Christine D. Pohl is associate provost and professor of Christian social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, and author of the new book Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us. In this post, she looks at several common challenges that communities face as they attempt life together — and discusses how four specific Christian practices can help them to address those challenges.
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Over the years, I’ve been part of many different Christian communities where I’ve lived, worked, and worshipped. Hospitality, friendship, and community are central to how I understand faithfulness and discipleship. Most of the folks I know share a desire to be part of communities that give them life and to which they can contribute significantly.
But, in my experience, we don’t always have the skills we need to build and sustain the life-giving connections we desire. Conflicting responsibilities, sin, and interpersonal difficulties are part of communal life, and navigating these challenges is essential to the survival of any community. Many of us are deeply disappointed with our efforts at community, but no community is immune to human finiteness and fallenness.
For Jesus’ followers, there’s more at stake than the sense of personal loss and discomfort associated with conflicted or broken communities. We should be known for the love, grace, and forgiveness that fill our families and churches. In fact, how we get along should point onlookers to the goodness and truth of Jesus himself.
And so, we spend a lot of time and effort trying to understand and repair the torn fabric of our communities. Often we turn to psychological or business categories to make sense of our difficulties. We observe that the church is dysfunctional or that someone in the family has issues with codependence or inadequate boundaries. We conclude that the congregation needs to pay more attention to the bottom line or that the pastor is working with an outdated leadership model. Any of these tools for diagnosing the problem may get at some of the issues, but it often seems as if we’re missing the more basic problems and ways of addressing them.
One framework that has turned out to be surprisingly helpful is to look at our community challenges through the lens of certain practices. A closer examination of failures in four practices breaks open a significant number of our community troubles — consider how often congregational difficulties can be traced back to some combination of betrayal, deception, grumbling, envy, or exclusion. These are deformations of the important, but often overlooked, practices of making and keeping promises, living and speaking truthfully, expressing gratitude, and offering hospitality.
Life together as a family, congregation, or intentional community is often the source of our greatest joys and disappointments. We were created for community, so when a person we love betrays our trust by being dishonest or by casually breaking promises, it does significant damage to the relationship. Even when our communities are seeking to be faithful, we sometimes disagree intensely over who should be included and who should not. Gratitude is at the heart of any community that is good and beautiful, while grumbling and envy suck the life out of even the strongest communities.
Using practices as a lens to reflect on the complexities of our life together helps us access the rich insights that are available to us in the Scriptures and in Christian tradition — insights that are useful not only for diagnosing the problems but also for discerning how we can live well in community.
These four practices do not offer a comprehensive program or framework to strengthen the communities we inhabit, but when shaped and sustained by God’s grace, they help us grow toward wholeness and holiness.
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What others are saying about this book:
“Christine Pohl was writing about community before it was hip. So now she is cutting edge. We read her stuff when we were starting our community over 10 years ago, and it felt like she was reading our minds. Now her writing almost romantically reminds us of why we do the stuff we do. This book is great for those who are veterans of community and for those who are curious or even skeptics. Christine reminds us that we are created for, and in the image of, community — but that doesn’t mean it comes easy. This book is about the holy habits we need to cultivate if we are to experience and sustain real community. She is a wise scholar of community, but she’s also sort of a community groupie — of the best sort — she knows all the cool ‘bands’ and has some amazing stories to tell. This new book is a gift to all of us who are longing to know that we are not alone in the world.”
— Shane Claiborne
author and activist, and co-founder of The Simple Way (www.thesimpleway.org)
author of Truly the Community