Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Church as a Healthy Community

by Dr. Steve Bolton

The church, in spite of her ideals, has not always been a healthy environment. Too often personal politics, dysfunctional family and community dynamics, and failure to follow scriptural guidelines create dissension and division in the body of Christ. Parker Palmer wrote a book back in 1980 entitled, "Going Public," in which he outlined his vision of the ideal community and how it should function. It seems to me that when talking about any ideal community one has to consider the community of faith, the church, and her successful and not so successful efforts over the centuries to provide a people and a place where Christians from all walks of life can join and feel that they belong. Loren Mead (The Once and Future Church, The Alban Institute, p. 179ff) has suggested that Palmer's principle characteristics of an ideal community are relevant to any church, and in fact, may only be possible with the gifts which the Spirit of God has provided His people. See what you think. According to Palmer, in a healthy community:

1. Strangers meet on common ground. In a world where children are taught not to speak to strangers and people are suspicious of "new folk," Christians have a deeply seated tradition of practicing hospitality, welcoming new people, and making them feel wanted. Even more so, Christians are called to the kind of openness and friendliness that crosses social and cultural barriers to meet needs and engage people on behalf of the good news of Christ. Healthy congregations always resist their community paranoia and prejudices about others not "like us." They face up to their fears of the stranger and risk a relationship based on mutual faith in Christ and His Lordship.

2. Scarce resources are shared and abundance is generated. In a world where its every person for him or herself, where it seems the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the healthy church is a generous and a giving fellowship. Everyone gives generously in proportion to their resources out of a heart of gratitude for what God has given and done for us in Jesus Christ. Giving and meeting needs for the common ministry and mission of Christ is a way of life for healthy churches. The generous church becomes a blessing to the world and such a church is blessed because of its members' open hands and open hearts.

3. Conflict occurs and is resolved. We all are aware that the public arena can be a seething cauldron of perpetual conflict. With different ideas, different ways, and different personalities conflict is inevitable whenever two or three are gathered together. Fighting seems to go on forever between persons, clans, races, and political opponents. Some fights are the knock down, drag out, and win-lose kind. Others become the seething, long-term grudge bearing types of broken relationships. The healthy congregation has learned, however to listen carefully and to treat each other with respect. They always try hard to communicate caring, and, with God's help, use their energies to seek and find forgiveness, working toward consensus and reconciliation rather than competition.

Steve Bolton is the pastor of Oxford Baptist Church in Oxford, NC. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, "The Forecaster."

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