Having enjoyed and been challenged by The Search to Belong, I have been looking forward to reading Organic Community by Joseph Myers for awhile. While I was a little bit sore at DFW for not having free wi-fi access (do people really spend ten dollars to get online for an hour?), I was glad to have a couple of hours to finish up this book.

One of my favorite chapters is about coordination and the difference between cooperation and collaboration. I have been a part of many top-down, master-planned, vision-casted church communities where falling in line is spun as “cooperating.” I love this idea of people actually working together and contributing in meaningful ways in church communities. Recently, I have been asked to take on several additional ministry responsibilities, including developing a college ministry and preaching in our afternoon EM service from time to time. I have been doing my best to print, copy and fold the bulletins for our EM worship services — a task previously performed by a couple of EM members — to free them for the more important ministry of relationship building. Eventually, when we need to print more than forty or fifty Sunday bulletins, we might need volunteers to come in and take care of it. For now, though, I really want to see our people invested in the things that really count — not just plugging them into our church’s perceived “needs” (folding bulletins, parking lot attendants, etc.). Having a big vision for the church is great but, if we’re not careful, it can lead us to love the idea of church more than the reality of where we actually live.

Myers gives a couple of interesting analogies about forging a new way forward in building communities:

We can be as intentional with community as we are with going to sleep. It is almost impossible to make yourself go to sleep. In fact, the more intentional you are, the less likely it is that you will fall asleep.

A more helpful way forward is to create an environment in which there is a good chance you will fall asleep… The same is true for community. We can have some control over the environments in which community usually emerges, but we have little or no control over community actually emerging. We can intend for the process of community to begin, but we cannot create community intentionally.

Think about the last party you hosted at your home. Did you offer a guarantee to your guests that they would have a good time? That they would make new friends? Of course not. But I’m sure you did try to create an environment that would help your guests feel comfortable and relaxed…

You would put food on the table, imagining perhaps that people would linger there… You probably played some ambient music in the background, soften enough that people wouldn’t have to compete with it, but loud enough that it might alleviate awkward pauses in conversation. You might have grouped chairs together in such a way to facilitate conversation. And so on.

Once I get beyond my tendency to jump right to the best-practices/takeaways (“Yes! At church we will now group our chairs in a certain way and play perfectly balanced ambient music in the background. And then we’ll grow our numbers. Thanks, Joe Myers!”) I am both challenged and relieved. Challenged, because I think most pastors have a certain amount of stubborn confidence in their leadership that is necessary at times (forging ahead in obedience to God’s will when it is difficult for others to see it) but can often lead to unnecessary conflict and hinder the leadership of others. But mostly I an encouraged, because this frees me from being solely responsible for the growth and health of our community (not that I ever had any control over these things).

I don’t know if I have ever really felt connected in a small group setting. I have had wonderful friends with whom I have grown, laughed, cried and prayed — but, somehow, when we formalize the relationship into an “official” small group it feels sterile and cold. Myers writes a little bit about this in his chapter on partnership and the difference between accountability and what he called edit-ability. The focus of many small groups is pretty bleak. As Myers writes,

There is such an underlying expectation of failure phrased in a language of absolutes and either/ors. If you truthfully answer any of these questions (e.g., “What one sin plagued your walk with God this week? Is your thought life pure? At any time did you compromise your integrity?”) with a less-than-perfect response, what happens?

We definitely need help in living for Christ, but all too often we interpret “iron sharpening iron” as, “You’ll be sharpened when I get all up in your grill and bust you for your long list of sin and failure.” This might work for some people, but the vast majority of people I have known cannot be coerced or shamed into loving God more deeply.

We can build a more positive ethos in our communities if we see accountability as a kind of author/editor relationship — thus, “edit-ability.” Here is the way Myers puts it,

This is how a good author-editor relationship works: The author submits a rough draft. The editor makes suggestions, even disagrees at times with the author. The author considers the editor’s suggestions, and will often make adjustments. The author and editor continue to go back and forth until the project is complete. The entire process is one of give-and-take collaboration.

The title of the book, “Organic Community,” calls to mind images of farming — not the pesticide-laden, hormone-added mass production kind, but the slow-food, small-scale local farmer. It is time to move away from the pastor as CEO concept (although this is still necessary for some large-scale operations), where one person stands before the entire group and hands down “the vision” to the masses. It might be a little too nostalgic, but I think there is some merit to the idea of pastor as farmer. We must cultivate the land; we must work with the conditions we are given (not as we would have them, or as our weather plug-in tells us); we must be willing to get our hands dirty as we attempt to steward new life; we must be aware of the overall balance of the farm — not pushing so hard that the fields become fallow, but not underutilizing our resources either.

We just received our first installment of our CSA membership. Though I missed the momentous occasion of picking up the produce, my wife called me to tell me all about it. The produce was fresh and tasty — and extremely natural. Upon shucking one of the ears of corn, my wife and daughter discovered some kind of corn bug in there. But instead of being grossed out, my wife was kind of happy to find the little critter in there because it showed that the food was not being bombarded with pesticides but was grown with care, naturally. When we lead an organic community, we might not get the slick production of excellence to which we’re accustomed but we just might find the friendships we’re looking for, corn bugs and all.

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