In community, we tell each other stories

January 14, 2009

bible / church / culture / emerging church

I’m a big fan of community, especially lately. I’m also very afraid of it. I tend to be a quiet person until I get to know people, and I often feel awkward until then unless we are having a conversation about which I am very passionate. When I feel awkward, I’m sure I come across as awkward, which makes me feel more awkward.

So community is awkward. The idea of living in intentional community has been surfacing in my life recently. It’s a really frightening idea, least of all for these reasons. But it’s a powerful idea, and I’m really interested in seeing where it goes in the next few months.

But at the moment, I’m not necessarily talking about that. I’m talking, at the moment, about communities of faith that actually are communities of faith. Whether they be small churches, organic churches, house churches (all of which may or may not actually be communities), or any number of other things.

I believe that in the next few years, the church as a whole will be driven toward these things for a number of reasons. I believe a large part of it will be seen as the effect of the economic changes we are enduring and will endure. Also, though, a large part of it will be seen as the effect of the death of Christendom, and the response of the church to that death. In 2007, George Barna stated that our current situation has roughly 80% of Christians meeting in traditional churches, and 20% meeting in these more organic communities. He also stated that within 20 years, that ratio will flip.

I strongly believe that one of the most amazing opportunities that lies in that shift is this: in community, we tell each other stories.

In churches that are not communities, we don’t tell each other stories. There may be a single person who tells us stories, or there may be no one who tells us stories. One of the great dangers of the fundamentalist and evangelical movements in Christianity is that they tend to, at best, create Christians who know the Bible as their pastor tells it to them, and/or as they read it for themselves.

We have grabbed onto this as our Protestant heritage. Sola Scriptura. All Christians are capable of reading and interpreting Scripture for themselves, we say.

This is great, in theory. But in practice, as the church has done it for the last several hundred years (and yes, it was worse before), we end up with people who may know what the Bible says, but they don’t know why it says it. Many people are aware that, for example, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. But how many people are aware that nearly every other deity of that time period also asked for sacrifices of offspring?

In addition to this example and the thousands of other examples of bad exegesis and eisegesis that could be corrected by a proper understanding of the progressive nature of Scripture, we add the fact that evangelicalism and fundamentalism typically create people that are entirely ignorant of church history before their chosen time period (Pentecostals are usually fairly well aware of 1906 and forward, and fundamentalists are often aware of 1920 and forward, and evangelicals are sometimes well aware of 1850 and forward).

The consequences of both of these tendencies are staggering, and they reach into every area of the life of the church and the life of the Christian. From the way we spend money (we have entirely inverted the early church understanding of giving to the poor), to the way we view government and its actions (I write about this often, from the fall of expected pacifism to the baptism of political parties), to the way we view God (which is often more influenced by the Greek philosophers than it is by Scripture or the earliest church), we are ignorant.

I used to think this was just a fact of life. Not everyone can go to seminary, or Bible college, and many who do end up worse off than they would if they hadn’t gone. Not everyone is willing or able to read enough to attain a self-education in these matters.

Community is the answer. When we have real, authentic communities of faith – whether they are organic house churches, missional churches, new monastic communities, or whatever one chooses – we can teach each other. We must teach each other.

We can learn from many in this. Many of us who live in large cities can learn from Jewish communities, who often live in close proximity to each other in the same cities we live in, and they share cultural, theological, and spiritual knowledge with each other that is thousands of years old. Certainly modern Judaism has its issues, but ignorance of the implications of its faith is not one of them to the extent that it is for us.

I see many communities in the emerging conversation learning this truth: we can teach each other. We can learn why Scripture says what it says; we can learn the way of life that forged the early church and has forged movements of the Spirit for the last two thousand years, and we can learn it from each other.

For a thought on how seminaries, typically among the institutions that help maintain the façade that only some can actually know their faith, could respond and aid this, have a look at this post.

What are your thoughts on this?