Reclaiming Our “Connection”

J. Christian Stratton

John Wesley believed that Christianity was a social religion. In his own words, he articulated that “to turn [it] into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it…. When I say [it] is essentially a social religion, I mean not only that it cannot subsist so well, but that it cannot subsist at all without society, without living and conversing with [others]” (in F. Baker, ed., Works 4:295). Wesley’s verbal conviction of the social nature of Christianity was matched only by his practical commitment to forming communities whereby persons could experience such religion. Some would argue that our denomination (and perhaps, Evangelicalism!) needs to reclaim such a vision—that is, reclaiming our connection with God, one another, and the world—especially in light of an American individualism that has successfully shaped an alternative one. From what vantage point might we explore such a vision, and how might this vision take shape in the church today?

The Triune Life

Christianity has a unique understanding of God: God is Trinity. This classic doctrine affirms that God is three persons, yet one essence. The profundity of this “immanent” understanding of God is its ability to hold in perfect balance God’s unity and particularity. Although three persons, each uncreated, the Triune God is one essence. Although these three persons are distinct and free, the Triune God is unified in mutual love and freely functions on the basis of this self-giving love. Although each person is equal in power and glory, the Triune God is unified in mission, and each person of the Godhead exists for the sake of the other. Indeed, God is Trinity, and to be God is to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, existing in eternal community, each person in a perichoretic relationship with the other. Perhaps J. Moltmann best captures the inner posture of this Triune relationship when he suggests that each person of the Godhead is not only a subject, but also a “room” for the other (cf. “God’s Kenosis in the Creation and Consummation of the World,” in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, ed. J. Polkinghorne [Eerdmans, 2001]).

This portrait of the Trinity beautifully captures the communal nature of God, and especially places terms like mutuality, indwelling, self-giving, and interdependency at the heart of who God is. And yet, at the same time, this beautiful portrait of a community of self-giving love is not turned in on itself. The Trinity models genuine love in that its inner posture is explicitly turned out toward creation, and after the Fall, especially toward its redemption. This reflects God’s “economic” concerns, and in so doing illumines his desire to relate to, and bring about the wholeness of, all of creation. When the Son and the Holy Spirit act in time and history, their respective acts, participating with the actions of the Father, are the acts of the one, Triune God performed through them (cf. C. Gunton, The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine [Blackwell, 2002] 181). Thus, the Triune God reveals himself wherein the Father sends the Son (begotten yet uncreated), and the Holy Spirit proceeds, both for the purpose of accomplishing God’s salvific mission in and for creation.

What ramifications arise from such a portrait of the Christian God? For example, what might the notion of Triune personhood suggest about our understanding of human “persons?” How might it challenge our Western values of self-reliance and autonomy, recasting what it means to be human in relational terms? Might it suggest that to be human is to be oriented toward someone beyond oneself; that is, a life that is constantly making “room” for others?

Some suggest that this understanding of the Triune God not only shapes the way we understand the nature of persons, but also the way we understand the nature of the people of God; thus, our explicit theology ought to shape our embodied ecclesiology. The church should not simply reflect cultural images and presuppositions, but “is called to be the kind of reality at a finite level that God is in eternity” (cf. C. Gunton and D. Hardy, eds., On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community [T&T Clark, 1989] 78). In other words, the personal dynamics of the church should reflect the relational dynamics of the Triune God. If one grants such an idea, then, our fellowship with each other is not merely based upon a common story or experience. Our fellowship is no less than our common participation in the divine communion between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And ultimately, this divine communion drives the church outside its “walls” to engage creation in self-giving life and love.

The Biblical Story

In the opening chapters of Genesis, we read about the creation of the world as well as its fall. Out of his self-giving love, God did not give up on his creation. His redemptive plan involved the choosing of a man (Abraham) through whom a people was birthed, and he entered into a covenant relationship with this people—the people (community) of Israel—and dwelt among them. It is important to understand that the covenant relationship was not based upon Israel’s qualifications as a community, but upon God’s promise that through Israel he would bless the world; in short, Israel (the community) was elected in service to a mission: to show all nations how a just society would look; and in so doing, to be a light to the nations (to exhibit God’s holy character) so that the nations might gain an understanding of the character of God through Israel’s life and example, and enter into his salvation. Unfortunately, many in Israel lost sight of God’s mission due to influences of idolatry and sin. Even though there were many prophets who attempted to call Israel back to her mission in and for the sake of the world, God judged Israel with two exiles, yet promised a future, restored people.

The promise of God came to fruition at a definitive moment in human history in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, as God’s representative, being fully led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, was faithful where Israel had failed. He was the first to fully understand the faithfulness God desired and carried it out to completion. He is the fulfillment of the long history that began with Abraham. And through this Jesus, God spoke definitively that his reign in the world had arrived. Salvation—indeed, blessing—has come to the nations. All things—personally, socially, and cosmologically—are being made new and moving towards God’s future consummation.

As Jesus returned to his Father, the same Holy Spirit that empowered his earthly life was sent upon a community. And this community, in its corporate life, was (and is!) called, empowered, and gifted to embody an alternative order—an alternative life, to become an alternative society (one that will be consummated at some point in the future)—that stands as a sign of, and witness to, God’s visible redemptive mission in the world.

This people is called neither to rule the world, nor to renounce it, but to redeem the world. This people is called to “place themselves at his disposal, to die to their own plans and life projects, and to entrust themselves entirely to the plan and mission of God.” In so doing, this people “allows God to be the sole actor, and yet God will not do the least thing in the world without them” (cf. G. Lohfink, Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God [Liturgical Press, 1999] 156). This people is called to live in fellowship with God, each other, and creation, thereby embodying in their life together the future God has in store for all creation, both personally and socially. Indeed, “under the guidance of the Spirit, this people lives out in the present the glorious community for which God created [it]” (cf. S. Grenz, Created for Community [Baker, 1998] 207).

Again, what ramifications arise from such a portrait of the people of God? For example, how might this discussion encourage us to enlarge our understanding of God’s mission in the world, and how might our individual salvation—a notion generally elevated in our culture to God’s main concern—actually find its place within the larger context of his salvific renewal of human society and the cosmos itself? Might this scriptural portrait place just as much importance upon community transformation (a corporate will yielded to the plans of God) as upon individual transformation? Might it suggest that the quality of our corporate life is central to our witness to the world; that is, a life that visibly displays a radical reconciliation and renouncement of worldly practices of power and prestige? Might this be a community where no one needs any longer to struggle unceasingly for his or her reputation, but instead, all can be concerned about God’s reputation, and allow honor to be received as a gift?

These theological and biblical explorations serve to illumine two main affirmations: A genuine experience of community is both 1) central to the nature of God (who God is), and 2) central to his redemptive scheme (what God is doing) in the world. If the church is properly to reflect God’s nature, and participate in his redemptive mission, then it too must embody a (peculiarly) Christian social and communal existence. And ultimately, this experience of community moves in two directions at once. On the one hand, this community is inwardly focused (God is developing something within us and among us). As R. Banks states, “our life together as Christians is not some subordinate appendage to the gospel. Rather, it is the gospel itself expressed in corporate form. Christian community is the shape the gospel takes when translated into relational terms” (The Church Comes Home [Hendrickson, 1998] 42). On the other hand, and as a concrete social expression of the people of God, this people participates in, bears witness to, and serves as a means to God’s redemptive mission in and for the sake of the whole world.

What values emerge from this kind of theological and biblical reflection, and how might these values shape the communal life of our faith communities? United Methodists boast of their “connectional” system, but what kind of connection does this reflection really engender, and what kind of people emerge from the performance of such reflection?

A People Who Foster an Environment Where “Community” Can Emerge and Grow

Pastors and congregational leaders must, with considerable care, help congregations grapple with the kind of God we worship and the claims that this God makes upon his covenant people. It is equally important to create environments that invite the congregation to embody such teaching in its life (worship!) together. As à Kempis suggests: “What good do you get by disputing learnedly about the Trinity, if you are lacking in humility and are therefore displeasing to the Trinity? … I would rather feel compunction than know how to define it” (quoted by R. Clapp, “Tacit Holiness: The Importance of Bodies and Habits in Doing Church,” in S. Powell and M. Lodahl, eds., Embodied Holiness: Toward a Corporate Theology of Spiritual Growth [InterVarsity, 1999] 66). In other words, the power of theology is seen not simply in its ability to illumine but in its ability to be incarnated in a people.

Indeed, creating environments where God, the Holy Spirit, is free to shape community life may include exploring more participatory elements within the worship services—especially the practice of corporate prayer and acts of service—as well as providing contexts for mutual edification, accountability, and support. Also, ensuring that congregational ministries are developed in “team,” as opposed to a single leader, facilitates a participatory style that is representative of this kind of community, where collaboration instead of competition is an overriding value, and where independent activity gives way to mutual interdependency.

Ultimately, pastors and leaders must be masters of prayer, theological and biblical formation, and process. Faithful community life and ministry must be lived from the posture of prayer and formation. And out of this posture, pastors and leaders must begin to develop a process that will infuse authentic community into every facet of congregational life. Every council, team, committee, or Sunday school class must begin to understand that the witness exemplified in its “life-together” is central to God’s mission (i.e., its evangelistic witness) in the world, for the quality of this life is designed to bear witness to the divine life. Therefore, this life must exhibit self-giving love, the kind of vulnerability that fosters genuine community, the kind of community that allows others to contribute to the unified mission on the basis of their particular giftedness, as well as the kind of community that invites and makes room for others (outsiders).

A People Who Engage and Embody Personal and Congregational Change

The development of authentic faith communities is challenging, especially when we come to terms with how our dispositions, attitudes, and behaviors are deeply entrenched in a cultural mindset which often times preferences self over and against the good of the community and its mission. The reality of engaging real substantive and lasting change is exceedingly difficult due to the fact that we normally, most times unknowingly, render ourselves immune to change.

A recent model for change addresses this immunity (cf. R. Kegan and L. Laskow Lahey, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work [Jossey-Bass, 2001]). The premise suggests we all have stated core commitments that we want to embody in life. But many times, a core commitment is regularly undermined in practice by a core value that is hidden deep within us. This hidden value is a stronger and competing commitment that usually stems from deep-seated fear or a desire for self protection. When push comes to shove, the hidden value undermines the stated core commitment, thus creating an immunity to change (both at the personal and corporate level). In order to create the conditions for change, pastors and other leaders must begin to uncover the root assumptions (constructed realities) that nourish such hidden commitments and regularly challenge the truthfulness of their claims. Only when we can identify the situations in which the claims are untrue, and become accustomed (in thought and deed) to their falsity, can we begin to move forward with new thoughts and behavior.

This kind of change is only possible within the context of a community of people who are committed to the good of one another, for the truth about who we are cannot be fully known without the contributions of others. We all have blind spots that only others can see. Thus, the fostering of vulnerable, yet safe, environments where this exploration can occur is essential for genuine character and community development (for a helpful tool, called the Johari window, see B. Thrall, et al., The Ascent of a Leader [Jossey-Bass, 1999] 98-99).

A People Who Establish and Maintain Covenantal Structures and Commitments

If we hope to create environments where genuine community and authentic change are fostered, it will call for pastors and congregational leaders intentionally to shape a certain kind of life within the community. In this context, leadership positions are filled not with “willing” and “able” bodies, but with those who exhibit the ability to live into the covenantal behaviors that edify the community, and ultimately, reflect the character and mission of the Triune God.

Pastors and leaders must develop such covenantal structures and provide the resources and support for team participants and congregants to embody this “life together.” These shared commitments, when performed, enable teams and community members to behave in ways that lower the opportunity for the sabotage of community life and set parameters for decision-making. Moreover, the development of covenantal commitments provides the opportunity to teach group values, for it requires members to practice the lost art of listening, to engage in dialogue around their differences, and to practice discernment, resolution, and reconciliation.

A People Who Honor “Conferencing”

Whether in worship services or ministry teams, whether in societies, classes, or bands, the kinds of contexts we are suggesting, as well as those Wesley called for, “provide the necessary communal environments within which faith [can] not only be generated but enriched and sustained.” These settings functioned as “a means of grace” for the early Wesleyan movement, “as together they sought the meaning of Scripture, prayed, and shared the life experiences that both challenged and confirmed their faith” (cf. T. Runyon, “Holiness as the Renewal of the Image of God” in Embodied Holiness: Toward a Corporate Theology of Spiritual Growth, ed. S.M. Powell and M.E. Lodahl [InterVarsity, 1999] 81-82).

Pastors and other congregational leaders must find a way to provide such a “means of grace” in a day and age where busyness is equated with faithfulness and the religious life is defined in an individualized and privatized manner. Our people must come to know that life is not simply purpose-driven, but relationally driven; and to balk on the latter is only to our eventual detriment. Spending time and making room for such relationality in the life of the congregation is the only way a congregation will begin to grasp an understanding of who it is called to be in the world.

Indeed, God’s call upon his people is great, and if his people are going to live out this call in the midst of the world, this people will have to come to terms with God’s inescapable call to become a peculiar people. This peculiarity stems from a people whom God empowers, by the Holy Spirit, to live God’s life and to be the instrument through which God’s redemptive mission is being accomplished in and for the sake of the world (new creation). Is it a great surprise that the last great image in the Bible is God’s new world, God’s new creation in which all creation finds its goal and perfection? In this prophetic vision (Rev 21), John sees this new creation as a polis, what we call today a society. The new, redeemed creation is for him a “new society” in which there is encounter, gathering, and full mutual communication. And interestingly, it is the “nations” of the world that are incorporated into such a vision (21:26). May such a vision take on hands and feet in our churches today as we reclaim our connection as God’s people on a mission in and for the sake of the world.

Posted Apr 01, 2005