meet is moot

One of the things I really enjoy about our current church is that--much like big Vineyard--the senior pastor is wise, well-spoken, ready to challenge his own dogmatism if it's not well founded, and not from a particularly Christian background. Many of you might argue with me on this point, but--with all due respect to Dr. Cannell--I really value hearing an "outsider's" perspective on cultural Christianity. I dunno...it makes me uneasy to hear a message from someone who has never struggled to believe the very things they're preaching about. I like thinking that you're convinced about what you're preaching because you've doubted it and have gone through the hard work of finding out what and why you believe it--rather than just having something handed to you. But all of this is an aside to my reason for posting today. On Sunday nights, every other week, our congregation gets together a second time from 4:45pm until about 9pm. It's called Finale, which is a dumb name for a really cool time. We start by sharing a meal together--challenging with a hundred or more people, but doable. Then we have contemporary (read: Vineyard style) worship led by a band of people drawn from the audience, followed by a 10 minute extension of the morning's message--additional questions, insights, problems etc. Then we end the mini-service by having communion. Immediately afterward we break up into small groups focused on one topic or another. The one I'm in is being facilitated/led/organized by the pastor, Len, and is covering Bonhoeffer's Life Together. This certainly isn't the first time I'm reading Life Together. But it is the first time under these particular circumstances. I'm the junior by decades of most of the people in the room. About half of the people have either been pastors or worked on the pastoral staff or eldership of a church. Several are former missionaries. One has walked with the Lord through cancer and the death of his wife and is now in his 80s. Three are current professors (including Al Plantinga, the foremost Christian philosopher in the US right now). About half have read the book before. Five, including Len, have attempted some sort of intentional community of the sort described in Life Together. Put succinctly, I am humbled by every person in the room. Now the problem: I don't think we can attain Life Together. I think the situation Bonhoeffer was in in Nazi Germany cannot be easily duplicated in the US at the moment. And it kills me that here I am surrounded by amazing people but that we can't do a simple thing like figure out what it means to live in community in a way that extends beyond the individualistic principles exemplified by our consumer culture. It's not that these people are unable to--rather that the changes necessary are fundamental. My question remains, as it has for some years now: is it possible to have intense Christian community if not everyone lives within less than 10 minutes of each other and/or has an "open door" policy? And the corollary, I guess, does God desire a type of community like that for his followers?


Blogger Andy Whitman said...

My answers: Sure it is, and Yes.

But everybody in the church has to want it, and has to be very intentional about it.

I’ve lived in the kind of community you’re describing, Erik. In fact, the roots of the Big Vineyard came from that type of community. Fifty Christians lived on the same block in what passes for the ghetto in Columbus, Ohio, single people with married folks with kids, all sharing their lives and their stuff, and all within a couple hundred feet of one another. Everyone’s door was open, pretty much day and night. And a lot of intense and painful and wonderful life happened, both within the relationships of the people in the church, and outside the church as we tried to minister to and serve the neighborhood where we lived.

It was very good. I still miss it. But it didn’t last. People graduated from college. They met their future spouses and got married and had kids. And so did I. And suddenly it wasn’t that cool to hang out together in a place where the houses were burglarized on a routine basis and the women were occasionally raped. And people moved away. Why? Because they could.

I looked for it again for twenty years, and I didn’t find it. I moved to a small town, hoping for some sort of mythic Norman Rockwell/Mayberry RFD kind of experience where all the townfolk would doff their caps to one another and call out “Mornin’ Andy” as they passed my beaming, apple-cheeked face every morning as I strolled to work. It was a joke, although it took me a while to figure out that it was on me.

We moved back to Columbus and headed to the Vineyard, by this time the Very Big Vineyard, after almost a fifteen-year absence, and tried unsuccessfully to find what we had left long before. We went to small groups. We hosted small groups. We led small groups. It didn’t matter. There were hundreds of them at the Big V, and the revolving door never stopped spinning, and people never stuck around long enough to develop the kind of relational glue needed to make real community possible.

But I am experiencing that kind of community again at Central Vineyard, twelve miles away from most of my church, and a generation removed from most of the church members. And it’s great. We’re intentional about it. We spend two or three nights per week involved in some of church activity, although those activities are rarely formal or planned. We’re just hanging out, relating, trying to be friends, listening to people share their lives and sharing ours in return, trying to reach out to a neighborhood where we don’t live.

So yes, I think it’s very possible for real community to develop in the kind of setting you’re describing. It’s a matter of setting priorities, and making community a priority. People need to share the same vision. And who knows? Reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a great way to catch that vision. I hope it happens for you.

10/25/2005 8:23 AM  
Blogger e said...

Great, encouraging comment, Andy. Good to hear stuff.

2 follow up questions, points:
1) your situation at CCV and mine at SBCRC are quite different. In your situation, the church is a plant and has all the new energy and flexibility of culture and structure that goes along with being new. Even the part of town that CV is in is conducive to the young urban flexibility that seems to similar to what Bonhoeffer was experiencing and recommending. If you could do that same thing at Bethel Presbyterian or (gasp) Grace Brethren in Worthington just by reading Life Together, I'd be really impressed and surprised. I don't want to be cynical--God can do anything--but in as much as we have to cooperate with God, I'm certain that the culture in a denominational, established church is entrenched in a totally different way than it is at CV.

2) The question you didn't address, really, is--Is this what God wants out of community? Bonhoeffer seems to think Life Together is the ideal that many if not all should be shooting for. Or to paraphrase my favorite church philosopher, Dr. Cannell--Bonhoeffer seems to be committed to both the ingredients and the recipe. The structure and the content. Not only one or the other. Is this what God wants, or does "wine in any style wineskin" really get closer to what God wants?

10/25/2005 12:17 PM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

Okay, here's my take.

I operate on the assumption that I don't "do" the Christian life very well by myself. I will fall. The world is too tempting, in its sick way.

And so I also operate on the assumption that I need community. In a very real sense, it is not optional. And by community I mean the kind of deep knowledge and accountability that comes from others (at least a few) who know all your shit, all your weaknesses and downfalls, and who will lovingly ask you how you're handling the dung (ewwwww). Without it, I have found that I'm just playing at church.

I think the model matters, to address your wineskins question/issue. I would agree with Bonhoeffer that we need to be committed to both the ingredients and the recipe. It's possible to vary the ingredients slightly, and I don't think there's an exact formula to any of this, but I do think that if you adopt the traditional evangelical church model that is founded on programs, committes, and ministries, then community probably will not happen. People have lives, and they are busy, and if you require them to show up at a committee meeting once or twice a week, then there simply is not time left over to develop the kind of deep relationships that real community requires.

I'm extrapolating from some rather painful personal experiences here, and it's possible that I'm overreacting, but I will tell you that as a former elder/Session member/committee member/Sunday School teacher ad nauseum, I will never be a part of such a church again.

This was not the fault of the people. It was the fault of the church model. I look at the Big Vineyard -- a highly successful, highly effective church -- and somehow they manage to function with nary a committee or a church program. They allow people to exercise their spiritual gifts and talents. They let people know what's happening. And then they get out of the way.

I appreciate that approach, and I'm convinced that any church -- apparently, even megachurches -- can do well following such a non-model. It's the difference between a living organism and a static organization.

So count me as a proponent of Bonhoeffer's philosophy. The way one tries to do community matters. That's not to say that good things can't or won't come out of the traditional evangelical model. But I'd be willing to be that community will not be one of them.

10/25/2005 12:51 PM  
Blogger e said...

andy--Again, i appreciate your wisdom, your "limp" in this area.

i too feel like i've picked up a knock or two. mine happened to come about in that very megachurch where anything "organic" grows/goes that you described very accurately and favorably. But personal pain or whatever you want to call it aside, i wholeheartedly agree with you--the model must have something to do with it or we wouldn't see so many "successes" happen under a particular model and other "failures" under another.

but here i'm going to play Screwtape's advocate: the model itself seems to be very reliant upon culture--what a given culture demands/promotes/curses/shuns at a given time. So that being the case, the all-too-contingent model could work effectively in one situation, ineffectively in the other. It could bless people one place, curse them somewhere else. Do we really want to tie effectiveness of a church/organism/gospel to its presentation, its model?

I realize I'm building a straw man argument here--neither of us would say it's wholly the model or the people, the doctrine or the church, the organism or the message. It's the Body and the Word working in concert with one another. It's just that some concerts sound like Beethoven and some sound like Radiohead and some sound like me playing a piano (atrociously).

Is that okay? Do we want to say (in our early 21st century capitalist lingo) that variety is the best thing? That we shouldn't limit the Body or the work of God to certain church models? The medieval Church would have (and did) vehemently disagreed with this statement; likely it would be labeled a species of heresy....

10/25/2005 3:40 PM  
Blogger zena said...

the church sheds another layer of 'type' down each generation it seems. those four corners of liturgical, social justice, charismatic and evangelical slowly blending into one another. the best being the center and thereby having no true identity except christ. that verse about the homeowner bringing out the old treasures as well as the new comes to mind. christianity being the future focused faith it is, is constantly changing and reforming, which is good. the gems from past reformations are there to be treasured, not set behind glass and dusted. who knows what the church will look like in 150 years.

i think dr cannell does the best job of understanding and identifying with the non believers mindset of any lifer i've met thus far.

also, i don't know if xtian community works well without people being 10 minutes away and open dooring it. possibly that's just reflective of the place that i'm at with it though.


10/25/2005 7:39 PM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

Erik wrote:

"but here i'm going to play Screwtape's advocate: the model itself seems to be very reliant upon culture--what a given culture demands/promotes/curses/shuns at a given time. So that being the case, the all-too-contingent model could work effectively in one situation, ineffectively in the other. It could bless people one place, curse them somewhere else. Do we really want to tie effectiveness of a church/organism/gospel to its presentation, its model?"

But I think churches play a role in defining the culture in which they operate. The model chosen (by the individual church, by the denomination, what have you) can either foster community or hinder it. And if you value community, then you, as a good Christian consumer (I actually hate that idea, but it somewhat fits in this circumstance) can choose the type of church in which you become involved. And if I, as a good, middle-aged suburbanite, can value community and hold out hope for it in the midst of individualist consumerism, then I suspect the cultural argument can be blown up for a lot of other people as well. You don’t have to a young, hip urbanite to get it. You can be graying, balding, paunchy, and have a hearing aid.

Some people don't want community. They prefer the kind of anonymity that our consumer culture fosters. And frankly, I think that’s part of the battle that the Big V (or any megachurch) is facing. The church itself may value community, but the very size of the church promotes the anonymity that is antithetical to the goal. Other people don't even have the vocabulary or experience to articulate the hole in their hearts. If the monthly church potluck dinner is the closest you've ever come to the kind of community Bonhoeffer is describing, then Bonhoeffer's words may seem very foreign.

The problem is compounded because our American culture simply doesn't value community. I live in the burbs. I watch the garage doors go up and down. I watch the cars pull in and out. And nine days out of ten, that's the sole "interaction" I have with my neighbors. And on those rare days when I actually have a conversation, the talk turns on one of several recurring topics: a) golf, b) fertilizer (subtext: Ortho Weed ‘n Feed: Better for your lawn than Scott’s Turfbuilder?), c) investment portfolios, and d) How 'bout those Buckeyes? Living this way is a form of slow death. And I'm not willing to settle for it.

I was blessed (and cursed) to experience what I think was the real deal early on in my Christian life. It was what awakened me to the possibility that Christianity could be a radical thing – radical in the way it impacted individual lives as I watched people really, truly encounter Jesus; radical culturally in the way people lived together and impacted the society in which they lived. And it was enormously appealing. I grew up in a mainline, traditional church, hated it, rejected it, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. But when I saw lives changed radically, when I saw people not only talking about love, but actually loving others – both within and outside the church – then all my old arguments seemed irrelevant, because I recognized that this was the Holy Grail. Who doesn’t want to be loved? Who doesn’t want to feel a part of something bigger and better than themselves, something touched by the divine, and yet as real and gritty as praying with and for a young woman who has been raped, entering in to her pain, sharing in her sorrow?

The church model matters. I really believe that. It’s not contingent on age or economic status or the neighborhood in which it meets, but it is contingent on people “getting” it, understanding the vision, understanding that this Jesus really is the pearl of great price, that following Him and becoming like Him is worth any cost, and that we can’t do it alone, that we need a lot more than talk about golf and fertilizer, that in fact we need people who will love us and come alongside us and encourage us and kick our butts and laugh with us and cry with us and believe that high-falutin’ terms like “brother” and “sister” really mean something, in spite of whatever our woeful dysfunctional families may have taught us. And once people get that, then you allow your church to function in ways where those epiphanies can occur with the least amount of resistance.

Sorry for the mini-sermon. Obviously this is something that is near and dear to my heart. I appreciate the discussion, and I appreciate your comments.

10/26/2005 8:02 AM  
Blogger e said...

z!!! you commented! yay!
i too find jeffery fascinatingly able to connect with so many people. that is so refreshing and tiring at the same time that "it must be God."
thanks for your comments...i especially like the "four corners" thing. richard foster found "seven streams of living water" flowing together, but whatever. 'sall good.

andy--i want to hold my cards close to my chest, but i have to say that i concur on every level with what you've been saying. there certainly may be infinitely many ways to "do" church, if we think about it from a consumer model. but there certainly can't be infinitely many and equally good ways to "be" the Church--unless we're willing to say that the Church is just another form of culture.

I for one am not satisfied with an explanation like that.

Sorry, I'm loathe to leave this conversation and I feel like without putting up a target to hit I would be closing the door on this.... So here's my target:

Suppose that God wants the type of intimacy in community that we've been talking about. How do we facilitate that? How do we "share the vision" so to speak? Is it only something that can be experienced or can you talk about it with those that do not know what they're missing? How do you bridge the seemingly unspannable gap between the individualistic Western mindset that allows us to treat churches like products and see ourselves as tiny members in an inextricably linked Body of Christ? Does preaching the message alone suffice to communicate the importance of this stuff?

Sorry, I realize I'm all over the map here.

10/26/2005 10:44 AM  
Blogger Jeff Cannell said...

e- Didn't get paragraphe 1 (me am stupid :), but here is my disjointed .02 cents:

FIrst off- this link should solve the discussion once and for all:


recipes: Mega Church- Cell Church - House Church - Indy Church - Community Church- high church - low church - metal church - etc
ingredients: Jesus Worship - Prayer - Interaction with Bible - Intimacy - Availability - outward focus - engaging suffering - gospel proclomation -etc

sure there ain't an infinite number of recipes, but I do believe the great chef up above has whipped up several different tantalizing and filling dishes over the last 2000 or so years.

(If that metaphor get's shot to hell, I'll start using something like different plants flourishing in different soils, sunlight, and watering regimens. Cooking or Gardening, maybe I could find one from quantum physics later)

Perhaps my tendancy to overstate my points (an understatement in itself) may help me to come off as promoting consumerism-- But in part it is my way of trying to get my focus off how other people are/are not doing it, and more focus an trying to discern what direction God is taking our little village. I'm trying to invest my fear and trembling wisely. I believe God probably calls people to be prophetic pot-stirers for the Church at large- but it sometimes get's hard to tell the difference between the prophetic pot-stirrers and the theorticians who sell lotsa books- with little demonstration of their theories in their own communities. My church is enough of a mess (in good and bad ways) for me to have plenty of back yard issues to engage before telling others how to structure their communities.

My reaction against recipe talk is probably made up of a distaste for all the huge church conference literature that clogs up my mailbox from all the heavy-hitter it-churches around the country along with some of the "emerging church" discussion.

All that said-- I think this kind of dialogue is helpful- and I think we should always desire and pursue more life together. Be grateful for what we got and ask God for more.

10/26/2005 9:44 PM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

Erik wrote:

“Suppose that God wants the type of intimacy in community that we've been talking about. How do we facilitate that? How do we "share the vision" so to speak? Is it only something that can be experienced or can you talk about it with those that do not know what they're missing? How do you bridge the seemingly unspannable gap between the individualistic Western mindset that allows us to treat churches like products and see ourselves as tiny members in an inextricably linked Body of Christ? Does preaching the message alone suffice to communicate the importance of this stuff?”

Certainly “preaching the message” is a good start. Reading books like Bonhoeffer's "Life Together" in the context of the church is a great idea, too.

At the very least, small groups should be a primary focus of any church interested in community. Obviously, community can't happen without the kind of intimate knowledge and sharing that can only come from people who know each other well. That doesn't happen in a Sunday morning worship service, nor does it happen in the committee meeting or church program of your choice.

Beyond that, though, it has to happen organically, and the presence of small groups is no guarantee that real community will develop. It's more a mindset than a formal strategy. It really helps to have mature Christians who are willing to model it. I lived with a husband, wife, and their four kids for several years as a single person. Nobody appointed them as "marriage and family mentors;" they just lived their lives. But by being willing to open up their home to someone outside their immediate family, they showed me how a Christian marriage could function, and they gave me hope that my own dysfunctional family background wasn't my predestined fate. They weren't perfect; they fought, and whined, and didn't always treat each other kindly. But they confessed their sins and faults to one another, forgave one another, laughed a lot, spent time together, and generally modeled for me what a healthy family and marriage looked like. That was invaluable.

And so I'd like to suggest that one of the first things that has to go is the notion that our little nuclear family hearth is sacrosanct and must be protected at all costs. We need to open up our lives, and we need to open up our homes, to those both inside and outside the church. When I lived with that family, I can recall coming home numerous times to find a total stranger asleep on the downstairs couch. Who was he or she? Sometimes a friend from out of town, sometimes a homeless, drunk guy who had been out on the streets. Was it dangerous? Probably. Was it unwise? Possibly. But I have been so thankful for their example. They were willing to live with the risk, and they taught me that we need to hold on to our time and our stuff lightly, realizing that even if we are abused, even if some take advantage of us, living this way sends the clear message that we are all in this together.

Now, do I struggle with that? Sure I do. I often don't live that way. But I'd like to. And sometimes I really do. And in those times I'm convinced that I'm closer to God's ideal than when I selfishly cling to my stuff, my time, my rights, etc.

Community happens when a critical mass of people in a church realize that the body of Christ is more than a nice little metaphor for bread and wine, when "communion" becomes something more than you do once a week and something that is integrally woven into the way you think and live. I do think there are church models and church structures that get in the way, that can have an inhibiting effect on community. But every church can at least teach and practice the value of small groups, of gathering regularly and routinely and sharing our lives together. And every pastor can at least warn against the "Me 'n Jesus" mentality that has more to do with good old American individualism than it does with Christianity. Those are small but doable beginnings.

And maybe Bonhoeffer's words will move from the theoretical to the possible, to something that is worth truly pursuing. Maybe those ideas can seem as relevant in 21st century South Bend, Indiana as they did in 20th century Nazi Germany. I hope so. I believe so, in my own naïve, hopelessly idealistic way.

10/27/2005 8:12 AM  
Blogger danthress said...

Here's Jeff's secret ingredient:

He loves people.

10/28/2005 3:28 PM  

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