Monday, April 25, 2016

Rhythms of the Jesus Way: Relating

In the previous post, I introduced the rhythm of Communion. In what follows I want to talk about the rhythm of Relating. I've struggled with what to call this rhythm through the years. Something like community or life together flows of the tongue much easier. But there's a reason why I use this word. Let me explain. 

In Western society, friendships are expendable. When we try to connect with others, we often ask questions like, “What’s in this for me?” or “How can this benefit my life?” or “What’s this going to cost me?” Relating does not come naturally to us. Loving others is not something that we do very well or very easily. 

It’s easy to criticize this fact. We describe the experience of individualism, isolationism, loneliness, selfishness, etc. Over the last few decades, cultural observers have used images like the lonely crowd, bowling alone, the saturated self, a society of strangers, intimate strangers, the myth of individualism, and many others. There has never been a time in the history of mankind when we have practiced a way of life that is driven by such isolation. While it's easy to diagnose the problem, it’s a lot harder to talk about my own individualism. And it's even hard to actually do something about it.

Imagine that you are in a conversation with a historian who lives 200 years from now. Somehow she has developed the technology to send you an questionnaire so that she can better understand life in the twenty-first century. Her research is not delving into the history of war or politics, which is the normal stuff for history classes. She is focusing on everyday life to determine how people lived.

She asks you, “What words might she use to describe how we live today?” Every time I lead a group through this process, the words used always include things like:
  • Fast-paced, frenzied, time-crunched 
  • Lonely, isolated,
  • Productive
  • Unsettled, transient 
  • Binge watching
  • Extended family scattered
  • Controlled by fear
  • Fast-food
  • Exciting, exhilarating 
  • Technology-driven
  • Rootless
Then she asks you a follow-up question: “What words might use to describe how people ‘do relationships’ today?” Do these words come to mind?:
  • Avoidance of Conflict 
  • We have too many 
  • Overwhelming 
  • Social media-driven (Facebook and Twitter) 
  • Paper-thin 
  • Surface 
  • Short-term 
  • Nice
We know that this is how most of us do life. And we know that it's not how we were made to do life. We were made for relationships, but it seems that we don't do them very well. Groups become the natural go-to fix and churches organize people into groups with hopes that people will somehow develop different patterns simply because they join one. However, we end up with groups of individualists who are trying to connect on a regular basis, but they are not relating in a way that expresses the life of unity. It’s almost as if we are trying to merge individualism with community and hold on to both at the same time, an act of futility. Individualism is based on a certain set of life practices that stand in contradiction to the practices of community, and it keeps groups mired in mediocrity.  

So we use groups to form some kind of relationships that we can produce if we put enough effort into it. And we write books and hold conferences that talk about how great it is. Putting a group of individualists in the same room for a meeting once a week is a good start, but it’s not the goal. 

It's not relating in the way of Jesus. 

The Russian Orthodox pastor Seraphim Sigrist was shaped by an underground church during Soviet reign. He writes, “Community life is a journey toward, and an entering into, a space that is immensely greater than the combination of all personal spaces, and into a life that is far more than that of all our separate lives taken together.”

This is a new space where who we are as a group is far more than what we add up to be as group members. Here the “I” is grounded in “we.” In other words, who I am is shaped by who we are together.

And in this sense, I become far more in the midst of this “we” than “I” am when I’m trying to hold on to my individualism.

This does not mean we give up our individuality. Instead our individuality flourishes when we enter into the Jesus way of relating.  Russian theologians have used the word sobornost to describe this. This word is hard to translate into English. Sigrist writes that at the heart of sobornost is “sharing life together without any loss of your true self; we are no longer isolated from each other and no longer isolated from the whole of God’s creation.” We become our true selves while at the same time become more than ourselves. How’s that for a paradox?

This is far more than the development of a small group program or of some kind of organic missional community experience. It actually is not something that we produce at all. It's not something that we make happen. It's something that we enter, that we participate in as we love the other in the presence of Christ. We love each other through Christ who stands between us by the Spirit and in the same way we are loved. 

This is mystery. This is the reason why I use the awkward word "relating" to describe this rhythm. We know what it means but in all honesty, we only enter into this dynamic when we realize that we don't know how to do it. 

—Adapted from Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, pages 58-59

1 comment:

Michael Mack said...

Good stuff, as usual, Scott! I've discussed this with our senior pastor and he agrees. We need to teach people how to do relationships before we can teach them how to do small groups. It used to be we assumed (perhaps wrongly so) that people naturally knew how to relate to and with each other, but now people come into churches and groups with so much relational dysfunction, plus an attitude of consumerism, which destroys real community.

I'm glad you're talking about this.