More Thoughts on Building Community

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People naturally gravitate toward others who share their interests. As C. S. Lewis once noted, friendships are built among people who are looking at the same things. In general, the more interests we share with one another, the more profound our friendships are likely to be. In a certain sense, friendships are communities of interest. Friendships that are formed around specific interests also tend to spill over into other areas of life, leading to the discovery of other shared interests and closer levels of friendship.

This principle holds as true for church members as it does for unbelievers. Christians are naturally drawn together by their interest in Christianity. They are further drawn together by their interest in and agreement upon specific aspects of Christianity: we rally not only around the gospel, but around theological ideals. More than that, Christians are also drawn together by human interests that are not specifically Christian (though, as Christians, we hold them to be under the lordship of Christ).

Not surprisingly, churches find that their members cluster around varied interests, many of which are not even specific to Christianity. A church may see groups of members being drawn together by their stations in life (age, sex, locality, family situations, careers, etc.). Adolescents are drawn to each other, and so are retirees. Women talk to other women in ways that they do not talk to men, and vice versa. Parents of preschoolers take an interest in each other’s challenges. Farmers talk farming with other farmers.

Churches may also see groups of members clustering around other human interests. Most people are interested in some combination of avocations such as gardening, quilting, hunting, camping, fishing, poetry, cooking, travel, sports, art, or music. Conversations in the typical church are as likely to focus upon a recent football game or an exchange of recipes as they are on theology, testimony, or prayer requests.

Some pastors see these conversations as evidence of spiritual shallowness. That attitude is a mistake. Our Christianity is not merely a spiritual affair. It pertains to all of life. It weaves in and out of all of our interests. Because our personhood is not merely spiritual, our Christian fellowship cannot be merely spiritual. It has to involve every one of our legitimate interests.

We naturally develop circles of friends around our interests. These circles do present a danger. They can easily become exclusive and even elitist. They can become cliques or develop into factions. They may result in stronger relationships within the circle while sabotaging the overall unity of the church.

Circles of interest can draw some people together, but they can also pull others apart. When Christians perceive both the potential and the danger, they can use the natural circles of interest within the church to foster greater community rather than permitting them to undermine the unity of the congregation. Church members can take specific steps to limit the dangers and to leverage the strengths of their circles for the good of the church.

The first step toward using these circles rightly is to realize that the life of faith is a life that touches more than the faith. Paul had something like this in mind when he said that the woman shall be saved in child-bearing (1 Tim. 2:15). What he meant was that a woman whose chief interest is maternity and domesticity has just as much chance of working out her salvation (Phil. 2:12-13) as the pastor who preaches regularly before the congregation. Both callings can put the grace of God on display. The housewife needs to know what being a Christian looks like within the calling of housewifery—and other housewives may give her as much help as her pastor can. The same is true of lawyers or shopkeepers or mechanics. Each calling can and must be pursued as a ministry for the glory of God. Each calling is an opportunity to put the grace of Christ on display.

What is true of vocations is often true of avocations. Quilters and poets and outdoorsmen can and should pursue their activities to the glory of God. How that is done will vary from person to person and activity to activity. For every activity, the best people to offer counsel are usually those who have woven their faith into the activity. By drawing together around these mutual interests, church members gain an opportunity to help each other in living out their faith—and that is very nearly the definition of fellowship.

Once, most churches developed their ministries in small towns or (if more urban) localized neighborhoods. Congregations were naturally bound together by interests that went beyond the explicitly Christian. Concerns that represented region and economy would combine with concerns that grew from vocation and avocation. As our civilization has become more mobile and transient, Christians have become increasingly individualistic and even atomistic. Any recovery of shared interest can help to break through the barriers of egoism and can provide a conduit for application of shared Christian ideals.

There is nothing wrong with circles of specific interests that cluster within a church. While the church’s business is not to train physicians, statisticians, fishermen, politicians, or machinists, its business is to help all of its members work out their Christianity within their vocations and avocations. Rather than discouraging the expression of “secular” interests (as if there could be such a thing), it should encourage its members to seek each other out on the grounds of any legitimate human interest. Churches can encourage community by encouraging communities.

The danger, however, is still present. Unless the communities can become a community, they will pull the church apart rather than bringing it together. How can these communities be bridged and made into a congregation in which members fulfill their covenant obligations toward each other? More on that next time.

I’m Not Ashamed to Own My Lord
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

I’m not ashamed to own my Lord,
Or to defend His cause;
Maintain the honor of His Word,
The glory of His cross.

Jesus, my God! I know His name,
His name is all my trust;
Nor will He put my soul to shame,
Nor let my hope be lost.

Firm as His throne His promise stands,
And He can well secure
What I’ve committed to His hands
Till the decisive hour.

Then will He own my worthless name
Before His Father’s face,
And in the new Jerusalem
Appoint my soul a place.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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There are 10 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

Rather than discouraging the expression of “secular” interests (as if there could be such a thing), it should encourage its members to seek each other out on the grounds of any legitimate human interest. Churches can encourage community by encouraging communities.

This is a very good challenge. In a recent short lesson at a men's prayer breakfast, I spoke about the American trend towards rugged individualism and the corresponding worship and obsession with career and work. I believe I was a bit too pessimistic about secular work and the value associated with it. I was trying to establish that we should do our best at work as a testimony for God and even enjoy our work, but our heart should be with God's work.

I used to worship my work in the military, and tend to be very negative about any hints of overemphasis on secular work. I neglected to balance the other side of the coin. This is a very encouraging article. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

It is good to see the church encouraged to acknowledge freedom of association in the church. I agree that there is a danger in groups becoming exclusive and insular, and conscious vigilance is required to maintain a balance. 

 

alex o.'s picture

maybe one way pastors can encourage their people to "build each other up" is to think of the church service as a way for each to serve one another with graciousness and to do all things "by Christ's ability."

 

Christians should not go to church to be entertained, to have more friends, or other selfish pursuits. Everyone should look out primarily not for their own interests but the interest of Christ and others.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Kevin Subra's picture

I do not disagree with the idea that everything is under the Lordship of Christ. I'm just not sure when a church, in encouraging people to pursue their interests in circles of those with similar interests is ungodly or unspiritual. I am certainly one who can be accused of discouraging an over-focus on such interests because I see them as idolatrous. The interests themselves are not evil necessarily, but they seem to become evil if they distract people from spiritual focus and fruitfulness (such as the "cares, riches, and pleasures of this life").

How does one encourage what you say, Kevin, and yet not further the love of world or the things in the world? I am not saying that it cannot or should not be done. I'm just looking for direction. For my part, I don't think most churches are filled with people that primarily approach our interests in an eternal way for eternal reasons.

Thanks.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

pvawter's picture

Kevin Subra wrote:

For my part, I don't think most churches are filled with people that primarily approach our interests in an eternal way for eternal reasons.

Kevin,

I understand exactly what your sentiment is here, but it seems to be based on a solely pragmatic view. Indeed, many men (possibly all or nearly all men) fail to approach their interests with anything other than the pleasure of the moment in mind, but is that not an invitation for teaching and preaching on enjoying the good pleasures God has given with a right heart and focus? You seem to imply by your statement here and in light of past conversations we have had that we should jettison these earthly pursuits entirely rather than pursue them in a God-honoring way. (I do not mean to put words in your mouth, so if I have misrepresented your position, feel free to straighten me out.)

Paul

Kevin Subra's picture

Paul,

I don't know if you are inaccurate in your assessment of my view. To me, it just seems as though taking up one's cross and following Jesus is not riddled with self pursuits. That doesn't make any particular pursuit wrong. It does seem that it would curtail our own desires for greater things (and maybe harder, less enjoyable things temporarily, for sake of the eternal).

I don't think my view is pragmatic, at least from where I stand. In fact, I think the article is exactly that in many ways. As I referred to in this post, we are in danger of allowing the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life to choke us so that we become unfruitful. It seems that our pursuits could certainly lead us there, and therefore we need to be extremely cautious, and if necessary, jettison things as needed. Further, there is the constant danger of pursuing things on the basis the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, none of which are of God.

I truly don't have this figured out. I just think the tacit approval to pursue everything as an avenue for the gospel is probably not fully accurate. I don't see the Word sending us in that direction, but rather warning us that we live in a dark generation, and that our actions should be light in that darkness. Such would necessarily differentiate us from the world, including how we spend our time, what we pursue, etc. Belief changes behavior, perspective, and action, to a great degree.

I'm not sure what to jettison, but I don't think the immersion into the world's past times would be equivalent to cross-bearing, redeeming one's time, etc.

Kevin

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

pvawter's picture

Kevin,

thanks for your response. We must always be on guard because even the most innocent earthly pursuits can become objects of our worship. The tendency to idolatry is a part of our sin nature, not a necessary component of the activities which we enjoy.

Paul

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

It really depends on what one defines as an ‘earthly pursuit’ or ‘self pursuit’. Are we talking Monday Night Football? Sewing a quilt? Hiking, biking, building a tree house? Exercising, eating healthy foods, developing our minds?

I think the command God gave to Adam, to flourish, dominate, and be productive, requires us to pursue activities in the light of God’s ultimate purpose and plan. God gave us all good things to enjoy, but the problem is how and why we enjoy them.

For instance, we are a ‘hobby’ family, (as opposed to being a ‘sports’ family or ‘artsy’ family). We collect items that have been discarded and either recycle or repurpose them. To us it is almost like imaginative play, but it also requires some carpentry and decorating skill. Because it is a low cost hobby, we can afford to give away the items we have made to be a blessing to others. And I admit that I get a kick out of furnishing my house with what other people thought was trash. 

We garden so that we can eat less expensively and more healthily, we learn many things about nature, we get fresh air and exercise, we bond as a family, and are also able to give away some of what we grow.

We have been involved in charities that crochet/knit hats and scarves and make quilts for cancer/terminally ill patients, the homeless, and those who have lost their belongings to fire or natural disaster. 

Another ‘earthly pursuit’ is the training of service dogs for special needs children and disabled veterans. This is an absolute joy and pleasure for us. Below is a picture of Alyssa Lee, who has been diagnosed with RETT Syndrome, doing mobility training with Cassidy, our first foster puppy. To us, this is an amazing way to give purpose to one of God’s creations, meet families that are carrying very heavy burdens, and training puppies is just flat out FUN.

These are ways that we take our interests and redeem them by finding ways to interact with the world that show compassion and give us evangelistic opportunities, as well as developing our sense of gratitude. 

But even if we were a sports family, many physical activities are a healthy way to spend time and bond with family, develop various skills, and give us the opportunity to meet others and form relationships that give us ‘credibility’ so that we can present the Gospel (instead of just cold-calling and passing out tracts). 

A creative God made man a creative being with particular gifts, and commands to pursue knowledge and wisdom.  I think He expects us to use our interests for His glory. The fact that we often don’t do that doesn’t negate the fact that we should examine our interests to see that we are using them in a way that builds spiritual discernment and character, and benefits others. It also doesn’t negate the fact that even our fallen universe is a place of beauty and complexity that is evidence of His creativity and care for what we think are insignificant details. God wasn’t purely utilitarian in His creation. Why should we always be utilitarian in our enjoyment of it? 

The natural by-product of having abilities and interests is the desire to interact with others who share the same interests. The old-fashioned village is a picture of symbiosis, with folks sharing and exchanging goods and services. The church should also operate in symbiosis, with each of us encouraging each other in our gifts, and sharing according to our strengths and weaknesses. 

Kevin Subra's picture

Susan,

We've chatted before on this, so I won't argue. I just don't see the implicit mandate to be creative/productive, etc. (if it exists, which I do not believe it does, and is not reflected in the 5 mandates in Gen 1, as I would understand them) as something that directs and overrides the explicit passages (especially in the NT) that direct our attention to specific, disciple-making focuses and warn us away from worldly (I did not use "earthly") endeavors, and things which would distract us from our cross-carrying walk of discipleship (cares, riches, pleasures of this life), or that would waste our lives and time on things that do not have an eternal focus. I would not see Proverbial commands to pursue knowledge and wisdom as displacing these commands either. The NT (even more so in the Epistles) seems to narrow our focus and warn us often of our tendency and proneness to be of or like the world, and be led away by it.

It certainly pertains to the heart, as anything good can be done for wrong reasons (attempts at self-righteousness, recognition, etc.) as well as for good. I do not make a list per se, but I do believe that Dr. Bauder's suggestions are probably too broad and encompassing for what I see in the Scripture (some which I have referred to already in this thread). No list is possible, as I could see many/most things as something used for outreach, discipleship, etc. These cannot become activities, hobbies, etc. that replace our responsibility as God has defined it.

Further, I do not think that "natural by-products" are necessarily a good thing, as they also cause us to gravitate away from those to whom we are obligated to minister to though we have nothing in common with them at all, save our sinfulness.

I am thankful for your focuses. You and your family have certainly given yourselves to many good causes.

Kevin

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Joel Tetreau's picture

Kevin,

Well as grandmother used to say when she was moved to delight - "Oh Joy Bells!" This series on building community has been pastorally warm. Who would think that in that German - Theological - Historical - Calculated - Philosophical Cranium of yours (which of course I prefer to spell as "Kraynee-um") lies this kind of pastoral warmth! I am not only shocked - I am moved to extend a warm - Type B hug. Therefore expect at the next round-tabled SI campfire - I'll not only have some hot cyder and a marsh-mellow for you - I'll have a ladder to extend a warm embrace. Well as my ancestors would want to say - "Si bon!" Of course my ancestors would not have said that to your ancestors....which of course is too bad. Imagine how the centuries would have been different if those two neighbors could have developed just a bit more ....... community.

Straight Ahead!

jt 

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

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