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Response to Silas Bishop's "Community as the Goal (and therefore the means) of mission"

I agreed in 2003 to respond to a seminarian’s paper, to be included in the December 2003 “Truett Journal of Church and Mission.”

“It is impossible for one to baptize oneself,” Silas Bishop says (p. 12) in this helpful paper. But there is a scene in Robert Duvall’s film “The Apostle” where the main character does just that. Having been alienated from his community through an outburst of anger that resulted in a murder, this troubled yet believing character flees the consequences of his crime, and in a secluded slough, baptizes himself privately “in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in the name of Jesus,” a clever baptismal formula that encompasses both classic Trinitarian language, and the unique language of some Pentecostal sects (“Jesus only Pentecostalism”).

While few orthodox Christians would try to baptize themselves, Bishop implies that a dominant understanding of the Christian gospel could be reflected in auto-immersion: too many Christians understand salvation as an individualistic experience which plunges them into a personal, private intimacy with Jesus only. The church is at best an aid to personal holiness (“where I go to get fed,” many would say), at worst a distraction from the pursuit of private personal piety. Bishop wisely and effectively counters this individualistic account of salvation in his paper by rooting the idea of community in the social nature of God as Trinity.

One word troubled me in the paper: the word ideal in the sentence, “And as the church lives to unite, sanctify, reconcile, and evangelize the world, it creates a ‘culture’ that preserves ideal conditions for people to learn and flourish in learning this new way of life under the Reign of God” (p. 19).

For reasons that Bishop would quickly understand and affirm, I am queasy about the word “ideal” being applied to the church, a body of people to which that adjective never seems to apply very well for very long. “Divided, unholy, elitist, and self-absorbed” seem a more honest description than “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” all too often.

Like Bishop, I have been deeply impressed and instructed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. Bonhoeffer wisely warns Christians about the dangers of “wish-dreams” about community, ideals and dreams of community that become idolatrous, tempting one to love the ideal or dream more than one loves the actual people in one’s community. Having switched our focus of affection from the people themselves (with all their faults, annoyances, and idiosyncracies), and having bonded instead to our ideal or wish-dream, we are tempted to hate the people who fail to cooperate in seeing our ideal fulfilled as we might wish. Thus we blame them for sabotaging our vision of ideal (or authentic, or Biblical, or whatever other adjective identifies we might insert) community, blinding ourselves to the self-sabotaging hatred or resentment that lies within our own heart, all the while waving the banner of our ideal in “righteous” indignation.

But on further reflection, I also believe “ideal” is exactly the right word for Bishop to use in that sentence. The church, he says, creates a culture for people to learn “this new way of life under the Reign of God,” and this culture, he says, is ideal. In what way can it be thought of as ideal?

If “the new way of life under the Reign of God” involves being conformed to the life and character of the Trinity, then the church would have to create a culture that would teach people virtues of the Trinity, virtues like patience, kindness, self-giving, forgiveness, courage, compassion, forbearance, and generosity.

The church as we know it, so far from “ideal,” does in fact turn out to provide the ideal environment in which these virtues can be cultivated. How could I learn patience or forbearance without Brother Sam, who talks too much and demands just a little more attention than I am ever ready to give? How could I develop kindness if the Reynolds family didn’t bring their autistic child to our small group – where little Mikey’s autism elicits from me a kindness I never experienced before? How could I develop self-giving if I didn’t follow through on my commitment to attend that meeting last night, even though I had a long hard day and was so tempted to make an excuse and stay home to “save” myself rather than give myself? How could I develop forgiveness if I had not been misjudged and gossiped about by the faction in our church led by Mary Ellen Graves? How could I learn courage unless I had to confront Mary Ellen for her divisive attitude – with all due gentleness and humility? Where else would I be stretched in my compassion and generosity if I weren’t part of this community of flawed, needy, broken people – who, I must realize, include me in their list of flawed, needy, broken fellows?

How could I experience the exalted joy of community if I didn’t also experience the stretching trials and heartfelt tears of real community life? The gospel suggests to us that even God cannot expand the circle of community beyond God’s own Triune Self without enduring the grit and grief of cross, shame, death, and sorrow in the process.

This grit and grief, I believe, are necessary complements to the elevated and inspiring insights which Bishop offers regarding community as goal and means of mission. The dynamic tension between the ideal and the real, between the joy and the cross, the lofty vision and the messy road to its fulfillment … this tension is where community happens, both for us, and for God.

Brian McLaren is a pastor (crcc.org), author (anewkindofchristian.com), and fellow in emergent (emergentvillage.com).