In the last twelve years I've had some time to think about a few things. I've written earlier about how I've had time to consider how guilt can get sexed up (thanks to the Boar's Head Tavern). Guilt isn't the only thing that gets sexed up, it happens with "community".
I put that word in scare quotes because I have probably spent the last twenty years more skeptical about its use and the agendas for its use than any other single word I've heard in my life. That word often has represented the foundation from which ideas or information or news was suppressed for the sake of what that word was supposed to represent. People who forsake organized religion in its various forms seek what they believe this word is supposed to mean. People seek an "authentic" variation of what the word is supposed to mean.
I know it's easy to say that there are no perfect churches and that if there is one then you'll ruin it by going there. Ha ha, cute joke and all that. We're in an election year and so identity politics become important yet again. Group identity and group guilt are inevitably going to show up and it's no shock that it happens with "community" of every sort. Group guilt is how we people work. Some group is the "in" group and some group is the "out" group. We manage to find ways to convince ourselves our group is the righteous group and the other group is bad, whatever the "other" is.
When Jesus told the parable about the Samaritan He was warning us that we don't get to choose who our neighbor is, and we do not get to choose in advance who we are to love as ourselves when we love our neighbor as ourselves. I mean, yes, we can make lots of decisions but an advance screening test to weed out the people we don't want to have to love as our neighbor isn't something we get to do.
Despite my decades of being cautious and even skeptical about how Christians use the word "community" I have had to rely on help from my church more in the last two years than at any point in my life. I don't know if I would say this has been a humbling experience. Nobody can live for long who lives completely alone. Human babies are among the more helpless of babies of all living things. As Donne so aptly put it, no man is an island. Relying on my church is not, therefore, something that "humbles" me as though I had some history of being self-reliant and from which I needed to learn some humility.
No, but in the sense that having to need help from an institution when I've got so many friends and associates over the last eight years who believe that relying on institutional religion is problematic may be humbling in another way. I honestly don't trust the house-church type movements any more than the institutional churches. Institutional churches have their own foibles but they don't tend to include devolving into discussions of black U.N. helicopters in Oregon that will conquer America. They don't tend to have these weird prayer sessions where teddy bears get annointed with oil and are claimed to heal people. They don't tend to be quite so swift in assimilating frauds like the famous bank debenture fraud that was known in the late Clinton years as "Omega". It's true that the informal and formal gathering of Christians are just as likely to have straying spouses and swindlers and self-aggrandizing divas.
In a sense, though, what a church has that the informal "spiritual community" won't necessarily have is this beautiful barely appreciated thing, possibly even a "less presentable" part of the body of Christ.
What is that? I go out on a limb and suggest bureaucracy with all its attendant inefficiencies.
Let me digress a while here. It can be said among Christian circles that gossip is sinful. Yes, let's just agree on that. But if gossip is sinful then what if it is a sinful variation of something that may be a role for the body of Christ? For instance, if someone is unable to work and needs help then what is the distinction between gossiping about that person and, say, networking on that person's behalf to help the person find work? Isn't it conceivable one may simultaneously do a good thing and have an impure motive in part of that good thing? We are frail creatures and so it is possible for even "authenticity" to be a kind of plasticity. Sometimes the apparently righteous word or action masks a corrupt motive and a bumbling or harsh act may be done inadvertantly.
It's easy for pastors to say that prayer circles often become breeding grounds for gossip but this is, with a little reflection, capable of being a sin comparable to the charge made in the canard about prayer groups as gossip rings. It's possible here to say "It takes one to know one." If someone is praying about me without my knowledge how can I possibly be harmed by it, even if some of those prayers may be to my harm? Doesn't the book of Proverbs teach that an undeserved curse is harmless as a flitting sparrow? Yet in some places I've been Christians were sure that curses had literal, magical power. I don't think this is the bulk of scriptural testimony regarding curses. There are elements of a belief that certain words heal and destroy but even in these cases some things must be kept in mind. Curses that come to pass in the scriptures are presented as having come to pass because Yahweh saw fit to honor those curses as prayers. Perhaps, for instance, this is what could be said about Judges 9. Yet the weight of scriptural testimony regarding curses is clear about love of neighbor as the foundation for not cursing regardless of whether or not one may curse and see that curse having some effect.
Then there's a matter of how problems come to light. To continue with the jobless example, if someone has no work because a person is unable to work or simply isn't getting hired that's not necessarily under "He who will not work, let him not eat." But let's ask ourselves a simple question, for that command in scripture to be obeyed how would a person find out that so-and-so hasn't been willing to work and therefore should not eat, whatever that meant? Could that not end up being "gossip"?
Then, famously: My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.
Was what Paul heard from some in Chloe's household gossip? Let's not be so simplistic in our way of defining "gossip" that we forget that word-of-mouth and the grapevine had a role in the authoring of canonical texts. If there were no grapevine of some fashion how would Paul have heard of the difficulty between Euodia and Syntyche as a subject to address in his letter to the church in Phillipi?
If God's strength is made perfect in weakness we like to talk about this for individuals but do we believe this is possible for groups of Christians, too? If God's strength is made perfect in weakness then are our strengths weaknesses? It often seems as though they can be. A church may consider itself strong on discipline and community and end up being a bastion of tyranny and conformity. A church may consider itself strong on hospitality yet discover that its members consider their weakness to be an insularity that makes it hard for newcomers to feel welcome. This is a simple paradox, is it not? We can be hospitable and friendly to each other within the "in" group without realizing that we don't always know how to extend a welcome to the stranger, who may feel left out or even ignored.
If there is a skepticism I continue to struggle with it is about "authenticity" and being "real". I don't believe people do this. I believe people WANT to be this, whatever it is, but that it's simply not the same as attaining it.
Perhaps the sexy part of "community" is when we hope that "community" will remedy problems. We like it when our group is able to solve a particular problem. We'd like to be able to take pride knowing that our group has gotten our hands dirty and come through for where others haven't. Now this is the part that may get a bit awkward but I've heard some people say that the informal network of believers can get a lot done the institutional religious groups don't do.
Well .... no, sorry, I haven't personally seen that. Maybe countless others have but I'm not those others. There are things institutions are capable of doing powerfully that all the informal brothers and sisters in Christ basically don't get done and often can't even get done. You see that stuff called that bureaucracy that people say stifles the Spirit or shuts people out it can paradoxically be how people get noticed, too. There are parts of the body that are not as presentable and yet play a vital role in the life of the local church.
Last year when I needed eye surgery and had absolutely no money to spare I could have consulted an informal network of friends to get help for the money I needed at the time. I didn't do that. I went to a foundation and I went through the hoops and meetings required by their bureaucracy. They came through and they helped me. There are things that God's people only manage to do in noteworthy fashion by doing so through institutions. I don't care how many people blog or talk about how the informal this and that is the "real" Christian community, there's reality to be dealt with here, there are some things where a bureaucracy serving a Christian purpose is still able to do more than countless masses of informal "real" people who form "community". We can talk about how we are, as a church, not a place but a people. Tell that to those people in Phillipi who got that letter. There are pious catchphrases that are kinda dumb in the end. This idea that the local church is a people and not a place is just partly true. When Paul dealt with a collection for the church in Jerusalem would it have benefited him to say that "Oh, well, see the church is a people and not a place"? Obviously not.
Conversely, let's not kid ourselves too much about how "real" informal gatherings of believers are. Yes, there's authentic fellowship and community there, too, but it's beset by all the same problems of the institutional variety/ There could still be that long-talking "leader" sort in the informal house church meeting who leaves his wife just as there can be that pastor who ends his marriage for greener pastures in a church.
Perhaps because I've been in Protestant circles that have overemphasized "community" or emphasized the "real" I turn a more jaded eye toward the "real" than the institutional. Neither are without awful flaws but there's this, an institution has been around long enough that more than two generations of Christians have managed to keep the thing from disintegrating. When I worked at a huge non-profit I understood there were rules. There come times when people want certain rules to not apply to them and they want you to set those rules aside. Well, the thing about rules is that if exceptions ever get made they have to be predicated on what the aim of the rule is in the first place. Jesus pointed out that men would feed and water livestock even on the Sabbath. Promoting life trumped the strictest enforcement of a particular rule. Once the aim of the rule was understood exceptions to that rule could respect the spirit of the rule rather than simply fall into the realm of exceptions on a "mere" case by case basis.
Or do we suppose that when priests and judges and others were bribed in ancient Israel that none of that could have had anything to do with trying to bend the rules for particular gain? Perhaps I'm missing out on something but it can often feel to me as though American Christians with a thing about institutional churches can believe that the bureaucracy can't be as sanctified as the individuals that make up the bureaucracy. I have recently written at some length about prophets, priests and kings. These were institutions in ancient Israel that were often at odds with each other or in collusion and in rare cases synergistically worked together for the common good. If you or I attempt to imagine that the institution isn't "real" let's be cautious about presuming that you or I are any more "real" than that.
Let me put it this way, for any individual Christian who's inclined to think that he or she can do more for the kingdom of God and fellow believers than some deacon board, as yourself how much you've financially helped someone with medical bills, rent and utility expenses, or things like that? One of the things that is sexy for individuals is imagining that whatever we think our version of "community" is can get more done than those others. But there's also a way in which it's sexy for the individual believer to convince himself or herself that the informal this and that can do more than some institutional religious bureaucracy.
Make no mistake, I've been helped by individuals who have, led by conscience, helped me in generous ways. But if I were to have to produce an itemized list of who has helped me the most in the most concrete ways I'd have to go dig up the list of the deacons and all the church members whose generosity has helped me. We seem to live in a culture in which collective guilt for a church is much, much sexier than collective credit to a Christian church who namelessly, anonymously, and collectively helps those who are in rough patches. Sure, it might be sexier to say that this small group of believers I see every week (whether a community group, small group, or whatever-group) has come through for me.
But it's often the case that the mercy of God comes in anonymous and even impersonal ways through agents whose role in the church is, let's face it, is distinctly and vocationally bureaucratic. There's not necessarily some "personal" connection and yet if you've spent as many years in non-profit as some people I know have you grasp the reality that nobody should take that personally. There's a certain emotional distance that is necessary to help people in certain types of need. Contrary to certain misnomers about "priestly" gifts not every thing gets dealt with in such a fashion. Sometimes what a Christian believer may find he desperately needs is not a bunch of people to be "with him" in "community" as much as he needs people to flatly review his resume to tell him what works and what doesn't. Sometimes what he needs is prayer for continued work and sometimes he may need a check to pay the rent.
There's more on this but this is probably as good a place as any to stop on this particular rumination on why "community" is often a lot sexier than bureaucracy. Bureaucracy and tradition do not belong merely to the world or to the devil. For all our complaints about the impersonal nature of bureaucracy and rules let's go back and think about the pastoral epistles some more. Those rules were given in part to help certain bureaucratic elements of the church function more efficiently and truly toward their purpose. The aim was that those widows who were truly widows would get the help they needed and that those widows who had family to help them would actually do their part.
"Community" is a lot sexier than streamlining a church bureaucracy to make sure people were served better. In a time such as ours it's a lot sexier to talk about how impersonal a bureaucracy is than to talk about how it helps the sick get better, how it can save the lives of people who would die without the help of institutions, or how institutions can help those going blind to see. I've read a few rants and seen a few axioms about how groups should not be trusted or how there's no wisdom in crowds. I've seen how people say that bureaucracies and institutions can't necessarily be "community" the way these others can. Well, sorry, but I have literally seen what institutions can accomplish that individuals can't pull off. As much as we may like to bag on the impersonal nature of institutions and talk about a "community" that is "authentic" there are things only bureaucracy can do.
Election years would not be so fraught with rage and dread if this weren't the case.