Friendship and Mission at the Margins: The Practices of Community
Continuing our exploration of the theme for the 2014 Convocation, July 24-26, “Friendship and Mission at the Margins,” this post considers insights from Christine Pohl’s book Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2012).
Rather than writing in isolation, Christine explored the practices of hospitality within community as part of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. Engaging in significant conversation with a group of participants in the “Pastor in Community” project over a period of years, Pohl benefited from the experiences, gifts, and fidelity of pastors actively involved in ministry.
LIVING INTO COMMUNITY
While researching her classic book Making Room, Christine Pohl noted a recurring lament from church members: practicing long-term hospitality requires the infrastructure of community, but sustaining community is hard—much harder than merely opening it up to strangers. Living into Community is Pohl’s attempt to resolve this dilemma. Why is the formation of Christian community so difficult? Paradoxically, Pohl argues, the very fragmentation of contemporary life that makes people crave community, also makes most of them poor candidates for committed participation. “Despite the fact that many of us claim to be dissatisfied with individualism,” she writes,” we cherish our capacity to make individual choices and to seek opportunities for personal growth.” It might be satisfying to participate in Sunday worship and meet 300 fellow seekers. But if everyone remains a “seeker” on their own terms, there won’t be worship service—or a community around it—for very long.
Rather than an idealistic account of community, the book opens with a quotation from Jean Vanier: “Stop wasting time running after the perfect community. Live your life fully in your community today.” Pohl suggests four practices which may serve as an antidote to the breakdowns and fissures experienced in all too many congregations: (1) expressing gratitude (opposite=grumbling), (2) making and keeping promises (opposite=betrayal), (3) living and speaking truthfully (opposite=deception), (4) offering hospitality (opposite=exclusion). For each practice, Pohl includes an exploration of the biblical or theological ramifications of the topic, a look at some of the possible complications and deformations which can develop, and ways to strengthen these character qualities in Christian communities. Questions on each of the four practices are located in the back of the book.
The Practices of Hospitable Communities.
As Pohl observes, each community has practices that hold it together. A framework that focuses on practices allows us to get at the moral and theological commitments that structure relationships. The practices of embracing gratitude, keeping promises, living truth-filled lives, and being hospitable are particularly important for sustaining communities. Some aspect of each of these practices is evident in almost every group of people whose connections or interactions with one another are more than temporary. Each of the practices is important to the biblical story and to expectations about the ways in which the people of God should live. Each is also at the heart of God’s character and activity: we worship a God who is faithful and true, gracious, and welcoming. “Good communities and life-giving congregations emerge at the intersection of divine grace and steady human effort.”
These four practices do not address every aspect of community life, but they do hold together and intersect in surprising ways. When communities offer hospitality to strangers, they soon discover the importance of truthfulness, gratitude, and fidelity. Speaking truthfully is difficult and often risky in the absence of commitment or fidelity to one another. Gratitude without truthfulness looks a lot like a manipulative form of flattery. The character of shared life in congregations offers a critical witness. The best testimony to the truth of the gospel is the quality of communal life. Jesus risked his reputation and the credibility of his story by tying them to how his followers live and care for one another in community (John 17:20-23). The Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, expects that the relationships of his followers with one another will also be characterized by grace and truth.
Gratitude begins with paying attention, with noticing the goodness, beauty, and grace around us. Stopping the cycles of complaint and orienting lives around praise, testimony, and thanks cultivates the practice of gratitude. Communities flourish when we regularly tell stories of God’s faithfulness and goodness and when we find opportunities to express gratitude and celebrate the gifts we have received. The act of gratitude can become contagious and builds community while lowering the level of complaining.
Like gratitude, celebration nourishes us in surprising ways, as Jean Vanier points out: “It makes present the goals of the community in symbolic form, and so brings hope and a new strength to take up again everyday life with more love. Celebration is a sign of the resurrection which gives us strength to carry the cross of each day.” Gratitude and celebration help us to make all of the other practices more beautiful. When gratitude shapes our lives, fidelity is more likely to be joy-filled, truth is life-giving, and hospitality is offered with generosity and joy.
Fidelity in small things adds up to a way of life that is whole; betrayal breaks our lives and relationships into pieces. When we break promises, we betray relationships and erode community. Small betrayals often do a surprising amount of damage. “Promises,” Pohl writes, “provide the internal framework for every relationship and every community—they function like the ‘hidden supports in a well-built house.’” For Christians, the making and keeping of promises is rooted in our relationship with a covenant-making God. But promises are complicated. They make claims about an unknowable future, when we’d prefer to “keep our options open.” They assume our best intentions, when we are often given to self-deception.
Theologians have frequently viewed betrayal as a grave sin. For John Calvin, unfaithfulness or infidelity is at the root of the fall—and ambition, pride, and ingratitude are some of its bitter fruits. In Dante’s Inferno, the ninth and lowest circle is for those who betray what they should be most faithful to. Despite the recognition of its gravity, we have tended to overlook the impact of betrayal on community life—until, that is, we are faced with its deeply destructive consequences.
To know Jesus as the truth means that personal and relational aspects of truth and truthfulness deserve full attention. When we allow God’s grace, truth, love, and righteousness to be the framework for interpreting community life, we are in a better position to address sins and failures. It can be risky to take the lead in creating a truthful environment. Addressing hard truths in our lives or in another person’s life can be costly. For ourselves, we may expose our frailties or temptations and for others, it can threaten the relationship. We are also hesitant about speaking truthfully because we are not always sure we know what is true.
“Telling the truth in love is, in my experience, the practice that the church carries out most poorly,” noted one pastor.” “We either shrink back from telling it because we don’t want to drive people away, or we approach people with both guns blazing because we don’t care about driving them away….But you can’t be a pastor with a passion for healthy community for very long without learning to develop this skill.”
Certain questions can help explore our motives in telling the truth or in keeping it secret. For whom is this truth helpful? Who benefits when it is told or hidden? Who is harmed? If our ultimate purpose in truth telling is helping persons and communities grow toward maturity in Christ, then our motives need to be centered in a desire to strengthen people in goodness and godliness.
Jesus’ message, as well as his life, death, and resurrection have shaped Christian understandings of hospitality. His teaching on the kingdom in Luke 14:12-14 offers a distinctive understanding of hospitality. At a dinner party he tells his host, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives, or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Jesus calls for a practice that was as countercultural then as it is today. On the basis of his teachings, the ancient church was convinced that Christians had to open their doors to poor people and to strangers. In recent decades, attention to hospitality has increased, and its theological and human importance has again been recognized. The significance of hospitality is being recovered in congregations. We have seen fresh expressions of welcome when congregations make a place for unchurched children, international students, and isolated older people. Congregations are building bridges to their larger communities as they offer weekly neighborhood meals and find opportunities to come alongside troubled families.
The practice of hospitality is an opportunity to reflect on and to participate in the mutual welcoming and love evident in the life of the Trinity. As Miroslav Volf writes in Exclusion and Embrace: “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us. Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others and invite them in—even our enemies.
When we offer welcome or live with gratitude, when we make and keep promises or live truthfully, we are responding to the practices of God. Our experiences of community grow out of the practices through which we echo the goodness, grace, and truth we find in Jesus. While painfully honest about the challenges of cultivating Christian community, Pohl exudes confidence in God’s grace to knit us together despite ourselves. Ideal communities don’t exist. But she reminds us that practices of “truth and hospitality” are “at the heart of our grateful response to the one who ‘became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth’” John 1:14).
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why is community so important to the long-term practice of hospitality?
- What is the value of looking at practices?
- As you think about the four practices identified by Pohl, what are the forces blocking its formation and what are the forces promoting its formation within your congregation?
4. How are these four practices interconnected? How do they contribute and reinforce each other?
5. Are there other practices that you think contribute to the infrastructure of community?
Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, has both the theological and practical credentials to stimulate and guide the discussion during the Convocation. She is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.
As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.