The church was spending weeks and weeks on new mission and vision statements — documents intended to guide their life as a community for the next long while. What should define their life together?
I talked to them about biblical pictures of the Church. You know them too: we are Christ’s body, as interconnected as your organs, muscles, and bones. We are branches growing into and out of Christ, our Vine. Intimate. Interdependent.
Then one of the elders spoke up:
“Hey, we don’t want to be too close!”
Sometimes one person says something and the other person hears a totally different message.
Here’s what I thought I heard:
“Hey, we don’t want to actually be a Christian community!”
My bad. I was suffering from
NEDS: Narrow Experiential Definition Syndrome.
(Don’t bother looking in the dictionary. I just made it up.)
Actually he just had different expectations about Christian community than I did.
My expectations of Christian community were formed in the college ministry of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington and I got involved in a group that trained small group leaders who led prayer groups and Bible studies in Greek houses and dorms.
Eventually I was on the leadership team of that ministry and we tried to practice what we preached. We became a small group, doing all the things we were teaching other people to do.
It changed my life. We shared our lives and supported each other; some of us had never believed anyone could truly care about us, and we found a circle of people who really loved us. We laughed, and we cried, and our experience of community energized our work in ministry.
When I moved away from Seattle I suffered from NEDS. I spent time in big churches, small churches, and medium-sized churches. Always in the back of my mind was the question:
“Why don’t these people understand Christian community?”
Actually, those people did understand community. They just understood it differently than I did. They had honed their definitions on different experiences.
There are many different ways to configure the life of a Christian community. Ordering a community’s life differently from the one I’ve known before will probably have different results — but it is not therefore wrong.
Wise leaders will consider the possibilities and choose ways of being community that are likely to lead to healthy discipleship.
Consider Benedictine monasticism. I’ve been blogging about it for several weeks. It is hard to deny that medieval monasteries were Christian communities. It is also hard for me to deny that they were far more effective in training and sending people to serve God as missionaries and leaders than most Christian communities.
Here’s the counter-intuitive bit: they did not invest their energy in sharing their lives, laughing and crying together, or learning to love and be loved by other Christians. In fact, they didn’t actually talk to each other that much.
Tucked into Benedict’s Rule, right between the chapter on “obedience” and the chapter on “humility” is the chapter on “silence.”
“… because of the importance of silence, let permission to speak be seldom given to perfect disciples even for good and holy and edifying discourse …”
They didn’t exactly take a vow of silence. More like the sign I once heard was to be found in Oxford’s Bodleian Library:
“Speak Seldom, and Softly.”
In Benedictine life, the community is marked by the virtue of silence. Silence can make room for each person to encounter God. Silence make the monastery a workshop and a school for learning to live as Christ instructs.
By contrast, our world is so very noisy we might be hard pressed to even hear what Christ is telling us about our lives.
So here’s my point: relationships in Benedictine community life looked and felt totally different from those your church and mine aspire to — and yet it has worked, very well, for centuries.
We might be able to learn something from it. We might reject it. But we’ll have better results in community life if we know what we expect and why we expect it.
When you imagine “healthy Christian community” what kinds of communication and relationships do you picture?
How might a community in today’s world make room for silence?
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