Churches have to find their way, manoeuvring between the cliffs of freedom and commitment. The theology of a church, its history and tradition and its social profile play a role here, and possibly other factors as well. In this chapter I do not want to prescribe or dictate a specific position (nobody would listen to that!). What is important here, is asking good questions. I think one of those questions could be this: if it is true that the Gospel is inviting us to radical and binding discipleship in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, how can churches reflect this invitation in the way they function? Shorter: how can churches and their members embody the way of life that Jesus is living and advocating?
The enormous challenge for churches is to start there were people are – how they think and live – without uncritically staying there by accepting the status quo. How can churches invite people to a way of life that has no natural counterpart in our society? This question is important and asks for a thorough reflection. I want to contribute to this discussion by proposing three theses. They can be seen as marker posts by which a building site is marked. The posts are not the building itself; they only mark the boundaries within which building will take place. They are not meant to standardise churches, but to provide basic principles that structure and ‘culture’ the faith community. Every metaphor has its limitations, also the one I use here. The three marker posts do not necessarily point in the same direction. There can be tension and friction. So, manoeuvring within the boundaries of the three asks for discussion and exchange.
a. We do not choose each other.
Some years ago, the Dutch theologian Harmen van Wijnen did research among adolescents, who were meeting each other in small groups, either formed spontaneously or initiated by local churches. What he discovered was the power of spontaneous group formation. There is an invisible power that brings adolescents together. He presented this discovery as an important lesson for churches: do not primarily think in terms of organising and structuring meetings and other events, but try to see and value what already is happening ‘under the (institutional) radar’. Churches have to stimulate and facilitate this kind of natural group formation. Van Wijnen’s plea is close to Pete Ward’s Liquid Church. His plea is important and fruitful, but it also brings us in a serious ecclesial dilemma: What is the relation between spontaneous community building and social inclusion within the local church as the body of Christ? We have to admit that the two are in no way natural allies.
An important adage in the church is that we do not pick out each other. We are chosen. The first disciples were chosen by Jesus. It was a very diverse group and one can doubt whether Jesus honoured Jim Collins’ third principle of the five principles that move organisations from ‘Good to great’: ‘getting the right people on the bus’. ‘First who, then what’ is a crucial element in Collins’ philosophy. When we read the Gospels, we do not get the impression that Jesus’ disciples were an excellent and well-balanced group of highly dedicated and motivated men. From the very beginning the Christian movement has worked with limited, sinful people, who were also not each other’s natural friends or soulmates. That is why we have to keep on honouring the biblical salutation ‘brothers (and sisters)’. In Dutch it sounds either quite old-fashioned (‘broeders en zusters’) or – in a modernized version – a little forced (‘broers en zussen’). Despite this uneasiness, we have to stick to our brother- and sisterhood: in the church as the body of Christ we are brothers and sisters, who – like biological brothers and sisters – do not choose their own siblings.
As human beings we are built for real community. This is however not only attractive. It also is confronting. True community is always ambivalent. We go for it and we run away from it. It gives us joy and pain. The church has to be ‘a training ground’ for brothers and sisters who want to grow in their common desire to follow Jesus Christ together. In our time of individual freedom and ‘pick and choose’ mentality, that truly is a countercultural phenomenon.
There are good reasons to be realistic about this. Most local churches are not representing a plurality of social groups. The Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) for instance is in touch with only 2 of the 8 mentality groups, as distinguished by Motivaction, a Dutch research institute. Within the PKN, traditionals and post-materialists are well represented, while post-modern hedonists, social climbers and convenience-oriented people are strongly underrepresented. Inclusion and (unconscious) exclusion go hand in hand!
b. Bonhoeffer’s distinction between pneumatic and psychic community.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1944) has made a distinction that is helpful to reflect on the singularity of Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes that in the end true community in the church is only rooted in Jesus Christ. It is not rooted in our dreams or ideals. “Those who want more than what Christ has established between us, do not want Christian community. They are looking for some extraordinary experiences of community that were denied them elsewhere. Such people are bringing confused and tainted desires into the Christian community. Precisely at this point Christian community is most often threatened from the very outset by the greatest danger, the danger of internal poisoning, the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful image of pious community, the danger of blending the devout heart’s natural desire for community with the spiritual reality of Christian community. It is essential for Christian community that two things become clear right from the beginning. First, Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality; second, Christian community is a spiritual [in German: pneumatische] and not a psychic [in German: psychische] reality.” Bonhoeffer wishes that idealistic Christian groups soon will get disappointed: “The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community, the better for both.” Ideals do not create healthy Christian community. “Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. Because Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ, it is a spiritual and not a psychic reality. In this respect it differs absolutely from all other communities. The Scriptures call pneumatic or ‘spiritual’ [in German: geistlich] what is created only by the Holy Spirit, who puts Jesus Christ into our hearts as lord and savior. The scriptures call psychic or emotional [in German: seelisch] what comes from the natural urges, strengths, and abilities of the human soul. The basis of all pneumatic, or spiritual, reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ. At the foundation of all psychic, or emotional, reality are the dark, impenetrable urges and desires of the human soul. The basis of spiritual community is truth; the basis of emotional community is desire.”
It is not easy to translate Bonhoeffer’s distinction into an instrument for congregational development. However, he helps us by making a connection between the ‘pneumatic community’ and intercession. “A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner. (…) Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day.” According to Bonhoeffer, intercession is mutual community within the Christian community via ‘the detour’ of Jesus Christ. One can say that in this way Bonhoeffer is looking for ‘triangles’ in the church: the relation with my brother or sister goes primarily, or probably even exclusively, via Jesus Christ. This way of thinking is not currently dominating the ecclesial practice. Yes, there are warm personal relations in the church, and many kinds of manifestations of care and love, but they are not always ‘pneumatic’. Quite often, the coffee after the church service is more a tie that binds than intercession is. The yearly flea market in the church is usually more popular than Bible study groups and prayer groups. In our days many churches are looking for ways to stimulate a ‘pneumatic’ climate. James Mallon’s bestseller Divine Renovation, focused on Catholic parishes, is a good example of this endeavour, but it is also an illustration of how strong the ‘secular’ culture can be within parishes and congregations. So, there are good reasons for serious reflection on Bonhoeffer’s distinction. Not every church community is by definition Christian community!
Can Bonhoeffer really help us at this point? How real is his pneumatic community? His book Life together has its roots in Finkenwalde, the monastic community of theology students in which Bonhoeffer was one of the professors. So, the setting of his plea is not the ordinary congregation. Does this mean that his distinction is too ambitious and only achievable for the few religious virtuosi? Is his plea against an idealistic church itself, nolens volens, an expression of idealism? There are good reasons to ask these questions, but in my eyes his distinction is nevertheless helpful for our thinking about Christian community. We are always at risk of becoming secularized in our thinking about community building in the church. We need Bonhoeffer’s distinction in order to be able to search healthily for (new) forms of real Christian community. As long as community is ‘pneumatic’, forms are secondary. In the end Christian community is always – in whatever form or shape – community with Jesus Christ.
c. Providing room, but not endlessly.
The Egyptian church father Pachomius (292-346 A.D.), a convert, decided to go and live as hermit in the Egyptian desert. All kinds of people came to him for advice and intercession. After some time, a group of young men asked him to introduce them in the monastic way of living. He invited them to come live with him and to discover this way of living. Pachomius assumed that by just setting the good example, these men would follow him and grow into monastic discipline. But that did not happen. They were not very cooperative. Pachomius himself had to do all the hard work and the young men were not eager to change their lives. They were like tourists in a pension. Pachomius thought that his example of his humbleness would convince them and make them real monks, but in the end, he had to conclude that it did not work this way. So, he started to set certain binding rules for living together as monks in the desert. That was the beginning of a tremendous growth of monastic life. When Pachomius died, Egypt had lots of monastic communities. In some of them more than hundred monks lived and worked together.
The lessons Pachomius has learned, are of long ago, but in my eyes, they are still very relevant for today. Where everything is allowed, nothing happens. We have to look for room that both gives leeway and limits. Within my denomination – the PKN –, a high degree of freedom is appreciated. We are free to participate or not to participate. We are free to take our faith serious, letting it be the core of our life, or to see it as an option that does not ask for real commitment. It brings me back to a question earlier in this article: if it is true that the Gospel is inviting us to a radical and non-optional community in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, how can churches reflect this invitation in the way they function without being coercive? Pastors in Amsterdam told me that most people outside the church, but also within their congregations, are allergic to any pressure. Putting pressure on people does not work and is not fruitful. One of the pastors said that ‘freedom’ is the idol of Amsterdam. In other parts of the Netherland there will be other idols, but it is a fact that a non-committal way of life is widespread in our society. Faith is an option (Charles Taylor) and this mentality easily leads to a non-committal attitude towards religion and its institutions and communities. How can churches find their way in this field of tension? Coercion and patronage are counterproductive, but a lax approach is not working either. A young couple contacted a local congregation to see if they could feel at home there and become members. They asked the pastor: ‘what do you expect of us when we become members?’ The answer was ‘nothing, feel free!’ But the couple said: ‘if you don’t expect anything of us, why should we become members?’
Can Pachomius be our teacher here? His monastery became vital after having introduced specific rules. By doing so he reduced ánd widened the religious landscape. Rules and other expectations both limit room and create room. This mechanism or paradox is of all places and all times. What doesn’t cost anything is usually not that interesting. It does not challenge us and does not make us move. This general statement of ‘fruitful boundaries’, is certainly applicable to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In our dedication to Him we discover that our living space is getting both smaller ánd wider.
It is important to acknowledge at this point that the local congregation is not a monastery. We have to keep that in mind when we think about the future of the local church. But having said that, an important question remains: Which inviting rules and expectations can be helpful to deepen and widen the life of a congregation and of their individual members? Can we develop an expectant climate in the church?
In the beginning of 2019, the Dutch translation of the book Divine Renovation was published. I did already refer to the book above. It is written by James Mallon, a Canadian priest. In the Netherlands it has been reprinted three times already. Mallon is one of the first Roman-Catholic theologians who has looked systematically at the evangelical-protestant world in order to discover what in that world could also be fruitful for Catholic parishes. He is inspired by insights and practices like the Alpha-course and by church leaders as Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. His book is one big plea for a more expectant climate in every parish. “Clear expectations are the heart of every healthy relationship”, he writes in his paragraph about ‘Meaningful Community’. His parish has written a brochure, meant as an introduction for people who are considering to become a member. Under five headings the brochure gives clear expectations for prospective members: to worship, to grow, to serve, to connect and to give. Mallon defends these lofty expectations with words of Michelango: “The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” It is important to note here that Mallon accompanies his expectations by eight promises, of what parishioners can expect from the parish in return. That way, expectations go in both directions and that keeps them well balanced and healty. This combination of promises and expectations keeps parishes and parishioners in good shape and helps them to evaluate their own functioning: do we still do what we have promised to do? It is a challenge for every congregation and every parish to think through if they really have this kind of two-way expectations and promises. It would be of great value to every local church to discuss this fundamental issue.