Church is a Collaborative Project

ballchain

By Joe LaGuardia

Christianity is a collaborative faith.

In a letter to churches in Corinth, the apostle Paul confronted several congregations that were arguing with each other.  No two churches were alike and each one served a purpose in the Body of Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 12:27, he wrote, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.”

Fortunately for us — 2000 years removed from Paul’s situation — collaboration is still highly valued in our society.  Businesses, organizations, and individuals that value collaboration succeed.  We have sent men to the moon and rovers to Mars all because of the cooperation of thousands of individuals.

Non-profit and governmental agencies that promote teamwork are able to combat social ills that have long plagued society.  Churches that cooperate in the public sector not only fulfill part of Jesus’ Great Commission, but thrive in a marketplace in which the lines between secular and sacred often blur.

Rockdale County enjoys a great deal of collaboration on multiple levels.  The Rockdale Coalition for Children and Families, for instance, hosts a free networking lunch monthly for non-profits in the area.

I’ve attended several of these lunches, and I’ve met so many different leaders, laborers, and clergy who also cherish the value of partnering together to resolve some local issues that need tackling.

Without this network, we would have to go it alone; and, for a church as small as Trinity Baptist, going it alone means not being able to reach out as effectively as we hope.

For far too many Christians and churches, however, collaboration still brings with it a sense of fear and anxiety.  Some churches believe that they cannot collaborate with organizations that do not share their exact political or theological beliefs.  They would rather “reinvent the wheel” than partner with another organization that is already making a difference in the local community.

Such churches feel that in order to collaborate they must compromise their convictions.

This approach brings with it more issues than one might initially guess. For one, a church that refuses to collaborate assumes that it has all of the answers and knows exactly what a community needs.  This is not always the case.

Sometimes, Christians can be so brazen about their theology that it actually works against the impact their church can make in the community.  It may also exacerbate needs rather than resolve them.

In other situations, a church that assumes it has “all the answers” can sometimes fail to ask the right questions.  Where social economic justice is concerned, this can mean the difference between a church enabling dysfunction instead of empowering a community to become economically sustainable.

Failing to assess needs can lead to dependence rather than interdependence or, better, synergy that utilizes all of the creative gifts that can benefit an entire spiritual ecosystem.

Such differences of opinion within Christ’s Church is not new.  Paul’s admonishment to churches in his own era prove that divisions and squabbles will always pervade church and society.

Yet, we must be passionate about reaching out, communicating what we have to offer, and seeing ourselves not as lone rangers in a threatening prairie of dry spiritual barrenness, but part of a much larger Body of Christ working within a vibrant oasis of plenty in which God’s Spirit is already present.

May we be ever mindful of our neighbors and the partnerships we share, for we have more in common than we know.

Next week, we will continue this conversation about collaboration as it relates to racial reconciliation in our community.

Christians create sacred spaces wherever they go!

CoffeeBy Joe LaGuardia

Every Monday, a group of us from Trinity Baptist Church gather at a local coffee shop to fellowship and talk about whatever is on our minds.

Topics range from politics to hobbies, travel excursions to child-rearing.  On any given week, there can be as few as four people or as many as a dozen who attend.

We had a big turnout last week.  We had visitors from the community.  My wife and children–freed from the burdens of school to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.–were in attendance.  It took about three tables to fit everyone.

I rallied the group and took a picture for our Facebook page.  We laughed.  We told stories.  We were captivated by some folks who told us eyewitness accounts of the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King’s visit to Southern Seminary in 1961 when several of our parishioners were students there.

Most of all, I was captivated by the idea that we were being the church right there around that table.  (And, yes, there were twelve of us that day.)

It was long ago that we at Trinity changed our tune about what Christ’s Body is all about.  Usually, when people refer to “church,” they refer to a building or a place in which formal worship takes place.

Over the years, we learned that the church is made up, not of bricks and mortar, but of the people of God.  Where “two or more are gathered” in Jesus’ name, we are being the church.  And when we leave a physical building, we therefore bring church wherever we go.

In a conference I attended recently, someone stated that there are two ingredients that make a good church: a sense of transcendence and an environment that inspires a sense of belonging.

For thousands of years, church architecture and music have been the primary catalysts for providing transcendence.  Long-term relationships in the pews and pulpit have added to a congregation’s sense of belonging.

The only problem churches face now is that people no longer require a traditional church building to experience those two ingredients.  Walk into any coffee shop, mall, or movie theater, and you will find architecture, music, and abundant relationships that fulfill people’s needs for transcendence and belonging.

Many churches have to compete; and, in some cases, churches lose the battle and close.

The life and ministry of Christ as told in the New Testament reminds us that we don’t need buildings to have a relationship with God or with others in a sacred space in which the Holy Spirit guides God’s people.  Jesus was constantly on the move, and his only church consisted of crowds, mountain sides, boats, and campfires.

Yet, Jesus did not neglect the buildings that were important in a life of faith–Jesus went to temple for his annual sacrifices; he went for his Bar Mitzvah (Luke 2:42); he went to synagogue to commune, pray, and teach (Luke 4:15).

But he also knew that God was larger than any one of those edifices.

Don’t hear me wrong, dear reader.  I love the institutional church.  I love church buildings.  In fact, I grieve over the fact that we spend more money on erecting sports arenas than we do on building more cathedrals, and that many a church has lost a sense of grandeur when it comes to “God’s house.”

Yet, we have to keep things in perspective: Jesus used places as a means to an end.  He taught and discipled in one place, only to send those very disciples out to create sacred spaces in their local communities.

Church buildings are still a means to an end: They are places to gather and celebrate what God is doing in the world.  They also serve as hubs to equip disciples for ministry.  They are launching pads for ambassadors of the good news of the Gospel.

So it is with our little coffee group every week.  The routine is the same: Worship on Sunday; coffee group on Monday.  And both are church to me.  They are sacred spaces that carve out sacred times for the people of God to meet with one another–and with God–in ever creative and vibrant ways.

Pentecost affirms that God’s glory is revealed in diversity

Although it’s been two weeks since churches around the globe celebrated Pentecost, we are still in need of a fresh Pentecost spirit to enliven and embolden a richly diverse and creative body of Christ in our own nation today.

Pentecost was the time when the Holy Spirit filled, authenticated, and birthed the church.  Acts 2 portrays this as a truly miraculous event: The Spirit rushed upon the disciples like a “violent wind,” tongues of “flames” rested upon them, and they started proclaiming the gospel in different languages.

Pilgrims to Jerusalem, who were present for the Feast of Weeks, heard those “Galileans” speak in their own distinct languages, and they accused the disciples of being drunk.

It is curious that many Bible commentators argue that Pentecost reversed the event at Babel (Genesis 11).  In Babel, Noah’s descendants spoke the same language.  Their was very little disagreement, and the community seemed to favor conformity.  This ethic allowed them to invent the brick; their next big idea was to build a tower as high as the heavens.

God did not favor this community of conformity, however, and It seems that speaking the same language might have hampered creative diversity.  Consequently, God “confused” their language, and different ethnicities were thus born.

Was Pentecost a true reversal of this event?  If it was, then all those pilgrims to Jerusalem would have simply understood the Aramaic language typical of the disciples’ speech.  The disciples would not have spoken different languages at all.

But the disciples did not proclaim a uniform, harmonious message.  Their speech was not organized.  There was no choir director to lead them in unison.  Instead, the Pentecost event was a chaotic, muddy, and disorganized cacophony of diverse speech.  No wonder the disciples sounded drunk.

The ability to speak different languages ignited the spark that launched the Great Commission “from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Pentecost did not reverse Babel, it reaffirmed the fact that God’s creative and redemptive spirit becomes fully alive in the midst of diversity rather than in dogmatic conformity.

My wife and I speak English, but there are many situations in which we seem to speak different languages.  The adage that men are from Mars and women are from Venus rings all too true.  When we disagree, my temptation is to pray, “Lord, help change my wife; make her more like me.”

When I stop and look at the spouse with whom God has blessed me, our differences no longer hamper our relationship; rather, our differences express the wonderful tapestry that makes our marriage all the more unique and complete.

There are many Christians in our day that would like for us to believe that they have a monopoly on biblical interpretation.  Their prayer is, “Lord, make everyone else look and think like us.”

Some Christians go so far as to claim that there are certain parts of the Bible no longer open for discussion.

Yet, we humans continue to hear the Bible in our own languages, as it were.  We come to the text with our own biases.

From the perspective of Pentecost, a varied–and at times chaotic–cacophony of theology is something to celebrate and cherish, not exclude or silence.  Only when we embrace our differences and turn our attention to the world beyond our Christian conflicts, will we be able to see that our Weaver-God is still spinning a luminous web* filled with the majesty of his creative diversity.

*I could not help but take this phrase, “luminous web,” from the Barbara Brown Taylor book sharing the same title.