Tag Archives: community

“Dark & Monstrous”: The Perils of Online Christian Community

A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons.  This is how group-think afflicted Christian often act online.
A pack of gray wolves surround a bison, via Wikimedia Commons. This is how Christians, awash in group-think unawares, often act online.

“How can you handle all that arguing??”  Friends regularly remark to me how much they dislike getting into religious discussions on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like.  They say this in shock that I seem to enjoy it.  I suppose we all have different personalities, some of which are amenable to getting in the gutter and slogging it out and some of which are not.  For my own part, I am not sure which is better; I only know that I am not good at seeing foolishness and not naming it as such.

There are many inherent dangers in the world of internet Christianity.  Ivan Pils, an Orthodox layperson, recently laid out some of these from a specifically Eastern perspective in a great piece for First Things.  His comments, though, certainly apply outside of Orthodox Christianity (so you might, as you read this, replace “Orthodox” with whatever your chief adjective is for your genus of Christianity – evangelical, progressive, Baptist, Emergent, Methodist, Missional, etc.):

It is unhealthy to have more co-religionist friends online than in your own parish. I have seen this happen to some converts who first encountered Orthodoxy online—an increasingly common phenomenon—and therefore naturally built their new identities around people and ideas from the Internet. The parish, characterized by creative chaos, is by definition a place to practice humility, patience, and brotherly love, and to be challenged by how others live the Christian life, not to have one’s biases reinforced.

By contrast, the online inquirer is comfortably anonymous, and can freely consume a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. And there is a lot of junk out there: Anonymous blogs make the Orthodox case for every outré cause, from monarchism to Marxism. Faceless vigilantes harbor dark vendettas against bishops. And respectable-sounding forums provide a place for lonely sticklers to pursue uncharitable acts of Pharisaism against everyone from Roman Catholics (ultramontane Latinizers) to Muslims (bloodthirsty Turks) to the wrong kind of Orthodox (new-calendar ecumenists, or heartless liturgy-fetishists). One can easily find a sympathetic corner of the Internet and stay there, without having to face uncomfortable alternatives to one’s preferred vision of Orthodoxy. This is dark and monstrous.” (emphasis added)

So much truth here.  If you find more community online than in your local parish, beware.  The local church does not exist to confirm all of our biases, and to seek this out in fear or loathing of anyone who might challenge our pet theological fancies is unhealthy socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  Maturity does not come to those who seek safe refuge from all possible challenges to our assumptions and deeply held biases.

The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.
The many varieties of social media, by Brian Solis and JESS3 via Wikimedia Commons.

A good test for spiritual health is this: am I regularly in contact with people who challenge my worldview?

Pils is dead-on that “there is a lot of junk out there.”  Indeed, it seems that the key to being a significant voice in the online Christian conversation is to be at least half-crazy and barely Christian.  All the more reason to pause if you find yourself loving your online ecclesial family more than the flesh-and-blood Body of Christ.  You’ve traded a gnostic personal playground for the Christian life that God intended for you: a life in real community, with all its attendant blessings and challenges, conflicts and potlucks and pettiness and hugs.

In my last post, I noted Michael Eric Dyson’s critique of Cornel West: the true prophet is tethered to a true spiritual community.  Absent that filial and communal bond, Christian thought, speech, and action is likely to degenerate into a sad parody of church. And this, to me, explains rather elegantly so much of the garbage online that passes for Christian discourse.  It can’t be an accident that the most outlandish malarky comes from those with few or zero ties to the local church: ex-preachers, blogging hobbyists with an ax to grind, seminary students, campus ministers, agnostics masquerading as Christians, and former church staff members.

There is no shortage of those with a grievance against the local church (some days I am one of them); but beware of critique against the church from those who are not invested in it.  Words come cheaply when they are never tested by the gritty reality of other flesh-and-blood persons, and instead only see light among the self-chosen sycophants with whom it is so easy to surround oneself in the online world that we too easily mistake for reality.

In the image above, a pack of wolves surrounds a bison.  The pack mentality is strong among Christians online, and the instinct to hunt, run to ground, and destroy is easily spotted.  If you don’t believe me, get into a conversation with a TULIP-loving Calvinist or one of Rachel Held Evans’ minions (in reality, two sides of the same coin) – the pack will come out very quickly.

Even among Christians dedicated to caritas, the internet can be a place where our most base instincts are allowed to roam free.  As with many things, social media is a useful servant but a very poor master.  Let us resist the wide path, the easy substitution of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ for an online facsimile of like-minded people who all hate the same things.  This is a fool’s bargain when compared to the complex, messy beauty of the community God gave us at Pentecost.

Thoughts?

Get Your Ash in Church: One Blizzard Does Not A Diaspora Make (#AshesAtHome)

A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of heaven.  Why settle for less than the real thing?
A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of Heaven. Why settle for less than the real thing?

A friend of mine once told me a horror story from his ordination interviews that has stuck with me.  Between the actual interviews and learning their fate from the committee, the would-be ordinands were invited to a time of worship and Holy Communion.  A problem was discovered, though: someone had forgotten to get the Welch’s and bread.  No worries, though, it was pointed out that there were still muffins and cola in the break room.  Some hapless ordained UMC pastor then proceeded to retrieve, and then celebrate, communion with a gaggle of nascent elders and deacons using snack food.  Only a few brave souls abstained from the spectacle.  Can you imagine? The most holy of mysteries transformed into the contents of a fifth-grader’s lunchbox.  Horrifying.

But wait! some will object.  If you were on the mission field, and no wine or juice and no conventional bread were available, you’d have to just use what was there! Can’t God’s Spirit inhabit a poppy-seed muffin just as easily as a loaf of  King’s Hawaiian Bread? Why limit what God can do?

We’ve all had that argument at some point.  Some unfortunate youth pastors will even lead “communion” using soda and Doritos just to prove the point.  The logic is thus: extreme circumstances call for unusual measures.  And if such measures are acceptable in extreme circumstances, then why not make them normative?

This is the logic behind a liturgical innovation recently unleashed upon an unsuspecting church: “Ashes At Home.”  The idea is simple: Can’t make it to church? Use this liturgy alone or with your family.  After all, Israel is a worshiping community that has often had to hold its most significant gatherings not at Temple or synagogue but at home:

“Of course, the ideal mode of prayer is to be physically together, but necessary separation due to illness, work, political exile or even weather should not squelch the prayers of the faithful.  

Israel has also taught us that sharing in common prayers and festivals binds us together. To be Jewish means to pray the prayers of Israel, no matter where you are. During World War II, the Jews in concentration camps prayed the same prayers as the Jews in New York. Rabbis in Jerusalem share the same prayer as laity in Moscow. Praying the prayers of the faith binds Israel together.”

Of course, there is more to Ash Wednesday than just “prayers.”  I don’t know of any Christians who would argue that prayers can or should only be done in church.  But, following the lead of the prophet Joel, Ash Wednesday is a time of communal repentance, not just individual or familial spiritual experience:

12“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. (Joel 2:12-16, RSV)
As Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards points out, Joel knows what our Ash Wednesday service signifies: that repentance is too important to do alone.  The innovators go on to ground this practice in another unassailable fact, namely, our common experience of the invisible church:

“We all have experienced this. We have watched the Holy Spirit hover over the elements in hospital rooms as we pray in that space, ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.’

We have felt the Spirit of Pentecost bind us together as we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with people of a different language, and yet prayed with one heart and mind.”

ASH WEDNESDAYAs any chaplain will tell you, there are liturgical rites that occur in a hospital room that are not parallel any other context – and always as an extension of the church to the hospital room, not a substitute.  Like the hypothetical mission field, it is an unusual circumstance offered to normalize a new practice (and doesn’t communion, which requires a clergy person representing the church, make for an especially bad example here?).  And Pentecost? Well, if the argument is that the gathering of the community is somehow secondary, that we can do just as well alone or in our homes what is done in the assembly, than the Spirit who was poured out on the assembly at Pentecost seems to be precisely the wrong evidence to muster.

The 2015 snowpocalypse is hardly a situation as extreme as the Diaspora or the concentration camp.  Moreover, there is more to the Ash Wednesday service than mere prayers, which can be done by anyone, in any place, at any time.  A snowstorm does not warrant trading an act of communal repentance for my living room.  The solution, actually, is much simpler: just offer the ashes the First Sunday of Lent.  That’s what I will be doing.  Since we could not be together on Wednesday, we will dedicate part of our first gathering of Lent to repent and to remind each other of our need for a community in which repentance is made possible.  One blizzard does not a Diaspora make.  Unusual circumstances are no reason to invent something out of whole cloth, particularly when a much simpler solution is right in front of us.

So don’t settle for a saccharine substitute from the convenience of your living room.  Get your ash in church.  I’ll see you there Sunday.  And best of all, we’ll have a whole community of penitent, praying Christians on hand for the occasion.  Discipleship is difficult work.  God, in His grace,  doesn’t intend us to do it alone.  It takes a church.  Thanks be to God.

Following Jesus Alone is Impossible

More like your own personal idol.
More like your own personal idol.

In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community.  There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston.  Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son.  And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends.  Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.

Will Willimon reflects,

Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances.  Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)

I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage.   But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone.  Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel.  We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them.  Willimon goes on to say,

The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus.  The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people.  The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)

I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths.  But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself.  If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love.  How does that apply to Christian discipleship?

You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride.  He never intended that to be an option.

An oldie but a goodie.
An oldie but a goodie.

[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]

A Wee Bit of Barth on the Church

https://i1.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/_urG3jyCy7Ls/Snd4h5d5-XI/AAAAAAAAVEU/DmOzD9jqBdQ/s400/KarlBarth.jpg

Barth wrote a lot on the church, and to be sure, much has been written about Barth’s view of the Church.  I make no claim to be an expert on Barth, on ecclessiology (the study of the church), and especially not on Barthian ecclesiology. I’m only somewhat familiar with Barth’s project and am only now wading into deep waters by slowly reading a volume of his massive Church Dogmatics.

As you can follow along with my counter to the right, it is a tedious process, though quite rewarding.   I chose to begin with Dogmatics II.2, because this is where Barth does some of his most original and interesting work revamping the Calvinist concept of election.  I’m still trying to square this with my Methodist theology, but that will be a work in progress for some time.
This morning, I came across this gem:

As the church, the community [of God]…is the centre and medium of communication between Jesus and the world, having its commission to all who stand outside. (239)

To be sure, it is a small nugget, but profound nonetheless.  At my seminary, we liked to talk about ecclesiology a great deal; this was related, largely, to an institutional bent towards the Roman Catholic tradition that as a whole was very fruitful.  At the time, though, I found the bend toward ecclessiology an odd and not wholly necessary distraction.

But serving a local church has made me realize that we protestant Christians really do have a hard time articulating the “why” of the Church.  I certainly was not told why I went to church as a child, or even why the Church exists.  Also, in doing a recent study of The Shack, I challenged my people to think through the anti-church bias present in much of the book (which is, really, a modern bias as a whole) – assumptions that many of them (even life-long churchgoers!) shared.

Between the Catholic scandals, the defenders of the “house church” movement, and the New Atheists, the institutional church is under assault.  We pastors desperately need to articulate the “why” of the Church to our people.  If protestantism proves anything, it is that the conception of the Church as a collection of individual believers who come to get their spiritual fuel tanks filled (a consumerist model of church) cannot be sustained.  Barth gives us a good starting place to rethink that practice: through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church is how Jesus reaches out the world and asks them to respond in faith and service.  Like Israel of old, the Church exists not for itself but for God and thus for all the world.

P.S. If you want some help articulating the ‘why’, check out Gerhard Lofhink’s Does God Need the Church? It is, quite simply, marvelous.