It is not enough simply to assert, “Because God is and loves community, we should be more community minded.” Obviously, communities as such are not always a good thing. They can be oppressive. Sometimes in families, urban board rooms, or rural towns, people are pigeonholed. They are unable to grow or change because they are pinned in place by the perceptions and expectations of those close to them. A few people may hold most of the power. The truth is, in every community, wherever human beings are close and vulnerable to each other, there seems to be some sin and suffering.
So it’s not enough to give congregations tools for community building. Compare community building to home building: we need tools to build the house, but we also need skills for using them, and we need some understanding of basic principles of construction and design. What sort of house will serve its inhabitants well and stand up over time? “What sort of community will serve us well? What are God’s community-building principles?”
One option is to model our communities on the relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit. This theological move—often called the “social doctrine of the Trinity”—has a long history in the Eastern church, beginning with the Cappadocians, who were fourth-century monastics and scholars. It has been much less popular in Western Christian traditions that are more dependent on Augustine. Augustine followed the Greeks, who regarded God’s oneness, God’s ultimate simplicity, as the most important aspect of divine reality.
We could retrieve the social doctrine of the Trinity from the Eastern church. But to use the Trinity as a blueprint for human interactions requires an assumption that shouldn’t come easily for us. “God is God, we are not,” we say. So several questions arise: What makes us think that our messy, sinful churches could relate in ways that are anything like the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Second, even if there is a valid correspondence between God’s life and ours, how do we know what God’s internal life is like? Do we really have access to the dynamics of inner trinitarian life, or is it hidden from us?
Finally, if God’s life offers a useful guide to our own community building, how do we read or describe the dynamics of that life in a way that makes them useful for shaping a congregation’s ministry? In appreciative inquiry, for example, we ask, “What has been working?” Theologically we mean, “How has God been at work among us?” It is possible to answer that question only if we have a sense of God’s style—how God’s life intersects with ours—and if we can compare that style to what we see happening.
Let’s begin with the first question: can we really infer from God’s life to ours? What makes us think that the Creator’s life is anything like the creatures’? Even if there is a deep relationship between the two, they can be quite dissimilar. One doesn’t have to be a reflection of the other. For example, the church has attempted to describe the relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit using words like begetting, proceeding, and glorifying. But that’s definitely not the sort of language one might use to describe Bob and Mary’s relationship to Kathy and John in the young parents’ group at church.
Yet the Bible suggests that it is possible for human community to genuinely reflect the life of God. Luther understood that God creates “from nothing”—meaning that all things find their existence in God. If this is so, one would expect the life of God to be stamped in some way on God’s handiwork. Several New Testament writers hint at this in their description of Christ’s relationship to creation: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3); “all things have been created through him and for him . . . and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16–17); “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:2–3). Without spelling it out, these verses imply that in a very intimate way, Christ, in union with the work of the Father and the Spirit, gives shape to all creation.
But more than that, in Genesis 1:26 God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (italics mine). Influential Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, in After Our Likeness, says that one can’t escape the Bible’s assertion that human communities are created to correspond in some way to the life of the Trinity. He points out, however, that this correspondence can only be a limited one. Individually we are not—we cannot be—immortal, omniscient, holy beings in the way that the Trinity is; our communities are even less so at times. Therefore the patterning, we must keep in mind, can only be faint and analogous—like a schoolchild trying to draw Michelangelo’s David on a scrap of paper with a crayon. Still, it suggests that when we look at humanity (and perhaps all creation, for the “made in our image” statement doesn’t have to be exclusive to humans), we do see something of God.
Perhaps a useful metaphor is that of a child in her mother’s womb. German theologian Jürgen Moltmann speaks of creation “in” God (pan-en-theism). Lutheran theologian Robert Jensen talks about the “roominess” of God. If God is three, there is space between the persons—room for us. The way in which human life interacts with that divine hospitality seems somewhat similar to the life within life that occurs in pregnancy.
A mother interacts with her unborn child in a variety of ways. She supplies the nourishment the child needs to live and grow. She surrounds, supports, succors the child. Her DNA sculpts the child’s image. Her life flows through the placenta to the child. The child comes to know her voice, feels her movements. He is affected by the food she eats. And the child affects the mother, moving, kicking, stretching her, drawing on her resources.
This metaphor has its limits, naturally. But it helps us imagine God as deeply related to creation. The child is not the mother. But the child’s life is affected by and patterned in certain ways on the mother’s. Not everything that happens in the womb is the mother’s doing. Yet the mother is involved with it all. Similarly God’s life and ours are not identical. But perhaps we can fairly say that our lives are patterned on God’s in some way.
This article is adapted and excerpted from Discovering the Other: Asset-Based Approaches for Building Community Together by Cameron Harder, copyright © 2013 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Discovering the Other is an introduction to two tools that community builders have found helpful: appreciative inquiry and asset mapping. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong?” appreciative inquiry asks, “What’s right?” Asset mapping asks, “What resources do you have personally that we could bring to our future together?” Out of these questions can arise a sense that every congregation is rich in history, people, and resources. Ideas emerge as people, inspired by the Spirit, listen and talk to each other. The leader’s task is to facilitate, coalesce, and connect ideas, to catalyze and stimulate the development of vision. The creative connections lead to programs and projects that will enrich your congregation’s mission. But most importantly, in the process they will engage you with others, with their stories, their hopes, their gifts—to build community.
The church year is often seen as a framework for church programs, but well-known Alban author Charles Olsen shows readers how it can be a prism through which congregations more deeply understand their own stories. By weaving together our narratives and those of Christian tradition, a congregation can clarify its identity, grow in wisdom, and discover a new vision for ministry .
Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations
by Jeffrey D. Jones
Traveling Together takes readers on a journey, providing a guidebook that maps out the factors facing congregations in this postmodern, post-Christian world and the Biblical foundations for understanding the purpose of the church—to become a disciple-forming community. Anyone concerned for the life and ministry of the church and who is seeking a new understanding of congregational life and mission will find hope and help in these pages .
What’s Theology Got To Do With It? Congregations, Vitality, and the Church
by Anthony B. Robinson
In order to be healthy and to have a deep understanding of its identity and mission, a congregation must answer the question, what do we believe? Robinson offers in-depth chapters on the essentials of Christian theology, which congregational members can use as jumping off points for discussions of sin, the Trinity, ecclesiology, the role of Scripture, and more .
You have heard about “adaptive change.” Now is the time to learn what it can really mean for you and your congregation. Register now: There are a few commuter slots left.
Leading Adaptive Change
Presenter: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant and author
July 23-25, 2013, Simpsonwood Conference Center, (near) Atlanta, GA
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