Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Gate

How does one create the most gracious and effective threshold for entrance into a community?

The adult ed class in my little church is reading our way through CALLED TO COMMUNITY, a thematically sorted collection of essays that explore what it means for Christians to journey in the faith together.  It's produced by PLOUGH, the publishing wing of the Bruderhof.  

The Bruderhof, if you don't know 'em, are radical Mennonite communists, and if you're a radical Mennonite communist, doing life together well isn't a tangential concern.  When you share everything in common, and expect every member to freely and wholly embrace that ethic, doing community badly means things get real bad real fast.  

The book presents a rich array of perspectives from across the theological gamut of Christian faith, but the focus remains consistent throughout: how do we do this Jesus thing together?  It's designed for a year long study, but I've condensed it into twelve weeks, which means that our conversations are both rich and dense.  We don't touch on every essay, or every concept within every essay.

This last Sunday, the discussion cracked along energetically, but as has been the case in all of my class preparation, there were things I'd prepared to discuss that we didn't get to.

One of those things came in an essay by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an advocate for/participant in intentional communities and the new-monastic life.  I'd read him a few years back as part of my doctoral work, and enjoyed encountering his voice again.  What struck me were his reflections on how an individual enters a monastic or intentional community.  

Such communities aren't unwelcoming, and frequently have robust ministries of hospitality.  They're open to strangers.  They're friendly and kind and active in the world.

But they are also, by design, hard to join.  There's no hard sell, no effort at bait-and-switch to suck the curious into their common life.  Entering into membership requires significant work.  In order to join, there are substantial expectations of the seeker.

“Only if these seekers are persistent should they be invited into the community..." as Wilson-Hartgrove puts it.

Which, if one is interested in "growing an organization," can seem a little counterintuitive. "All are Welcome," or so the mantra goes in my dying oldline denomination, and you'd think that'd bring 'em in.

On its own, it does not.  Low thresholds for entry produce low levels of commitment.  Low levels of commitment produce a weak shared culture, and a weak shared culture lacks collective resilience.  Monastic communities being the fiercely focused things that they are, demands on the curious are frequently placed early.  

Some Zen Buddhist orders, in particular instance, often make a very pointy point about not being welcoming, in a Fight Club sort of way.  You've got to prove you are worthy, prove you're not a dilletante, prove that you're willing to sit out in the cold and endure being yelled at to go away.

Which, as I consider it in the context of my genuinely friendly little church, isn't at all how we roll.  Nor would we want to.  Visitors are genuinely welcome.  All of them.  We like talking with new folks.  I mean, really.  I hear some pastors lament that their congregations are a circle of backs, and visitors drift alone and ignored through fellowship hours.  My little church is not that way.  At all.

People are welcome to worship, and to join us in fellowship.  They can get their hands dirty in our gardens.  They can help us feed the hungry.  They are, in that place, genuinely our friends, and beloved.  They can stay in that place as long as they like.

When it comes to joining...which isn't that hard, truth be told...I find myself increasingly not pressing the matter.  Just welcome, include, accept, and befriend.  Show interest.  Visit. 

But don't rush it.  Don't grasp, or be anxious.  Let God give the growth.