What Is Authentic Community?

What Is Authentic Community?

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The measure of love is its capacity to coexist within the context of diversity.

Have you noticed how hard it is to be open and honest with others? I’m not talking about social-media open. It’s easy to repost an article on Twitter or to leave a comment on Facebook. If you dislike someone's opinion, you can unfollow them. If you offend someone they can just "block" you. But it’s not that easy in real life, is it?

Meaningful face-to-face dialogue with anyone can be hard, but I have found it can be even harder among Christians. In churchdom, if I disagree with another Christian’s view, then I can be seen as passing judgment upon their salvation. Of course, I’m in no a position to judge another’s faith and salvation. Yet, we often equate salvation with perceived understanding of holy texts, or confessed doctrines, or even political affiliations.

Those who confess Jesus as the Christ are involved in a radical social experiment. We call it the church. On a local and global level, the church is defined as radical because we hold an inclusivity that welcomes everyone, regardless of opinion or perspective. Not everyone has to look the same, act the same, or even have the same convictions. Paul puts it this way: “For we were all baptized in one Spirit, Jew and Greek, slave and free” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

Diversity and unity

I enjoy Paul's Christ-centered letters like Colossians and Ephesians, and his systematic approach in Romans. I especially value his interrelational musings in the letters to Corinth. At the local church at which I am pastor, we’ve taken to the regular study of this letter within our fellowship for a number of reasons.

First, there are similarities between the church in Corinth and the Church of the Nazarene I pastor. Much like that first-century church in Greece, we are a fruit basket of diversity. Such variety can be a weakness if it is unrecognized and undeveloped, though. We had internal bickering, unaccountable offenses, manipulation, polarizing opinions, and people leaving, just to name a few of the issues.

When I came to the church, the congregation was a group of people who believed unity meant uniformity, under the leadership, beliefs, and opinions of the pastor. Perspectives from the dominant voices reigned, and any differing thoughts were treated as contraband. People failed to understand what unity truly looks like.

Redefinition of a pastor

We addressed this way of operating that threatened the life of our community in three ways. First, we brought differing voices into leadership and encouraged them to lead by redefining the role of a pastor. The definition of pastor became more of an equipper and moderator than a dictator. Those in leadership were given responsibility above just supporting the pastor’s views.

Second, the task of preaching was extended to the laity. We felt that if the pastor’s role became more of a guide and facilitator, than the people should participate in the proclamation of the Word. We created a cohort of people within our church community who take turns in delivering the sermon.

Finally, we shifted on Sunday mornings from a Sunday school and worship service model to an open worship gathering and discussion group model. On Sunday mornings we emphasize fellowship in the midst of our songs, prayers, giving, preaching, and the Eucharist. After our large group gatherings we break up into smaller groups and converse over the sermon. We do this for us to be constantly reminded that within our fellowship all voices matter.

True love is not measured by how good it makes us feel.

Disagreement without division

Just as with the Corinthian church, many modern churches (including my local church) desire the comfort and conversational ease that comes with homogenous groups instead of the hard work of meaningful dialogue that comes with diversity. We have convinced ourselves that holiness is measured by how justified we are in our beliefs and how right we perceive our interpretations.

In so doing we often act as though the mission of the church is to gather likeminded and likeable people together. We think that in such a community it will be easy for us to love or, more honestly, to feel the love. But true love is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In the context of 1 Corinthians, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.

This can only happen through the tedious and at times uncomfortable practice of face-to-face, in-person, dialogue.

Authentic community means taking the time to listen, to be patient in correcting and also to be open to correction. It means stepping down from our positions of privilege and learning to hear what others are saying and truly try to see topics for their perspective.

Padraic Ingle is pastor of Faith Community Church of the Nazarene in Durango, Colorado.

Holiness Today
July/August 2016