Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Building Church and Building Community

Across the street from my little congregation, there is a field.

For years, on any given Sunday morning, that field sat empty, a fallow patch of grass near the crossroads that was once the heart of a small town.  That has changed.  The town has grown, and the center shifted away from that crossroads.  But that center seems to be shifting back.

On most Sundays, that field is filled with cars, as a new thing has started in Poolesville.  It's a restaurant and public house and farm stand, one that serves up coffee and conversation.  It's the organizational love-child of David Therriault, a local artist, who had a vision of gathering community around food and art and life together.

Locals, it's called, which is a perfectly lovely and apt name.

I've watched with pleasure as it's grown, as the visionary entrepreneur behind it has iterated it into being with passion and patience.  It's become a place for art and music, literature and organizing for justice, a place where all are welcome to engage.  Locals prioritizes community interconnection, and puts significant material support into feeding neighbors suffering from food insecurity.  It's a blessing to the town, a blessing that will grow with the creation of a new arts center, the latest beautiful dream.

What it is not?  Well, that lot may be full on Sunday morning, but it ain't a church.  David's certainly got the fire of an evangelist in him, an artist's zeal sustaining his commitment to the visions he makes a reality.  But again, Locals is not a church.  It does not intend to be, nor does it need to be.

As I watch my dying denomination flail about for handholds on our long fall into institutional oblivion, I listen to our languages and the frameworks we use as we try to "grow."  There's a lot of justice talk, and talk about building community, and talk about service.  We want to love creation, and be antiracist, and be inclusive.

These are all blessings, and good things, but not a one of them requires "church" to exist.  And therein lies the challenge for progressive Christianity, the Christianity that is continually reimagining itself.  There comes a point where you reimagine yourself into becoming something else entirely, where you have buried the lede, where you have lost the narrative.  Organizing for justice and peace is not itself the church.  Coming together to love the earth or fight racism is not itself the church.  Gathering community is not itself the church.  Serving others is not itself the church.  

They are the fruits of a healthy congregation, and good things, but they themselves are not the core of Christian community.  They are not our reason for being.

That core is discipleship, a radical and defining focus on the person, life, and teachings of Jesus.  Church can take a near-infinity of forms and shapes, but what makes it church is Jesus.  

I mean, duh.  

It's like a synagogue without Torah and the traditions of Israel, or a mosque without prayers and the visions of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be unto him), or a New Age Retreat Center without crystals and chakra charts and surprisingly tasty vegan cuisine.  It's a restaurant that emphasizes ambiance but serves no food, or a car dealership that has a lovely waiting room but no cars, or an accountant who organizes for climate justice but doesn't do taxes.  The Church of Christ without Christ is an oxymoron, a Flannery O'Connor Wise Blood absurdity.

If you want to build Christian community, in any form, following Jesus is the foundation upon which you build, and it's where you place your emphasis.

This should be blindingly obvious, so simple as to not require saying.