This is the text to the message I gave on July 3, 2011.
I was reading in a magazine called the Christian Century the other day and they recently put out an issue that deals with issues related to church membership. The title of the main article is: The Dismembered Church: Attending Without Joining.
I was interested in the statistics of the articles, and what the authors saw as national trends in peoples (un)willingness to join churches, largely because weve recently done a membership class and have been talking about what it means to belong to the Resurrection Community. One of the many things Ive learned about membership from the article is that it has numbers around membership have not always been very high in the US. There have been two periods of growth in church membership: once in the 19th, and once in the 20th. In the 19th century there were many frontier revivals led by Charles Finney and others who brought religion to ordinary people. Some historians think that 1 in 3 Americans were members of a church by 1850, which was twice as much as it was in 1800. And the 2nd big membership growth period was during the, post-World War II. For this group belonging to a church was a primary means of social belonging; church membership marked one’s place in the community.
Oh and I learned this too: Maybe I should ask our treasurer what she thinks:
Churches in the 19th century saw their primary income coming from members who rented their pews. Revivalist [Charles] Finney created a stir when he created a “free church” in New York Citya church no one had to pay to sit down in.
Today by contrast, those of us more in my generation and younger, are less likely to join a church or to stay put. The trend is towards looser, more informal connections. The article reports that with the exception of those who are married with children, people in this demographic are less likely to attend church regularly and more common to engage in church shopping and hopping; i.e., attend sporadically at several different congregations. Now of course, this isnt always true, but it does raise many questions.
Questions: It raises questions about our own feelings of commitment, and what it means to submit oneself to a group, what it means to have a shared history, shared stories shared goals and common concerns with others. It raises questions about our own dependence on others, and about what it means to truly be in community with others. It also raises questions about what our culture teaches us and how we are formed in ways we may or may not be aware of.
Part of the point of the article was not so much to lament these new trends as to rethink what membership means in light of our contemporary setting. Which I think is a good approach. Theres no sense wishing that it was still post-world war II culture when its not. The church always needs to be in a mode of revision and reinterpretation. And we all know that the end all, be all of the church, isnt to make membership rolls grow, but rather to follow Jesus faithfully and embody what it means to be the resurrection community.
But then it dawned on me that tomorrow we Americans celebrate this longstanding history of our independence. Our freedom from the tyranny of scones with clotted cream and tea time! Now, in a country where we celebrate independence as one of our founding holidays, its no wonder we have such a hard time with seeing ourselves as dependent on others for our own well-being. Its no wonder we are struggle of commitment and the kind of community that is really committed to each other.
Ive been learning about my own dependence these last couple weeks. My wife, and two daughters, have been in Ohio for the last two weeks. The other day while I was grocery shopping I realized I was just buying all the things my wife buys (think healthy, organic, etc). Then I thought to myself, “Hey, I should get those things that Emily usually disapproves of…” I got kind of excited, started looking for those “transgressive” grocery store items, all I could come up with was a frozen BBQ and Chicken pizza! I literally couldn’t think of anything I actually wanted that was separate from what we usually get. Then I had a second realization, this is how it is supposed to be!
Marriages that are healthy, I think, should actually work this way. The goods we seek, our desires have to change in we are to make it. We as a married couple have some idea of what the good life is that we seek and we work together to follow that.
And this isnt just true for marriage, but in many of our workplaces, and other situations, like considering many of our family members who are sick, who have various disabilities or who are in hospice reliant on others.
And so this morning I want to reflect on the importance of our interdependence on one another as a church or resurrection community.
_Many Limbs and Organs
Interdependence is the Christian faiths framework for community. The apostle Paul in Ephesians 4 says we are all members one of another. Jesus in John 21 teaches his disciples how to feed one another from the abundance they share. And In 1 Corinthians 12:12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. There is an inherent quality to this kind of community, you are members already, you are deeply connected and interdependent on the whole body of Christ, whether you realize it or not. And so this mutual interdependence challenges our rampant individualism and gives us alternative vision for human relations.
To be a Christian is enter into the resurrection community and understand a fundamental shift in our personhood. Our confession might be: now that I am in Christ, I submit myself not only to Christ, but to Christ body. I recognize that I am an essential part of that body, without me that body is insufficient, and without the body I cannot grow and flourish. Without the res. community I am not whole. Paul puts it like this in 1 Cor.12:13:
By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain-his Spirit-where we all come to drink. (The Message)
Now I dont know about you but I am drawn to this and I take it to be a radically different vision from the values of our culture. If our culture values the virtue of independence, then the church flip-flops that, by developing a community based on the virtue of (mutual) interdependence. This is why Paul talks about the body having many members or more literally organs and limbs.
Two other things stand out in 1 Corinthians 12. First, is that we see our own importance to the body. Its easy to fall into a self-defacing mode, but Paul points out that there is no non-essential part, each organ and limb has a role. (Thats why he says all this stuff about the foot and the hand needing each other.)
Slide – 14 I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together.15 If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so?16 If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body?17 If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell?18 As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it. (The Message 1 Cor. 12:14-18)
I love this because it is a reminder to each of us that we bring something meaningful to this group of people, meaningful to what it means to be the people of God. Many of us are in different stages of in our journey, many of us have varying questions, concerns, different talents, and even conflicts that we bring to this church. Yet I think its easy for us to think that my part might not be as important as someone elses. But Paul begs to differ here. There should be no self-effacing, (no negative self-talk) each of you have an important piece that you bring to this group. Part of our role as a Quaker meeting is to help discern what that is together.
The other piece of this passage that is really interesting is that Paul reverses a common assumption from his Roman culture: the weak in the group are to be the most prized.
During Pauls time: Roman politics also used the body as an image for their own purposes, which was to underwrite their own economic and power structures. It was used to try and keep peace among the various classes of people in the empire. One Roman historian named Livy, who lived around the time of Jesus, wrote about a senator who appealed to rebel workers or who were on strike. His appeal was to the interdependence of the Body of the city to urge that the workers or slaves must provide food for the governing classes (209). In other words, if the laborers continue to strike, how will the rich be fed? Paul in Corinthians subverts this, saying that because of the interdependence of the body the strong need to value the weak. For Paul, the interdependence is mutual rather than exploitative.
The church is to value all who are within its perview, all those who have been given to it, no matter who they are, what they bring, whether education, class, race, or those other things we tend to classify people with.
But we can state this even stronger. Not only is the res. community the place that recognizes that we each bring an important piece, and that those who are strong are to value the weak, but that the church actually needs this whole mosaic of people to flourish and grow into what it means to be the people of God. We dont care for the weak among us out of some benevolent need to make ourselves feel better, but because our very humanity, our very freedom even, is wrapped up in recognizing and caring for the weak among us.
Theologian Jurgen Multmoann argues that Christian believers who bring with them disabilities, privations, or experiences of suffering may be the most precious and charismatic part of the body, because every church stands in genuine need of such to live out and to teach the character of the Gospel. (Thistleton p.210)
In some truly deep and even mystical way Paul is saying that in order for the church to truly and fully be what it is called to be we really do need each other, we cannot learn and grow in the character of the Gospel, in the way of life it calls us to, until we submit ourselves to that community out of interdependence.
_A Genuine Concern
There are many ways that we benefit from being a part of this community and from practicing interdepedence. One of the most important is that we hold one another up, and support one another both in prayer and in the practice of our very presence with the suffering.
In the body of Christ, there are, strictly speaking, no private sufferings. All are shared because there is one life of the whole. Accordingly wrong done to one member is wrong done to the whole church, and therefore to Christ (Thistleton p.211)
Thus to practice the virtue of mutual interdependence is to practice having a genuine concern for one another in all the ways that we can do that. It is about being committed to the well-being of those around you, staying at the table, even when its difficult to remain committed, its about working through conflict, knowing we need each other in all these things.
Our inclination to celebrate independence, whether it comes in the form of loose connections or rugged individualism needs to be challenged by our own being members one of another. Instead of celebrating independence day tomorrow we as the church should celebrate our mutual interdependence on both God and one another.
- What about you? When have you wrestled with these ideas?
- How has the need for interdependence played out in your life?
- How has isolation from it or distance from a membership community effected you?
- How does Pauls body imagery speak to you?