Sunday, July 3, 2011

Linked to Community: Better Relationships

            How are your relationships? How is your upward relationship? Your relationship with God? Is it growing, on hold, or kind of wavering? How is your inward relationship? Your relationship with yourself? Is there peace or struggle? Purpose or uncertainty? How is your outward relationship? Work relationships, family, friends? Are ties getting stronger or are they stretched?
            For three weeks we have been talking about the importance of being linked to Christ. Being linked to Christ gives us hope, in the face of a world filled with hopelessness. It gives us healing, healing of body, mind, and spirit. It makes us whole, we are completed when we are linked to Christ. Being linked to Christ is only the beginning of the journey. This is a truth that I am discovering, God did not save you just for you. God’s redemption of your life was the dawn of God revealing God’s plan, path, and purpose for your life, but I believe that God’s plan, path, and purpose is revealed in the context of Christian community.
            When you are operating from a Christ shaped center, truly linked to Christian community, all of your relationships get better. Let me define community, when I speak of community I am specifically referring to a group of twelve to twenty people that you spend time with regularly sharing food, fellowship, and life with as you study the scripture. At St. Paul we call these Connection Groups because they are designed to help you connect to God and others. When you are in a CG I believe your relationship upward to God gets better. Being with a group of twelve to twenty people who know you and love you enough to journey with you through life will increase your faith. Your relationship inward, with yourself, gets better. Being in connection with those people allows you to be encouraged when hurt and doubts creep in. Having people around you that believe in your actually causes you to believe in you. Your relationship outward, with others gets better. When you have vital relationships with twelve to twenty others you become more comfortable with the other relationships in your life. You were made for community, and community creates better relationships, upward, inward, and outward.

You were made for community. Col. 3:12 “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.”
I like my alone time. On Monday’s I can go all day and not speak to anyone. I can read, and pray, and think, and sit on my deck all alone and be perfectly content. By Tuesday, however, I’m ready to be with people again? You know why, because I realize that I was made for community, just like you. You were made for community. We see this from the very beginning, In Genesis 2:18 God observed about us that, “It is not good that man should be alone…
            You were created by God who lives in a constant state of divine community. “Let Us make man in our image…” Gen1:26. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three in one, the Trinity existed as an example of perfect community. God who created from the essence of community created you to be in community. Your world, and my world, is better when we embrace community.
            So what’s happened? Why is it so hard to convince people of their need for community?  In our culture we have reduced our lives to only having only two levels of relationships. We have intimate relationships that are groups of two or three, usually our nuclear family. We also have public relationships, how we interact with people casually, in large groups or formal situations, these are really acquaintances that we recognize but don’t really know much about. Somewhere along the line we lost the middle group, groups of twelve to twenty that act as an extended family. You know, these are the twelve to twenty people you could call at 3 a.m. to help you change a tire on the side of the road; or who would change their schedule to show up at an emergency or celebration in your life.
            The more mobile we become as a culture, the more tenuous our ties to community. Acts 2 shows us that real community involves living life together. A real community eats together, shares resources, cares for children, and worships together.  We are wired to have more of a spiritual life than “me and Jesus” and more relationships than “me and my spouse” or “me and my kids.” We are wired, I am wired, you are wired, to be part of a community.
            So if we were made for community. If it will give us better relationships upward, inward, and outward, then why don’t we do it. One word, people. We get so fed up with people that we decide to ditch community because its too much work. In the landmark study done by Robert Putnam in the book Bowling Alone he revealed that while participating in a group that has meaningful interaction has decreased by 58% in the last 25 years. We are growing toward being a culture of isolation. As a matter of fact, one of the first signs of many mental and emotional illnesses is a move toward isolation. That doesn’t mean you can’t be an introvert, but even introverts crave real relationships in their lives, we actually need community.
            So what happens to you if you find a community, a group of people, twelve to twenty, who love and accept you and create meaningful interaction in your life? If you do join such a community that fosters meaningful interaction you decrease your odds of dying next year by 50%!  Actually, Putnam goes on to say that all of your relationships get better if you participate in some form of community. Your work relationships improve, your primary relationships improve, your family relationships improve. You know why?  Because you were made for community, but not just community, you were made for real community.

You were made for real community. Col. 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.”
            In Thom Rainer’s most recent book, Millennials he observes that young adults aren’t leaving the church because they don’t believe, they are leaving the church because they don’t think anyone cares if they are there. Congregations that are filled with young people are not determined by worship style, they are determined by whether they are committed to creating authentic, life-sharing, life-giving community.
            Its not just young adults. In the past three years, across America, nearly every indicator of worship attendance in Catholic Churches, non-denominational churches, charismatic churches, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. Every one has reported a decline in worship attendance. I don’t believe the quality of the worship service is declining, I believe that people need more that three good songs and a sermon. They woke up and realized they were made for community and that they crave real, authentic, transparent, and caring community.
            Real community is authentic. Real community is transparent. Real community caring. We have settled in our lives, in our personal lives, in our relational lives, and in our spiritual lives for a fa├žade of real community. We like everyone to fit a pattern, be socially acceptable, and agree with us on religion, politics, and life. That is more “Stepford Wives” than community. I was living in the mountains in May of 2005 when the pastor of a church in Waynesville excommunicated nine members of the congregation that didn’t vote the way he saw fit. He had an idea that community has to mean complete conformity. That being Christ-like was being cookie cut into a pattern of his liking. That is not community, that’s a cult.
            Community, real community, is messy. Why is it messy, because people are messy. Look at your neighbor, they are a mess. One of my favorite phrases says it best, “everybody is normal until you get to know them.”  In real community there is only one thing we need to agree on, unequivocally, and that is Jesus. If we stay focused on the main thing, everything else comes into proper perspective. God calls us from wherever we are to be in community with Him and each other. When Jesus prayed in John 15, he didn’t pray we’d agree, he prayed that we would love one another. Real community, community that nurtures us to grow upward, inward, and outward, is about being authentic, transparent, and caring.

You have to make time for community. Col 3:17 “whatever you do, whether  in word or dead, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
            It comes down to this, will you make time for real community in your life. I know you are busy, busy is  not the issue. Almost everyone I know is busy, the issue is this, are your relationships, your upward relationship with God, your inward relationship with yourself, and your outward relationship with others important enough to be inconvenienced by being part of a real community or are you going to continue skimming through life and not letting anyone in?
            When you are gather a group of people and spend time living life together and sharing time studying the Bible together, you get closer to others and you get closer to God. When you get closer to others and closer to God you gain spiritual momentum that allows you to begin to align your life with the plan, path, and purpose God has for you. When you are operating from a God shaped center, all of your relationships get better. Your relationship upward to God gets better. Your relationship inward, with yourself, gets better. Your relationship outward, with others gets better. You were made for community, and community creates better relationships.
            The best example of this was Jesus. Even God made flesh participated in community. There were times when He went off alone. Other times with his three core disciples, Peter, James, and John. Most of the time he spent with the twelve disciples who did life together. I wonder if he ever thought that He was too busy or too important to be in real community? If it ever got inconvenient to deal with the disciples. Regardless, He modeled how we are to be in community. How being in community with vastly different people, people who didn’t have to agree on anything but their commitment to Him could change the world. His first act with some of them was a wedding, an action of community. His last time with him, at the Last Supper, was an act of community. In between He showed them how to live in community.
            I believe you find yourself in one of three places this morning as you look at how we are made for real community. First is that you realize that you need community. That God has made you for it and that you have resisted it because its risky. For you I challenge you to come and lay down anything that is keeping you from joining a Connection Group this fall, from finding the twelve to twenty people you will take a spiritual journey with during the next year. Others have been part of a community, but you let yourself get pulled away or decided it was too hard or inconvenient. For you I want to challenge you to re-engage. I know it is tough, it is inconvenient, but let me tell you, its worth it. The darkest days of my life were bearable because I had people ready to walk beside me. Lastly, some of you know the value of community. You know how important it is and God is moving on your heart to lead a Connection Group. We begin preparing for next fall later this month.  On Thursday night, July 21 we are going to gather all the Connnection Group leaders and those who God might be speaking to about leading a group, at my home for dinner. We are going to spend time sharing what worked, what needs work, and praying for God to use us to help others get linked to Christ, real community, and to their divine calling. If you feel God is calling you to get off the sidelines and quit making excuses and start making a difference by leading a CG let me know.
            What is keeping you from being part of the community? What fear is keeping you from letting others in? Yes, people are messy, we will mess up. But a life with messy people seeking Christ is so much better than trying to make it through this messed up world alone. Today, when you come to the table to celebrate this divine act of community, put down anything that is keeping you from being part of the community.

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