Constructing Theologies of the Community for the Community: The Six Steps
We’re getting closer to the close of the book, and the need to lay out specifics is becoming clearer. The goal of the book seems to be connecting our reflections upon the seven core questions, which are theological in nature, with our practice. In this penultimate chapter of the book, we’re reminded that community plays an essential part in the conversation. The road forward must not rely on abstractions or an “us versus them” mentality, which is so prominent not just in religious, but especially in political circles.
One of the things you discern by the time you get to this chapter is that while Philip Clayton may no longer be an evangelical in his theology, he is evangelical in his intent. He wants us to offer a broad, big tent Christian vision that can gather the people together to do big things in the world. There is an urgency in his message and a desire to the message get out. Thus, he offers six steps, three of which are intended to build excitement. We can’t engage in this work of transformation if we act out of duty or guilt. We must believe in the work and that requires us to know and engage the story of faith.
So, six steps, the first of which calls on us to go back to the story of Jesus and the way he laid out for us, seeking in these stories that which is relevant to our story. From there we move to the “Seven Core Christian Questions,” encouraging us to further develop and reflect upon them as we live our faith in society. It’s not a statement to be memorized, but something that we can abide and live. From there, we move to the third step, reflections on the actions we take, in light of the Jesus story and our own confessions (steps 1 and 2).
The goal is to act with enthusiasm, because if we act out of guilt (something preachers are good at instilling) we end up with compassion fatigue.
People will not begin to pour themselves into social justice ministries as long as these ministries are hung around their necks like albatrosses and held in place with the heavy chains of guilt (p. 138).
Instead, we can take something from the witnessing traditions within evangelicalism. Sharing the faith was expected, but it wasn’t a chore, because it was rooted in one’s encounter with the risen Christ, the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit (does that sound Trinitarian to you?) The point here is that for us to engage in this kind of ministry there has to be excitement and passion. I think he might be on to something here.
With a passionate and excited commitment to act that is rooted in our own theological commitments, we begin to identify with the missional community. And in doing so, Philip Clayton offers three more steps, each relating to community.
As we continue on, the next step (#4) is to consider the communities with which one identifies. Note the plural here. It’s not just the church. It’s the neighborhood, the region, the family, etc. From there we move to listing what we need to know in order to carry out the actions required of us by being engaged in our communities. This requires doing a bit of homework. And finally (#6), we construct a plan of action.
In order to complete these final three steps, which take us beyond ourselves, is to tell our corporate stories, something we have, Philip says, forgotten how to do. And our problem – as Americans, and Clayton is first of all speaking to American Christians – is that we don’t think communally. I believe he’s probably correct on this – not even our families, for the most part, hold the same importance in our lives anymore. And yet, we’re looking for community, even if it is of the cyber-variety.
One of the reasons behind the decline of our churches is the loss of belief that they can serve as true communities. They no longer fill the role they did a half century ago, which means people have less motivation to join. Whatever it is that people today are looking for in community, they don’t find in churches (for the most part). Interestingly, White Mainline churches are the least adept at creating community that works. This is especially true of younger people, who find little in churches that connect them. What’s more, the smaller our churches become the less able they are to provide the critical mass for the kinds of groups that can nourish community and missional life. In many ways, before we can become truly missional, we have to once again become communities that produce communities. It is out of that sense of community – that sense of belonging that missional action emerges.
What is more, we need to recognize that certain issues grab people more than others. Right now it’s the environmental movement, whereas a generation ago it was civil rights and peace. It draws people together because it is lifestyle oriented. You can live this movement, and as Clayton says, that’s what it means to be missional.
As pastor of a traditional mainline church, whose membership is on the older side, I recognize the difficulty in engaging younger folk. In many ways we would be better served engaging the 20-somethings than families with children. The latter become consumerist (I know as I’ve been there). When you’re younger, without such responsibilities, you’re in a better place to build community from the ground up. The question is, how do we make this a viable possibility? Just one more chapter to help us grapple with the question.