Monday, September 13, 2010
A Different Kind of Church
...the concrete historical presence, among their neighbors, of believers who for Jesus’ sake do ordinary social things differently.
John Howard Yoder
In the 90s, a few years before his death, the longtime University of Notre Dame professor and Anabaptist theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder, offered 5 simple New Testament "practices" for the North American church to faithfully perform during this time of rapidly diminishing power. For those unfamiliar with Yoder, "diminishing power" is exactly the place where the Christian church should be in any and every cultural context. In fact, Yoder often pointed out that the real demise of Christianity began way back in the 4th century Roman Empire when the Church first gained power and prestige on the national level. Eventually, everyone became a baptized-in-infancy "Christian"...whether they liked it or not. For Yoder, on the other hand, Christianity should be something performed radically which inherently means that has a minority status in any and every cultural setting.
However, Yoder's work strongly indicates that this does not mean that the Body of Christ collectively throws her hands up in the air and becomes irrelevent and/or sectarian and it certainly does not mean that she abandons the call of Christ to invite others into the challenge of living out God's Reign in the midst of a broken and abusive world. Enter Yoder's "five practices before the watching world" laid out in Yoder's highly underrated and overlooked classic Body Politics (1992): (1) baptizing our identities into a movement that transcends ethnicity and social class (Galatians 3:27-28; II Corinthians 5:17); (2) participating in consistent meal-sharing that embodies abundance and acceptance (Acts 4:34 echoing Dt 15:4); (3) consensus decision-making through power-sharing and an equal voice for all (I Corinthians 14:26-33; Acts 15); (4) conflict resolution centered on honesty and forgiveness that defies gossip and avoidance (Matthew 18:15-20); and (5) team-building that values and empowers the unique gifts of each member of the team (Ephesians 4; Romans 12; I Corinthians 12).
Yoder's mentality was such that our neighbors and colleagues, regardless of religious (or non-religious) preference, would be compelled by a community committed whole-heartedly to these alternative lifestyle practices, all rarely represented in our wider culture. Think of the deep American divisions caused by skin color, language barriers and conspicuous consumption therapeutically penetrated by a community whose members are collectively identified with a master whose humble service, self-donating love and bold confrontation with injustice led to a murder at the hands of the Powers. Nationality, race and job (or lack thereof) are pressed aside as secondary.
Think of a team committed to gathering intentionally and intimately to share a meal where everyone was invited to "come as you are." This was not simply a merry banquet of food and drink consumption, but a place where transparency and authenticity were modeled by everyone (eventually...after all, this kind of dialogue is contagious...think of the last 12-step group you attended).
Think of a cell group inspired to live for nothing less than the transformation of the world as they know it while making strategic decisions by listening to everyone's perspective and empowering the specialized gifts and talents of each player to blossom.
Think of a tight-knit family of brothers and sisters who each shed arrogance and a stubborn will in order to share where each have been hurt, offended, abused or simply fallen short of the vision with reconciliation (not revenge or shaming or punishment) as the goal.
Where does this kind of humanity exist in our world? Yoder offers these ideal practices, not because they are so damn attractive in our competitive, individualistic, hurried and distracted society. This is not a marketing gimic. Yoder is compelled, through his own critical and careful study of the biblical texts and the early church documents, that indeed, this is actually what it means to be "Christian." If a community of Jesus followers lived this vision, would not the neighbors be at least interested in what was going on with this strange community? Who wouldn't want to be a part of something like this? And if it really did exist, would there not, then, be at least a possibility that there might be a god who ordained such behavior for humanity?
Yoder makes it painfully obvious how vital it is for the "church" to come out of hiding behind the walls of the church building and to be a tangibly subversive presence in the world that "does ordinary things differently." Baptism, then, is not simply the ceremonial dunking or sprinkling of water during a service on a Sunday morning, but instead a pledge of allegiance and solidarity to a completely different identity . The Lord's Supper (or "communion" or "Eucharist") is not ritually administered weekly or monthly during the church service as tokens of bread/wafer and wine/grape-juice, but instead an abundance mentality that opens our lives and checkbooks and homes to everyone, including the deserving and undeserving poor, as well as all those who look differently than we do. Yoder, you see, does not seek to do away with ritual, ordinance and sacrament, but instead to flip them on their head and re-define what they mean. Our religion/spirituality, then, holistically becomes what we do in real-time, not just on Sunday morning or in a midweek "small group" meeting.
For all those who fear that Yoder is somehow caving into cultural pressures or unduly seeking to be relevant or sexy, he adds three "scandal factors" that makes Christianity significantly challenging and unique: forgiveness (not punishment), service (not domination) and enemy love (not ethnocentricity nor revenge nor fear-mongering). If these factors are not a vital aspect of our practices, then we cannot claim the label "Christian."
The real Christian scandal is when our communities fail to intentionally pursue these practices and factors. If "enemy love is the acid test of Christianity" (as theologian Walter Wink has proclaimed) then we'd better get to work making that the very image that the wider world experiences. Instead, our polls and studies continue to report that especially young people are experiencing Christianity as hypocritical, judgmental and arrogant. Because Absolute Truth and correct doctrine has taken the place of a cruciform lifestyle as the defining attributes of Christianity, intentional communities must experiment with how they can live out the five practices without abandoning the factors that make following Jesus beautifully scandalous.