Once upon a time, a guitar was a guitar. No qualifiers were needed. Then along came rock and roll and amplification and we needed more than one word to describe the stringed instrument because there was more than one kind. Thus, what had always been a guitar became an acoustic guitar to set it apart from its electrified cousin. The history of language is full of such stories. As I have sought to reflect on something I noticed in my reflections on the Wild Goose Festival, I found myself running into some of the same language – or at least that’s the way it feels to me.
I’ve kept thinking about the number of people I met at the festival who described themselves as being a part of an “intentional community,” which had several meanings but did not, at least for the folks I was talking to, have much to do with the historical faith community that is the church. Some had names for what they were doing; some even saw their gathering as the beginning of a new movement. All of them seemed earnest and committed and working hard to make faith matter. And most of them were younger than me, so I tried to look at the generational divide and the changing face of American Christianity and any other related issue I could think of and then I kept coming back to my acoustic guitar and the same haunting question: why didn’t they consider the local church to be an intentional community?
Yes, I know there are things about the church that need to change whether we’re talking about the church universal or the old stone building on the corner, and week in and week out for two millennia those who gather to gather to ask the Lord’s blessing are how our faith has gotten handed down. Intentionally. I think about our church here in Durham, about the two sets of parents – each with twins – who get to church more Sundays than not, about some of our elderly folks who face severe physical challenges just to get out of bed and hardly miss a Sunday, about those who are committed to choir and to our summer feeding program and our various ministries to the homeless and poor in our community, about those who take meals to others in need of food and fellowship, about those who just returned from a week of tornado relief work in Birmingham. For all of its faults and things that need to change, our community is shot through with intentionality, and we are not the only ones.
A quick survey of Christian history reveals a number of shortcomings and sins of the institutional church across the centuries, and it also shows how the Body of Christ has intentionally incarnated the love of God in some fairly amazing ways. Both the past and the future of our faith have thrived on new wine and new wineskins, so I glad to hear folks talking about their theological and ecclesiastical explorations. The church on any level has never had a corner on the truth. Those who are in the first generation of a new intentionality have yet to stare down what every faith community from the very first disciples on down have had to come to terms with: self-perpetuation.
In Acts, one of the first things the twelve disciples did was to vote on a replacement for Judas. They didn’t have much of a structure or any church by-laws with which to contend, but somehow they felt they had to have twelve to go on. So they voted. Those who had been asked to drop what they were doing and follow Jesus to a new thing brought in Judas’ replacement by institutional action. Then came the deacons to make sure the widows and orphans were taken care of. Then people began to realize the twelve weren’t going to live forever. You get the picture. Any institution, Christian or otherwise, that lives beyond its first generation of participants will see self-perpetuation become one of the primary values of the group. That, however, doesn’t automatically make it something other than intentional community.
Once again, the richness of what our faith can mean is in the creative tension between the community Christ intended that we illustrate every time we take Communion and the revolution he called us to foment within the very institution we call home. We are called to be intentional about being together and tearing down the house at the same time. Our faith and our community will not thrive without radical change any more than it will survive without a deep reverence and connection to those who came before us. I didn’t stay in the denomination in which I was raised and even ordained because I wanted to the primary emotion evoked by my faith to be something other than rage. So I found a home in the UCC. I also remain deeply grateful for my Baptist heritage and for the connections I still find there.
The question I want to take back to my church from all of this is, “In what ways have we allowed our community to become unintentional?” What have we taken for granted? How has our familiarity blinded us to what God would do in our midst? What do we hang on to for no reason other than we haven’t chosen to let it go? At the same time, I would like to go back to some of those to whom I spoke at the festival and ask, “What does intentionality mean to you?” Why does it need to be expressed at the expense of the church? How do you imagine what you are doing will look like in fifty or a hundred years?
If we are all serious about intentional community, we will listen to one another’s answers, make room for both change and history, and be deliberate in our love for one another most of all.
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
This is a terrific post and although I am from the Catholic faith it applies as so many people are feeling rage at the moment and yet I personally do not want more schism -we have had enough of that in the history of all religions to see it does not do much good.
Thanks, Milton–Those are good and important questions, on both sides of the divide: those for the established churches and those for people seeking a new “intentional community.” I often find myself pondering them. Being a church (or an intentional community) is hard work, lifelong work. Some, sadly, don’t have the fortitude. But I wish for more appreciation of the catholicity of the church, a sense of the importance of being together in this, even if it means compromise on some particulars. That’s one thing I value in “church” as compared to “intentional community.”
This is an incredibly damning statement, and I don’t intend it for the Church as a whole, which to me is a somewhat mythical ideal that we hope for but never see.
I don’t think the problem is intention. Hell, it takes a good bit of intention just to keep the lights on and the order of worship printed. I think any church in any stage of operation has intention.
What’s missing is real community. I think a lot of churches are more like a Disney version of community. We play at community. We talk about community. And on Sundays we even say things that people in community say. But if you scratch below the surface, many churches are not actually producing the level of community that these people long for.
All the exceptions are duly noted. But I will venture a guess that in the American church experience, real community is the exception and not the rule. Milton, knowing you and Ginger, I believe you indeed have true community at your church. But not everyone is experiencing that.
RLP, I wonder. I know what you’re talking about — but I look at the actual people in the actual pews, and I wonder whether our imperfect, superficial, “nominal” pseudo-community isn’t in fact all the community of which we are capable, and more than most folks will ever find or make, anywhere else?
And if they/we WERE capable of more community in any setting…would we need the church at all? It’s like saying, “I can’t pray until I’m in the proper frame of mind.” Well, heck, once I’m in the proper frame of mind I’ve transcended the need for prayer.