The Common Good
May 2013

A Glorious Mess

by Elaina Ramsey | May 2013

Everyone can use guidelines—and repair manuals—for living in Christian community.

ANYONE WHO LIVES in Christian community or participates in congregational life knows that it is a holy mess. A group of flawed individuals trying to do "life together" can bring out the worst in one another. But that's precisely where God calls us to be.

In our hyperindividualistic culture, it's often difficult to remember that God has created us to be in community. Christian faith and discipleship, from the beginning, have been shaped not by going at it alone but by engaging in ancient and contemporary communal experiences. The first house churches and the formation of communities among the early desert fathers and mothers, as well as today's megachurches, parachurch organizations, and new monastic groups, all point to how we long to be connected to God and with one another.

Our faith and character are refined by the miraculous gifts of grace, reconciliation, and forgiveness made available to us in community. In such a demanding and disconnected world, it is indeed a miracle when two or more gather to break bread and give of themselves in service to God and one another.

Here are some books to help us along the Way, as we seek to deepen our understanding of what it means to be in communion with Christ and with each other.

In 2009 I was co-leading a new intentional community in Washington, D.C. Our nascent group endured many struggles, including interpersonal issues, conflicting visions and goals, and the involuntary removal of a community member. How I wish The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Paraclete Press), by David Janzen, was available when we first began our journey.

Full of practical wisdom and lived experience, this groundbreaking manual helps fledgling and seasoned communities avoid the common pitfalls of shared living. Janzen offers insightful stories and lessons gleaned from visiting and advising 30 intentional communities across North America that continue to do the hard work of discerning callings, cultivating rhythms and practices, resolving conflicts, and engaging in a common life together.

Many of the chapters are short and concise, leaving the reader clamoring for more instruction. Janzen, however, reminds us: "The pathway to renewal is not a list of three easy (or hard) steps some Christian guru has just discovered, but blessings that Jesus always has waiting for us." More than just a how-to guide, this book will help reveal the gifts of community within and among you.

Being Church: Reflections on How to Live as the People of God (Cascade Books) is a posthumous publication by John F. Alexander. As a 30-year veteran of living in communities, Alexander struggled for years to live into the radical vision of the body of Christ found in the New Testament.

Biblical and theological insights are made real as Being Church explains how we have lost our commitment to take up our cross and follow Christ. With profound wisdom, Alexander challenges the church universal to find its way back to the heart of the gospel by embracing costly discipleship and embodying a "culture of grace." Ideal for any community—small groups, live-in churches, religious orders—this manifesto underscores an essential missional truth: It's not about doing church better, but simply about being the church God has called us to be.

Taking it one step further, Christian social ethicist Christine D. Pohl challenges us, in Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), to rethink the way we relate to one another within the body. Pohl explores four essential practices that are central to community life: gratitude, promise-keeping, truth-telling, and hospitality.

Through biblical and theological reflection, the author defines each practice and the complications that inevitably arise as imperfect beings seek to master each discipline. "The goal in all of this is not to try harder to build community or to get the practices right," Pohl writes. "It is about living and loving well in response to Christ." Wise words for all Christian communities to consider.

Another important practice that can be nurtured in Christian community is dialogue. Without authentic and prayerful communication, division and discord can settle in—even in the most intentional of communities. John Backman, author of Why Can't We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths), reveals that it takes authentic dialogue—or "the work of the soul"—to transform community life. Filled with engaging stories, scripture, concrete advice, and reflection questions,Why Can't We Talk? demonstrates how communities can use dialogue to develop a deeper welcome toward others.

The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities (Patheos Press), a short yet intriguing e-book and case study by C. Christopher Smith, also witnesses to the power of meaningful conversations for cultivating Christian communities. Smith details how members of Englewood Christian Church, a failed urban megachurch, learned how to talk to one another and established a thriving neighborhood center. Together, the Englewood community "developed a commitment that ran deeper than the depths of our disagreements." This is a profoundly hopeful possibility for any church willing to engage in civil discourse and discovery.

Two books that evaluate the merits of hospitality include The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality (Westminster John Knox Press), by pastor Henry G. Brinton, and The Limits of Hospitality (Liturgical Press), by theological ethicist Jessica Wrobleski. While the former equips congregations with the historical and theological tools to practice radical hospitality through spiritual formation, reconciliation, and outreach, the latter takes an in-depth look at why Christian communities must discern and develop boundaries when it comes to loving and welcoming others.

Wrobleski notes that living in this tension allows us "to honor the finitude of human gifts while acknowledging the infinite—even impossible—possibilities that are opened up by God's love." Both books illustrate how Christians can draw the circle wide and welcome others into community, despite our own limitations and best intentions.

Widening the circle even further, Under One Steeple: Multiple Congregations Sharing More Than Just Space (Wipf & Stock), by Lorraine Cleaves Anderson, senior pastor of International Community Church in Boston, takes an encouraging look at how several congregations can be enriched by worshipping under the same roof. With so many churches in decline and closing their doors, this book is a welcome resource.

Though Under One Steeple does not engage in formal missiology, the stories that Anderson narrates about the triumphs and challenges of "being the church" say it all. Blending passion and humor, Anderson offers practical advice to help congregations overcome their fears and open their doors to faith communities and organizations longing for not just space, but a home within one of the many rooms in the Lord's house.

Elaina Ramsey, a clergy spouse and graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary, is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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