18. For God’s greatest activity is in the form of community, as small as twos and threes.
I’m going to get right to the point with you. Our primary concern is off base and our solutions are bad. The church is getting it’s view of redemption wrong, which makes it impossible to fix our problem of isolation with more isolation. We need to realize we’ve misdiagnosed the nature of the problem.
People are feeling more alone and less a part of community. But our view of redemption and individual Christianity will only make the problem worse. It’s like having food poisoning and then washing your food with dirty water.
We need something beyond personal religion and individualistic faith. And we need to get past a limiting doctrine of faith alone. We need to see the more robust relationship Jesus is calling us to have with God.
To do that, we’ll need to free ourselves of the two beliefs which are holding us back.
With the enlightenment and the modern era, we developed a more refined view of the individual. Modern psychology in the 19th and 20th Centuries have developed a greater sense of the self than at any time in human history.
The era brought with it profound movements to see and define the world through the eyes of the individual. In the United States, people explored consciousness with drugs, spirituality with Buddhism, and social relocation with the suburbs.
We tried to manufacture a common experience through replication: with prefab housing and communities built around strip malls and big box retailers rather than churches and libraries.
But the suburbs never gave us the reality we dreamed about. It never gave us the great community we longed for by embracing total autonomy. In short, money couldn’t buy us happiness. And it was ridiculous to believe it could.
This era took the profound truth of a blending of individual and communal freedom by cutting off the community and estranging it. Like we didn’t invite it home for thanksgiving. Today it seems like the individual is king in our culture and it’s the same in our churches.
Changing that won’t be easy, but the first step is pretty simple. We need to make up with community. Forgive each other and remind individualism that it isn’t the only member of the family that matters.
And like an older sibling, we need to remind community to stop beating up the smaller, weaker individual.
And for the faithful this takes an intentional move to redefine religion to its more historical understanding. That it isn’t a personal relationship with God or Jesus. It isn’t sincerely-held belief or the framework individuals assent to. It’s the common people of faith making common cause communities.
Bigger Isn’t Better. Because you’re evaluating the wrong thing.
Even when we see the problem of individualism, we aren’t likely to deal with it.
This isn’t a fatalistic response. Its like knowing your student won’t get the right answer in the end because they forgot to carry the one in the first step. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, you aren’t going to get the right answer when your solution is based on a wrong assessment.
We can’t solve individualism with an individualistic religion. But we try.
All of our usual measurements of success fail to take our problem into account. For churches, we talk about average Sunday attendance, pledging units, service hours; we count baptisms like a literal interpretation of Matthew 28. We evaluate our churches like they’re businesses.
So the second problem is that our obsession with individualism creates a culture of individual consumption.
It means that the only we is made of all the little mes who agree to be there. And the only way we can get the little mes to be there is to sell them a product that they can consume. Therefore the burden of the community is to maintain that hunger for consumption so they keep coming back.
We sell, sell, sell to the consumer an individual faith with fantastic claims of better health and more money like an in-person infomercial. Our priests and pastors are judged against pitchmen like we’re selling a Shamwow.
The church gave us the 12-step program to recovery, which blends personal relationship with communal relationships. But for the wider world, the church is offering more of the problem. We’re like a drug dealer posing as a therapist or like we’re pushing booze on the alcoholic when they’ve come to turn their life around.
We aren’t consumers, we are people. We are more than the persons which compose our we. That’s why we’re more than individuals, like little baby birds demanding a mother spit regurgitated food into our mouths.
Because God doesn’t come to big churches bigger and in tiny bits to the small. We can’t measure God’s love by the size of the membership roster or by how many feels you get on a Sunday morning. And God’s love certainly can’t be measured by how perfect the music is or whether it sounds good to you personally.
God doesn’t come because you call yourselves Christians or the community calls itself a church.
The divine presence is there because two or three get together in love.
That presence, like the Holy Trinity, comes in community, mutuality, around a table. When we gather for lunch or coffee to talk. To share. Or cry.
It comes to our waiting rooms and yes, even when we message our friends who live 1,000 miles away.
This is the base unit of religion for Christians. It isn’t just me or you. We aren’t on our own. We always have Jesus with us, but we also always have others. Someone.
We reach out. And if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, we can see Jesus in the midst of the always imperfect, often awkward and even strained response.
And we can know that we aren’t consumers of love. We are made of love. It’s our very substance; so it can’t be bought or sold like a commodity. It is only offered as a whole.
And in sharing we are restored.
[This is Thesis #18 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]