiritual life). It's why Mark Dever recently wrote a book devoted to community. Two major obstacles to forming Christian community are the trends of atomization and individualism. Here's an explanation of both:

Atomization refers to the trend of people disconnecting and living apart from one another and apart from the social and community groups they once regularly attended. It is a breakdown of connections and relationships on a community level, and some have noted it is particularly strong in America. Sociologist Robert Putnam drew attention to this phenomenon in 1995 in his essay "Bowling Alone" and captured the basic image: where people once used to seek regular community and do things together in groups, many people prefer now to do everything on their own terms. Putnam also identified some of the reasons this is harming America's social fabric, weakening both the productivity of the community and the ability of people to form relationships. He concluded it resulted in less civic engagement, and also in less trust between average people. Here's a longer explanation from a recent perspective.

Individualism describes the obsession of people in our day with living out their own unique, personal journey of self-discovery. It is characterized by an idea that the self-fulfillment and development of a person's individual identity is the supreme value. As a consequence, many people resist being influenced by groups and institutions that try to form common ideas in a community because they do not want to be shaped by something outside of themselves. If they join, they do so while standing apart and avoiding any adoption of group ideals unless it aligns with their personal identity. For instance, instead of letting church shape your thinking on God, you come to church convinced of your own personal take on spirituality and you only stay if the church seems to fit with that. Where American society used to be composed of many institutions of people coming together for common goals or values, which would form a united mindset and set of ideas among those people, today people often insist on figuring out who they are by looking within and by their own experiences rather than being taught or shaped by a community. Here is a useful discussion by Tim Keller and Russell Moore for more context.

Contrast this with the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the essential Christian community in his important work Life Together:
Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity. (Life Together, p. 26).
Taking Bonhoeffer's observations, Christian community is not about what kind of spirituality or identity you or I bring to the mix. It is about what Christ has done for us, and what we are because of Christ. Identity is not something personally determined and established by us as individuals; it is something that derives from and depends on the work of Christ. We could say that the more we know Christ, the more He reveals to us our true identity. But Bonhoeffer emphasized that meeting Christ in private and learning to know him by ourselves is only half of the process. He explained that community is not optional for the Christian; it is essential to the way we are formed and the way God feeds us. We need one another to speak the Word of God to each other, to hear each other's confessions and cries for prayer, to minister forgiveness to one another, and to display to each other in the flesh the love that Christ has put into our hearts through His Spirit.

Image: http://livingwatercommunitychurch.org/
Therefore knowing God requires humbling yourself to be shaped and taught by the community. You cannot come to Christian community and participate authentically while still insisting upon maintaining a personal identity not shaped or influenced by the community. One of Bonhoeffer's main points about Christian community is that it must be established by God. We do not have the option of taking or creating community on our own terms. All real Christian community is established by the Holy Spirit, not by our plans and expectations. "Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate." (Id. p. 30)

That is why Bonhoeffer states: "He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial." (Id. p. 27). We cannot make the community to fit our expectations. We must receive it. This necessarily requires humbling ourselves, because we are not in control and we must accept what God creates. I will note that this is not to be confused with simply accepting anything we are given by other men and women, for if they are also engaged in setting up their own idea of community, it may be equally detrimental. But it also means we have no excuse to just stiff-arm what we receive from others in community solely because we don't happen to like it or prefer it.

So how do we tell the difference? One of the reasons Bonhoeffer's book Life Together is so engaging and powerful is that it gives us a detailed breakdown and discussion of the aspects of community that come necessarily from our being united through Christ. These are the things natural to a genuine Christian community, the basic vital signs of the spiritual life. Bonhoeffer shows why these things are necessary to our life in Christ and how they nourish and maintain it. If the dynamics of your Christian community fulfill these purposes and serve to bring people closer to God and closer together in Christ, then they may be just what we need. That does not mean they will always be comfortable. Detecting the difference between the two - community created by God versus community dictated by other people - may take careful discernment. But either way, there is no question that the real community must be received. We cannot set the terms.

Instead, we love people the way the Scriptures teach, and we accept them for Christ's sake, and then we take the community that God develops out of that. Bonhoeffer gives us a peaceful picture of what kind of growth in grace and joy is available to us if we will humble ourselves and just receive what God is giving. Consider how liberating and relieving it is to not be ruled by a pressure to fix and tinker with the community in every place where it isn't developing according to your expectations. Simply receiving is a gracious privilege:
Christian community is like the Christian's sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.
(Life Together, p. 30)

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