Shaping Community

Shaping Community

Despite all of the mythology about Woodstock, and the current buzz about on-line societies and virtual groups, community doesn’t just happen – at least not face to face communities. The fabric of relationships requires time, care and attention. After all 90% of life is showing up. When everyone is feeling good about a group, little effort is required to maintain it. Over time, however, love, understanding, listening, forgiveness, honest sharing, and careful monitoring of gossip and back biting are all necessary to keep a faith community healthy and whole. The reward for sustaining honest committed relationships are a covenant community where people pray with and for each another, sustaining one another in illness, grief, and disappointment, working to share in the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and sharing the joys and triumphs of life. We are not alone. God is with us in community.

I am sometimes mystified by the number of people who express annoyance over the amount of energy and care necessary to nurture and sustain life in community. People seem to believe it should just happen. Sort of like they should be able to come together for Worship, and everyone will get along and like one another and agree with one another, because after all it is about God. And God is supposed to make regular deposits in the church’s checking account, and food is supposed to magically appear on Sunday mornings, along with new members. That’s like believing that people should be able to recite their marriage vows or form a partnership, and then live happily ever after without doing anything to sustain the association. Any worthwhile relationship requires an emotional invest of time, energy and commitment in order to survive over time.

I was reminded of the importance of communication by a story. While attending a marriage seminar on communication Tom and his wife Peg listened to the instructor declare, “It is essential that husbands and wives know the things that are important to each other.”

He addressed the men, “Can you describe your wife’s favorite flower?”

Tom leaned over, touched his wife’s arm affectionately and whispered, “Pillsbury All Purpose, isn’t it?”

The rest of the story is not pleasant.

Or consider the story of a couple who were driving down a country road for several miles, not saying a word.

An earlier discussion had led to an argument and neither of them wanted to concede their position. As they passed a barnyard of mules, goats, and pigs, one of them asked sarcastically, “Relatives of yours?”

“Yep,” the other replied, “in-laws.”

Any worthwhile human relationship requires an emotional investment, and that is also true of faith communities. So how do we invest in our relationships in the church?

First, showing up! A face to face community means we have to show up. I know we are all busy. Many of us travel for work, or take Sabbath weekends away. And we can use e-mail, texting, Facebook, and other virtual means of communication, but followers of Jesus are intended to be the Body of Christ. We have to be embodied with one another to do that – we have to show up! Please continue to e-mail, text or call in prayer requests, when you cannot be here on Sunday morning, but show up at least once in a while, to pray with and for your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Showing up also reminds me of the importance of showing up with God, daily. That daily prayer time is important in our relationship with God, and in our relationships with one another. We share a connection with the divine, and when we are all praying something happens that is larger than any one of us and all of us together. Attending to our daily need for prayer is another way we can nurture our relationships in the Body of Christ. If I am praying for someone on a regular basis, prayer changes my relationship with that person. When I pray for someone regularly it is hard to harbor negative thoughts and feelings about that person, and in prayer God will encourage me to seek to resolve that relationship. So the second way we can nurture the Body of Christ is by showing up in prayer.

The third way we can nurture our relationships in the church is by sharing food – the Bread of Life. Jesus made the center piece of worship for his followers the act of sharing food. The early church insured that everyone would be fed by holding a daily meal where, people were fed and the life and love of Jesus were remembered – do this, eat, in remembrance of me. I believe it is unfortunate we have divorced the celebration of communion from a communal meal. A sip of grape juice and a cube of wonder bread while we are looking at the backs of other people’s heads, does not engender the same feeling of community, when people are sitting down together at a table eating and facing one another. Next Sunday we will celebrate our summer communion, and I will again ask everyone to form a circle, because if we can at least look into each other’s eyes, we can celebrate the presence of Christ in each other as well as the circle of caring.

The Sharing Table on Thursday evenings is another time we come together to eat, study, pray, and share the Lord’s Supper around the Sharing Table. Anyone who shows up is fed. Jesus invites us to the Sharing Table – the lived expression of the commonwealth of God in this world. We are becoming the followers of Jesus, his Body on earth.

The fourth way we nurture our relationships in community is by communicating. Paul in our scripture was writing about face to face communication in community. Speak the truth with your neighbor. Go ahead and be angry with one another, but work it out before the sun goes down. Work it out face to face. Don’t give opportunity to the devil by going home and calling five other people to talk about the person with whom you disagree. Don’t invite Satan into your fellowship by sending out angry e-mails about one another. Don’t promote gossip by claiming confidentiality and then secretly talking about other people behind their backs. Paul was talking about communication, because people had been triangulating one another, and gossiping about each other, and failing to communicate honestly with each other from the very beginning of the church. Why? Because we are human, and living in community, and sustaining those relationships is difficult. Communicating constructively in community is hard. Get used to it. In the end like in a good long term relationship the results are worth the investment.

The fifth way we can enhance our relationships in community is by seeking to claim a common purpose. Developing a common commitment to a mission within an organization is always a challenge, and it is especially difficult in a community as diverse as United Church. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey allows for diversity, but it makes the development of a common sense of mission difficult.

This last week I was attending a conference in Atlanta about applying the concept of Return on Investment to not for profit organizations including churches. Two challenges for companies are to figure out what business they are in, and to decide what measures of results they will apply to their business.

A good example of how a company can misunderstand what business they are in is Western Union. The leadership of the company thought they were in the telegraph business, rather than the communication business. When the telephone came along, and then the internet, Western Union missed out on the greatest business opportunities of their time. Churches who think they are in the business of providing church the way we have always done it, will likely miss the future, and go the way of the International Buggy Whip Corporation.

The problem of deciding how a business measures results, can be seen in companies that fail to invest in their future, because they are too closely focused on the bottom line. Profit and loss are important measures, but not the only measures of success, especially for the future health of the company. Market share, new product development, employee morale, customer loyalty, good will, are all important factors in the future profitability of an enterprise. Pinching pennies until the creativity is squeezed out of the organization will ultimately lead to failure.

One of the problems organizations face in choosing data to measure the return on their investments of time, energy and money is defining the purpose of the organization. If a church is unable to focus on a mission statement defining its purpose, then there can be no agreement on the measures of success or failure. For instance if one group focuses on an outwardly driven mission, while another group is focused on providing services to members, there will be no agreement on the measures of the return on the investment. So we often become disappointed and burned out, because the effort to sustain the community doesn’t seem worth it. I want to encourage our Moderator Greg Kamback to continue working on the visioning and planning process, because if we can ever come to an agreement about the mission of our community of faith, we will begin to experience greater satisfaction in the results we will see for our investment of time, energy and money.

Community doesn’t just happen. It has to be encouraged, shaped, and nurtured with care. As we embrace the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, we become the Body of Christ, and we are not alone. God is with us in community.

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