If you spend any time around the internet, you’ll probably recognize this word: “tribe.” Now for hundred of years “tribe” was a pretty unassuming member of the English language, content to describe a discrete sociological structure. But over the course of the last five years, it’s had a bit of a growth spurt due in part to a leadership paradigm that Seth Godin popularized in his book (aptly titled) Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us.
Since then, it seems that everyone of influence is busy forming a tribe. Even (especially?) among Christians. There is a theologically progressive tribe, a theologically conservative tribe, a missional tribe, a mundane tribe, and of course, a tribe just for those too cool for any of these other tribes. And in the irony that is the human experience, those of us speaking most loudly against racism and prejudice are often the first to coalesce into tribes to do it.
So that the Tribe intended to trump all others continues to be defined by tribalism.
The other funny thing about all this tribal language is that it often misses the whole point of being a tribe. While today’s tribes form around common interests and common leaders, in the historical sense, a tribe was the result of a common ancestor in a common location. You don’t belong to a tribe because you choose to be in it; you belong to a tribe because you’ve been born into it. And once you are, you remain in it by sharing life with the other members. You live in the same space.
And this brings to light yet another irony. Much of the talk of tribe is happening via the internet. Now I’ll be the first to acknowledge the benefits of technological advancement—we wouldn’t be having this moment otherwise—but if we’re honest, online relationships are pretty one-dimensional. We are disembodied spirits connecting over bundles of fiber-optic cable without ever connecting physically through our daily chores or our common life. We may chat all day, but we never belong to what Wendell Berry describes in Hannah Coulter as “The Membership.” That fellowship where neighbors bonded together and
“work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were need we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come.”
Sadly, this sense of common life is one of the things that the American Church has lost through our years of denominational experimentation. We’ve lost an understanding of parish, of space, of presence. We’ve lost our tribal geography. Sure, some of us try to salvage it in a commitment to a “local church”—but then we end up driving over an hour to attend the “local” church that we most closely identify with in style and substance. And congratulate ourselves for our sacrifice and commitment.
And we have a common ancestor in Jesus Christ.
Yet, we are not the same. We are old; we are young. We are black; we are white. Some of us were born in the United States; some of us came here later. Some are life-long members of this tribe; some joined last month. We are police men and writers, stay-at-home moms and firefighters.
Visit with us on a given Sunday morning and you’re just as likely to hear Roberta and Ruth blending old-time harmonies as you are to hear a teenager strumming away to a Chris Tomlin song. You’ll hear banjos and mandolins playing alongside a flute and organ. You’ll see jeans and polos, boots and sandals. From some corners of our tribe, there’ll be “Hallelujahs” and “Amens” and from others, nothing at all.
You’ll see a preacher’s wife in her Sunday best, trying to maintain some sense of decorum from the choir loft as she watches her four-year-old son turn somersaults on the front pew through the length of his father’s pastoral prayer. You’ll see all the other choir members giggling with a grace that reminds her to cherish these days
Walk in on this tribe on a Sunday night around 7:00 and you’ll see them huddled together–in groups of three and four—praying for their community, their church, and country. Wait long enough and you’ll see this monastic peace shattered by a herd of children who come tearing into the sanctuary looking for permission to play on the play ground.
This is my tribe.
These folks understand that what unites us is bigger than our age, bigger than our socio-economic status, bigger than our nationality, bigger than our individual standards and convictions. What unites us is the One who is bigger than all of it—so large in fact that He can unite all things together in His own body.
Certainly, we have our problems. We have our infighting. What family doesn’t? But we are family. We are a tribe. And we’ve been made a tribe—not through our shared interests—but through our shared ancestry in Jesus Christ. Through the sovereignty of a God who “made from one man every nation of mankind … [and] determined the boundaries of their dwelling places” (ESV, Acts 17:26). Through the faithfulness of a God who knows how to put the lonely in families. And ultimately through “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”