Wineskins Archive

December 18, 2013

Why Community Matters (to Me) (July-Aug 2010)

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by Rachel Cox Henderson
July – August, 2010

82 - What Really MattersTo hang out on one end or the other of a metaphorical swinging pendulum is human nature. One generation over-corrects for the previous generation when it comes to faith, politics, spending and saving, communicating, and a long list of other things. It’s too bad, because, when it comes to living a Christ-centered life, we ought to be resting somewhere in the middle: somewhere between separating ourselves from the world and being too much like it…somewhere that incorporates grace and truth, instead of one or the other. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to choose one extreme and run full speed ahead, so that’s what most of us do. I’m part of a generation that is often accused of being too much like the world…too much about grace and social justice, and not enough about truth and “gospel.” Is there some truth to this? Sure. We definitely tend towards that side of the pendulum. But I would encourage those who see us in this light to be cautious of criticizing a spirit and a momentum that God is using powerfully. There’s nothing perfect about it, because human beings are involved. But Almighty God has a history of using the most imperfect mediums to advance his cause. Peter threw temper tantrums, King David cheated and murdered, Job was a judgmental runaway, and Jesus himself was born to an unwed, teenage mother. During Jesus’ life, he was hardest on pharisaical people, especially those who passed judgment on him for sitting and eating with outsiders. It was to those outsiders that he offered a real sense of belonging, and it is his example that inspires what matters to me about community.

In college, I took an informative course on how to be a Christian in our post-modern world. I came out with some useful tools but honestly didn’t fully expect to use them. We had been encouraged to share our faith boldly, but with respect. At the time, I had several non-believing friends that I felt close to, and I couldn’t imagine risking our friendship by bringing up the subject of faith. That’s because I, like so many of us who grew up in Christian homes, had come to believe that non-Christians were either hostile or disinterested in the idea of faith, particularly an exclusive one. One of our class readings outlined what the author called, “The Three Worst Types of Christians.” The first two were pretty obvious: The Christian who separates too much from the world, and the Christian who is too much like it. However, the third one really stumped me: The Christian who befriends non-believers just to convert them. I remember reading that and thinking… “Wait a minute…why else WOULD you befriend someone who doesn’t believe?” I had never thought of friendships with nonbelievers as anything other than a missionary method. The author more fully elaborated by asking this question: “Think of an unbelieving friend. If you knew that person would never come to know Jesus, would you keep investing in a friendship with them anyway?” The indictment I felt after reading that question sent me on an exciting journey that’s still leading to new discoveries every day.

Here’s what I’m learning: People may not know that they need Jesus…but they know that they need community. Most people aren’t hostile towards Christian faith at all, rather, towards hypocrisy and judgment that’s detached from relationship, which, sadly, is all too common. I’ve met a surprising number of people in the past few years who have told me, point blank, some version of, “I just don’t have any real friends!” I’ve learned to see that as an invitation from God himself. I can almost hear him telling me, “Rachel, here is a person that needs me. Be a friend. Demonstrate real community. Reflect who I am.” And that’s exactly what I, along with others in my generation, am trying to do. We know, however, that we cannot be that third worst kind of Christian…we can’t befriend people with an agenda. They will detect it immediately. No one wants to be a project. People want mutual, reciprocal relationship. Reciprocity and transparency are vital to authentic community. And that, in the name of Jesus, is something we can offer. Let me explain:

I had a close friend who didn’t know Jesus and was going through a really tough time. She didn’t trust many people because she had been abandoned by her Father at a young age. She had a cripplingly low self-esteem, which was inspiring some bad decisions in her life. I asked her to get coffee with me one evening in hopes that I could get her to open up, because she didn’t like feeling vulnerable to anyone. I knew I was in way over my head, so I prayed that God would guide our conversation before getting out of the car to meet her. I wanted so badly for her to see that she wasn’t alone, so I tried asking her questions to get her to open up. I got very basic, shallow answers, and then she would quickly change the subject. I tried laughing and being light-hearted in hopes of breaking the ice, but she still wouldn’t let me in. Then God answered my prayer. Suddenly, it hit me: I had thought so often about how much I had in common with this friend, and only recognized her struggles because I shared them. I wanted to tell her about that, but was ashamed to realize why I couldn’t: I would have to tell her about my own bad decisions resulting from my poor self-esteem. Not just from the past, but those I was making still, almost every day. I would look weak…maybe even as weak as she was. That’s when I realized something extremely important that will guide my relationships for the rest of my life: The difference between my friend and me has NOTHING to do with me, and everything to do with Jesus. I didn’t find him…he found ME. He frees me from the chains of self-loathing and insecurity every day…and usually, I just put them right back on again. He rescues me again and again, and I have hope. I have no right to his love because of my constant rejection, but he continues to freely give. How in the world was I going to communicate this to my friend, without admitting to my own weakness? Not just past struggles, but those I was wrestling with right then. After all, the sacrifice of Jesus is only as great as my need is for a savior. I need one every bit as much as anyone else, and THAT’S the message of the gospel. Right then and there, I came clean. I shared my tainted story with my friend; and just like that, she opened up and we ended the night by crying together. No agenda, no conditions, just two friends, forming a little community that we both sorely needed.

Christians don’t have it all together. Not by a long shot. If anything, we should be more in tune with our imperfections than anyone else…because Jesus, God in the flesh, is our standard.

This life-altering discovery I have made regarding authentic friendship has also greatly informed my perspective on how we do church. It seems that every weekend I’m at a baby shower, or a going away party, or taking dinner to someone who’s sick or has a new baby. If my husband and I need help moving or need a pet sitter, we have a list a mile long of people we can call. When we got married, three different churches threw us showers. We have the previous generations to thank for this. We grew up watching our parents and grandparents do these things, and so they’ve become a part of our traditions as well. Praise God for that! I’m afraid, though, that we’ve been so disconnected from the world that we haven’t stopped to consider how rare and wonderful this sense of community truly is. Our generation is figuring that out, and we’re only doing so because of our intentional relationships with people outside our church circles. When those relationships are genuine, our love compels us to extend our communities, to invite in those who would be outsiders. For too long, a “Christian” lifestyle has been seen as a requirement to be a part of a “Christian” community, until we were presumably just a plastic group of people that looked and talked alike and didn’t have any real problems. If you were wrestling with alcoholism or a sexual addiction, you didn’t belong. Once you got those things sorted out, then we’d re-assess things. Why in the world, then, did Jesus die? A Christian community OUGHT to look like one big Celebrate Recovery meeting. We ought to get together to share our struggles, both past and present. We ought to laugh and cry as we share our stories and a meal together. We ought to sing loudly for joy because of our freedom in Christ. We ought to be so humbled by our own need for a savior that we can’t help but invite those we love to celebrate with us. It is by that love, not just for fellow Christians, but for everyone we encounter, that we ought to be known. It is by that love we were found, and by that love we must find others … as they are, with no strings attached. If we demonstrate that kind of love to outsiders, they won’ t be able to resist asking us about the community we belong to, which gives us the Heavenly opportunity to invite them to belong too.

I belong to a community of strong, Christian friends in Memphis who love Midtown, the neighborhood where we live. We are saddened by the “white flight” that has historically occurred in our area. Early on, we were each engaged in relationships with non-Christians that were greatly shaping our points of view, and we realized that in order to participate in real, authentic community with our neighbors, we needed to stop commuting to the suburbs for church and start being the church where we lived. We started meeting in a local coffee shop on Sunday nights and have done our best to be an organic, Christ-centered community focused on drawing people in without agenda. It’s amazing how many people take us up on our offers of friendship…and before long, they’re coming to our parties, sharing dinner at our tables, playing softball with us in the park, having meaningful conversations on our porches, and being drawn into our community without ever feeling like a project. It’s amazing how quickly it happens. I’ve even had a friend tell me, “You’re not like other Christians I’ve met. We actually have a lot in common!” Man, that’s loaded, isn’t it? Instead of treating non-Christians like strangers, why are we not looking for the commonalities between us, the kinds of commonalities which inspire friendship, and ultimately, community? For instance, where I live in Midtown, people already care about community. Whether you are gay, straight, black, white, republican or democrat, if you live in my neighborhood, you will be included. Many of my fellow Midtowners think that Christians are judgmental separatists who alienate homosexuals or are careless with the environment. As a church, we have been very excited about the rich opportunity to change some of those perceptions and to joyously express our mutual interest in the things our neighbors care about. Christians, if you think you have more in common with Jesus than with non-believers, think again. We are human. Jesus is God.

Our generation is realizing that forming real, authentic relationships take time. I think about the people I’m closest to and how many years it took to get to that point. Our relationships with non-believers are no different. It takes years of investment, which again, begs the question, What if you make those years of investment, and the person never comes to know Jesus? Was it worth it? The answer to that question is what matters to me about community. Almighty God knows all and is in all. He’s more powerful than we have a frame of reference to imagine. He doesn’t NEED us to do his work on this Earth, he INCLUDES us. Our offerings of service to Him are similar to the times I offered to bake with my mother. She didn’t need my help, but included me anyway, even though she’d have to clean up my mess afterward. Following Jesus is very difficult. He calls us to give up everything in his name and to live as if our lives don’t belong to us. His greatest blessing to us in return is the gift of community. He doesn’t make us do any of it alone. God puts people in our paths every day and asks us to invest in them, love them, and draw them into our communities. We’ll never be able to follow that command unless we are known by our love…love that’s unconditional and without agenda. So what matters to my generation about community? I think Brian McLaren said it best in his book, More Ready Than You Realize: “May the Spirit of Christ empower you to love and serve your neighbors, welcoming them into your lives and homes and schedules and hearts, so that through belonging they may discover the joys of believing and becoming. You are more ready for this than you realize. Go in grace and peace!”
New Wineskins

Rachel CoxRachel Cox describes herself as “a former missionary kid from Kenya who grew up in a dedicated, Christian family with excellent role models as parents. I went to college at Harding University, where I began the process of discovering and owning my own faith. I’m still making new discoveries almost every day. ☺ I hopped around from adventure to adventure after graduation, and against all of my own expectations, ended up in Memphis, where I now live with my new husband and way too many pets. Our favorite hobbies are cooking together, spending lots of time with our friends, and dreaming about where we’ll end up next. I’m driven, passionate, and over-the-top, and nothing gets me more excited than a good dinner party coupled with meaningful conversation.”

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