emarkthomas

Trying to live love well through the power of the Everlasting.

On Being Removed from Christian Community

It’s been fifty-six days since I’ve started this new job. That’s eight weeks. Two months. So it’s been two months since I’ve been to church, a small group, a Bible study, a prayer meeting, etc. Two months since I’ve had any interaction with the Christian community that I was a part of. That’s the longest I’ve ever gone without Christian community involvement, by the way. We attended church weekly – and more – growing up. I taught Sunday School to the four and five-year old boys for three years in college, and attended another church for the last year. Every Sunday. Except when I was home on break or away working for the summers, in which case I attended services at those places. Even when I ran away from life I attended churches wherever I happened to be.

So when I found out that my work schedule wouldn’t allow me to participate or attend any Christian community structures or programs – none – I was really down. I mean everything was out now. My weekly meetings with a pastor and spiritual mentor, my bi-weekly men’s small group, and the ability to attend any weekly meetings for any churches in the area… all done. My schedule effectively has me booked at any conceivable time where I might be able to engage in any activity in a local Christian community. I checked. A lot.

I prayed, and I asked my friends to pray. I wanted my schedule to change! Surely God must want my schedule to change! But my schedule did not change, and I had to adjust. I spend quite a bit of time reading blogs, books, and articles as well as listening to sermons and worship from various churches, so I don’t feel like my relationship with Papa is suffering as far as growth and communication. But I’ve been curious for weeks about just how I’m supposed to live and love well in community when I have no community to live and love well in! I’ve mulled it over time and time again, and asked Papa for help time and time again. The result was always the same: wait patiently.

Then an idea snuck into the back of my mind, and it grabbed hold of my consciousness with a whole-body-erupting-into-goose-bumps moment.

Eth, you moron. You are in community. You’ve been in this community the vast majority of your life. Your small, tiny little town? The one that your family has lived in for six generations now? Buddy, it’s a community. And you work at the only store in town. Right in the heart of it. You see everyone. You interact and engage with absolutely everyone in town. You idiot, aren’t you understanding yet?

That happened about two weeks ago, and since then I’ve been pondering this idea that perhaps living and loving well in community has nothing to do with the Christian institutions, programs, initiatives, groups, and meetings. Well, not nothing to do with it. But certainly they can’t hold a monopoly, can they?

I pondered that until a few days ago when my sister and I were having a conversation. My sister is a bit more progressive regarding the role of women in churches and relationships than my family is, and she knows that I call the egalitarian camp home, so she was bouncing ideas off of me and venting to me slightly about things that frustrate her. In response to her questioning that having a husband being the sole (or majority) breadwinner for the family is God’s will for families, I laid out a scenario for her. Suppose that a married Christian man is injured terribly in an accident and can no longer provide for his family. His wife steps up and acquires a job, and through her work she provides for the family instead. Is she violating God’s will?

My sister and I both noted that, according to the examples and stories in the books of the Bible, God certainly seems to have a soft spot for the people that fall through the cracks; the ones whose circumstances force them to exist outside the system norms. A woman needing to work to support her family exists outside the given system norm in the scenario I painted for my sister. She’s fallen through the cracks. (Of course this example is custom-tailored to the specific Christian community my sister and I are familiar with, but we can all substitute models and circumstances here to fit our own experiences, can we not?) Anyway, the point is this: my sister and I arrived at the idea that a God who is all about the dispossessed, the oppressed, and those who fall between the cracks probably isn’t all that concerned about whether this woman is violating some perceived ideal. Probably. Then I thought to myself that maybe me not engaging in Christian community for this season isn’t a big deal either. Maybe. And maybe I’m not supposed to be in Christian community just now… maybe I’m supposed to be in this community; my tiny little town.

And the more I let all those thoughts slosh around in my brain, the more I began to open my eyes to my actual community – the people amongst whom I live and engage in daily life with – and I began to notice, more and more, that they’re the dispossessed, the oppressed, those whom have fallen between the cracks along the way. And the thing is, I think that everyone fits into that category in some way or another. You just have to live life with them for more than five minutes in order to see it.

You see I’d listened for so long to the line of thought that stated it was important for Godly men and women to have Godly influences and support groups in place so that they can live Godly lives and raise Godly families and spread Godly truths that I’d never stopped to think about what we might be neglecting through such a narrow focus. Not that I’m attacking any of it, but instead I’m just asking… what are we not seeing because we’re so focused on maintaining our Godly little lives? Who is suffering next door to us while we’re wholly focused on what’s happening with our church’s programs twenty minutes down the road? Could it possibly be the people that you live within a rock’s throw from? Their lives, their problems, their issues? All of which may be desperately crying out for the gospel of the Living God?

So I’ve stopped bemoaning my hard luck, and I’ve started engaging in the community that was in front of me all along. Sure, I think a day is coming that will find me actively engaged in a church body again. No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with being actively involved in your church programs or small groups. But I do think that life just may be a little more holistic than we’d like for it to be. I think that the Kingdom of Heaven may be just a little more holistic than we’d like it to be.

More than just Wednesday night twice a month. More than just Sunday mornings. More than just one arena for us to live the gospel. I think that the Kingdom of Heaven is calling its agents to step outside of our busy little lives, structured with such focus and determination, and to give the gospel (and our King) our time and attention. What might it look like in my tiny little town if the Christians that lived in it started allowing what we say we believe to change how we live each and every hour of our lives? What might it look like if we suddenly started treating the people in our town as if they were as important as the Christian groups and churches to which we belong?

More importantly, what if I started doing it? What if I started treating the human beings around me with the same love and attention that I reserve for my buddies from small group?

I think this may have been what Paul did. I mean, I could be wrong and all, but I think he did this. And I’m not usually a big fan of Paul. In fact, I often wonder if he’s not terribly overrated and held up as an idol in much of 21st century North American Christianity. But still, reading through some of the books in the Bible show me a man that finds community and Kingdom life no matter where his circumstances brought him. In chains in Rome? No problem. He lived and loved well with his new community so that it became clear, throughout the whole palace, that he was in chains for Christ. Funnily enough, those Roman captors just might not have been a Christian community. Yep, he may have – just may have – found himself in non-Christian communities once or twice. And yet he lived and loved well with people, and the gospel thrived.

So at the end of the day, when I’m reflecting on being removed from my Christian communities, I’m actually thankful for it. The Living God is doing something, and that’s exciting. I don’t know where it’s going, and I can’t promise amazing results. But I can wake up tomorrow and give it my best shot, and ask Papa to take that and do something with it as only he can.

Update, 16 December: After some more reflection, I wanted to stress that I’m not meaning to exist in competition with church communities or programs. I’m not meaning to tear them down at all, nor am I meaning to set myself and my ideas as something superior to them. When I question them in this post, I’m questioning only the idea that they are whole and complete philosophies for living and loving well in community. I’m offering this idea in addition to them. For instance, I think there’s room in my local area for both the church (and all the programs that go with it) and Christians engaging in their physical communities as well. Like those old cereal commercials used to say… a part of this balanced breakfast.

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4 responses to “On Being Removed from Christian Community

  1. Kerry Miller-Whalen December 16, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Wow, Wow, WOW!!!
    Ethan I’m nearly jumping out of my skin with excitement!! This is WONDERFUL!!

    “Who is suffering next door to us while we’re wholly focused on what’s happening with our church’s programs twenty minutes down the road? ”

    So totally, totally true. I think that often the local pub often does “community” better than we do in our churches. How wrapped up we get in “doing stuff” as part of Church, becoming oblivious to the real community, real people, & real needs around us!!!

    Sounds to me like your little season of “no church” is a beautiful gift! Unwrap and enjoy the adventure!!!

    Love, Kerry

  2. Joyce December 16, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Ethan I love this! You are so right! We so often think what we do on Sunday mornings reflect who we are, or our little groups , but it doesn’t. I have felt this for awhile and I too struggle with so much.
    You have such a special gift..your heart is so big.. don’t ever let anyone take that from you or pull you down.
    God Bless you!

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