Should we even try to be a community?

30 06 2008

The structures of the institutional church have design limitations that are time limited. This is true because the designers designed from a perspective formed, in part, from the time/context in which they lived. Therefore, when that context changes the design limitations are necessarily tested and if the context changes beyond some inherent parameter the limit is reached. Is this such a time for the institutional church in North America? Has the context (Christendom) from which the designers created what we know to be “church” so changed that the design is no longer workable?

While arriving at an answer to this question is important I think that engaging the question has much more immediate benefits.

Dr. Peter Rollins has been engaging this and other related questions in two recently released books – the latest titled, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. Rollins is a Queen’s University (Belfast) graduated with a BA Hons in scholastic philosophy, an MA in political theory and social criticism and a PhD dealing with post-secular religious theory.

Following is a portion of an interview with the author by Ian Mobsby (a missionary with the Anglican Church):

Ian Mobsby – How does your book impact the vision of emerging churches exploring contextual forms of worship, mission and community?

Pete Rollins – I suppose I would have to say that it does this by questioning the very ideas of “Worship”, “Mission” and “Community”. To take one example I think that emergent groups ask really interesting questions about what it means to be community and whether we should ever try to be a community. I mean the phrase, “whether we should ever try to be a community” very precisely insomuch as I am not saying that these groups won’t end up being community, just that they shouldn’t necessarily try to be one. For instance, as soon a group begins to identify itself as a community people begin to have pastoral expectations. The result can be an unreasonable pressure on those who organise the meetings, the slow formation of hierarchical leadership structures (in order to meet those needs) and the danger that the group can become a psychological crutch for many who attend. However, if a group refuses to offer pastoral care and makes it clear that it is not a community, rather just a collective of disparate people exploring faith and life, the fewer expectations are generated among people. This direct denial of community can turn out to be the most fertile soil for real community to develop indirectly. For if there is no ‘group’ who cares about the person sitting beside me then there is more need for me to care about that person. If there is no pastoral support team in place then I need to be the pastoral support. The refusal to offer pastoral support thus generates a potential place where pastoral care is distributed among everyone. As Dostoyevsky once said, ‘we are all responsible for each other, but I am more responsible than all others’.

Ian Mobsby – You say ‘the group can become a psychological crutch for many who attend’ – may be so – but is that necessarily wrong? Isn’t independence a modern individualistic myth?

Pete Rollins – My concern is that people do not begin to think of a religious collective as an entity that can satisfy certain felt needs. Now a religious group will, of course, coalesce into an entity of sorts, one with both implicit and explicit expectations and norms. However I would argue that Christian groups must seek to exist as a very special type of provisional entity. For me Christ structurally privileges the outsider, the outcast, and the persecuted. Basically those people who are without a voice, who exist outside the given power structures. As soon as a structure is created with a defined ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ then Christ will be found ministering to those on the outside. Every entity creates an ‘inside/outside’ dichotomy to some extent and this is fine. However the Christian can be thought of as the one, not who serves the ‘inside’ but as the one who serves the ‘outside’. The result is that the Christian is the one who systematically acts outside systems, the one who seeks the lost sheep outside the pen rather than staying with the ninety-nine within it.

One of the results of this is that religious collectives should always be looking beyond themselves toward the excluded other, and in living like this people find healing and fulfillment. Religious collectives offer healing to those who join not by offering direct satisfaction of some felt needs but by offering a self transcending mode of living whereby one looks beyond oneself. The idea is not then to find a way for me to love myself and then I can love others but rather to provide a context for people to love others and thus begin to love and accept themselves indirectly as a result. In short, to get people to the point where they don’t need psychological crutches.

I worry that the modern world causes us to focus in unnatural ways on our own personal ‘needs’. It causes us to exist as de-politicized individuals who seek personal happiness in material possessions and fulfilling relationships. In other words it would seem as if we can find happiness and fulfillment when we have a certain level of physical comfort and can look into the eyes of our beloved and block out the world. In Western Capitalism we are sold a romantic myth alongside the myth that we have a variety of needs, which can be met through consumption. Both of these effectively stop us from engaging in wider environmental-socio-political issues. In contrast I see community being built, not as we meet each other’s eyes (needs) but as we look to a common goal hand-in-hand. In a strange twist I would say that it is in laying down the inward gaze to our own needs (as individuals and a community) we will find our needs are fulfilled, because they will be transcended (just as love fulfills the law, not by meeting it but by transcending it).

This is not then about independence but rather a kind of asymmetrical interdependence in which we find healing in encountering the outsider and they find healing encountering us…”

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