Thursday, 7 September 2017

Finding the Right Christian Community for You

So community = important as I extensively argued in my last post. At the same time, it's not that simple to find a community that will really reflect the early Christian community in today's world. Some so-called churches and communities have turned into cults, or have become into social clubs for like-minded people. So what are the principles or guidelines to keep in mind when you're searching for a community?

1. God is the One who will lead you to community. The best reason to do community is because that's what He is calling you to. So pray for guidance and direction. He will direct you.

2. No Christian community is perfect. If you're looking for that perfect community tailor-made to your inclinations, interests and pet peeves, then you may as well give up already. Even a community that seems perfect from a distance has its weaknesses which you will discover very soon after deciding to belong to it. That's because community is made up of weak and fallible human beings with their own blind spots, pet peeves, flashes of wisdom and areas of strength.

But there ARE things you can look out for:

3. A solid foundation on the Word of God (biblical and Catholic). If the leaders are pushing rules or messages or formation that is based on neither the words of Jesus, nor on the teachings of the Church He founded, then that's a danger signal. Communities based on one personality can be very dangerous. It's a common phenomenon in Protestant churches, but Catholic lay communities are not immune. I once heard of a preacher proclaiming that no one should marry before the age of 30, and I was like "Where is THAT in the Bible?"

4. An openness to new and different types of members: This is to avoid becoming an exclusive club, a scandal if we are calling ourselves Christian. Are strangers greeted and welcomed? Are non-English speakers or poorly-dressed people made to feel awkward or uncomfortable? Will someone walk with and guide seekers or random people who stumble in? Will everyone squish a little bit to make room for one more person at the table (figuratively)?

5. Time and money spent on mission and service outside of the community: The typical complaint about lay communities is that they become navel-gazers, self-absorbed, cut off from the outside world. I once spent time with a community that seemed to spend most of their time going on expensive leisure bonding activities, and seemed visibly uncomfortable around the poor. Of course it is important to build relationships within the community and to prioritize formation and discipleship of the members, but if we stop there, we are failing in our call. Plus, I find that when we prioritize service and mission, it strengthens relationships and brings far more growth too.

6. Leaders that you respect. It is hard to submit oneself to a leader that is not trustworthy. Especially when you are opting in to a community, talk to the leaders first. They will not be perfect either. But if they are sincerely committed to Christ, trying to grow in love and holiness, and are well-balanced and mature, then I can trust that even if we have differences of opinion, I could believe that God would work it out. When it comes to Christian community, having leaders that are dynamic, inspirational and charismatic is not as important as having leaders that are Christ-centered, solid, and trustworthy.

7. An openness to feedback: This is one of the danger signs of a cult- when any difference of opinion or disagreement is squashed, discouraged and seen as a threat to the unity of the group. This is very unhealthy. A healthy group or community is one where different perspectives are welcomed and respectfully heard out. Of course a leader does usually have to take a final call on many matters,and there is no way he or she can make everyone happy, but he or she should as far as possible encourage members to take the initiative without being overly controlling or negative. I once went to the leader of my organization with a suggestion. I could see that he was tired, had plenty of other things going on, and my suggestion involved adding something to a very tight schedule. If it was me, my first instinct would have been to say no without thinking too much about it. But he patiently heard me out, and then seemed to stop, pray, and then agreed to change everything up to incorporate my suggestion. Good communities form leaders, not sheep.

8. An atmosphere of encouragement: It is too easy to become about the rules or the programme or the goals. But community is always about people first. And people need to be loved, encouraged and valued. That is everyone's responsibility. But a pervasively negative, scolding, critical or fear-based atmosphere can kill the joy that we're supposed to be living. I love the way all of the Popes of my lifetime have talked to Catholics- it is always a message of hope, not condemnation or fear. It's challenging, but always acknowledges and builds on the potential for good in each person.

Not all of these things may be perfectly in place in every community. But as long as the community is moving in that direction, and striving to grow in these areas, there is hope. And maybe YOU will be the one that helps your community reflect Christ more authentically.

This is not an exhaustive list. What else do you think is important when seeking out or building Christian community?

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