On today’s MoS podcast, Carl and I talk a little about the differences in culture when unbelievers are invited into our households and vice versa. As I’ve just started reading Christine Pohl’s, Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us, I’ve been thinking even more about what unbelievers experience in our family households and in the household of God, should they ever visit. An obvious cultural difference is that we are a people of prayer. And this is something that Carl and I touched on. When an unbeliever is invited into our home, they will be asked to join us in prayers of thanksgiving before sharing a meal.
But what other mores might intrigue a guest invited into the Christian community? Pohl teaches that a Christian community that lives from a framework of particular “practices allows us to see issues in congregational and community life from a different angle and helps us to get at the moral and theological commitments that structure our relationships” (5). While all communities have practices, Pohl asserts that for believers, “practices can also be understood as responses to the grace we have already experienced in Christ, in light of the word and work of God, and for the sake of one another and the world” (5).
What are these practices? Well, they may not be particularly noticeable at first glance. As a matter of fact, Pohl notes that they are most powerful when not noticed. Why is that? Because, practices such as “making and keeping promises, living and speaking truthfully, expressing gratitude, and offering hospitality” should be a natural expression of who we are. And yet, in today’s culture these practices aren’t as common as we’d like to believe, even in the church. Pohl centers on these four practices in the book as she explains there are other important practices, such as discernment and forgiveness, to employ when we come up short in the former ones.
Pohl’s Introduction on these “Four Practices That Sustain Community” is both refreshing and convicting. They could easily be summed up in one word: integrity. Even as I look at the wider culture in the Reformedish community, I see that it is very noticeable when we are found wanting in these basic practices. We are a community that is supposedly passionate about truth, but we need to be careful not to think that only applies to what we think about God. If we are not known as a people who live truthfully and speak truthfully, we are not living by faith in the One who is truth and who deals with us truthfully. If we are stingy with our promises and don’t value following them through to fruition, we aren’t living as children of He who has promised and is faithful. Likewise, how can we possibly be grateful for a God who has lavished his grace on us if we live uncharitably and selfishly? And if we are busy building our own brand, only welcoming “yes” men to the table, how can we possibly talk about a God who welcomes the stranger at the gate?
A huge takeaway from Pohl’s introduction is that these basic Christian responses that cultivate and sustain us as a community need to be practiced. Talking good theology is necessary, but if we really believe it we will be living in light of it, all the while depending on the Holy Spirit of God to equip us as we are united in Christ. And these practices condition us both in the household of God and in our personal households. They also level us. There are no top men who get a pass from living truthfully, keeping promises, expressing genuine gratitude, and welcoming our neighbors.
In the podcast, Carl and I talked about some boundaries in respecting the personhood of an unbeliever if we are in their home. Pohl has me thinking further about how well we do that within our Christian communities. How do we practice truth telling? One way I see contradiction to this in the wider evangelical leadership is when sexual abuse in the church is minimized, when enablers and those involved in cover ups still headline conferences, write on large platforms and their books are still promoted. This kind of mishandling of the truth will never sustain us. Another flag is when the Christian book industry is marketing half-truths, exploiting sentimentality, or just plain promoting messages contrary to the whole gospel.
What kind of promise makers and keepers are we? When we exaggerate endorsements, we are not making good promises. When we tell readers they are valuable and then use them to fulfill our own personal means, we create a false sense of community that is self-serving. Making a pact or alliance primarily to support our own brand contradicts a profession of hope in a God who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil.2:8), to fulfill the promise he made to redeem a people for himself. If we follow the One who is faithful, we respond in faithfulness. We should practice making good promises and making good on those promises.
We may not often identify gratitude in practice, but we certainly notice when it is lacking. When we only commit ourselves to serve where the big numbers and important people are, we are not expressing gratitude to the God who has sacrificed himself to share his own inheritance. When we only want to serve in what we think are the more glorious positions, we are forgetting how God has served us. Maybe the dishwashers have a greater sense of gratitude for the meal they’ve been fed. And when we withhold forgiveness we are not acting as a people who have been forgiven much.
What kind of people are we hospitable to? Are we only hospitable to those who can offer something in return? Do we practice welcoming those who not influencers to our “ministries” or who offer constructive critique to our work?
Is the wider Reformedish community sustainable? These are challenges for us. I hope they are practices that we will grow in. But most of all, thinking about these practices leads me to thankfulness for the local church, where I am encouraged and equipped for these very principles. God promises to sustain his church and he has set up a means to do that through the preached Word and the sacraments. Because God is who he is, there are covenant communities reflecting him.
God’s Word is that powerful. Sure, it is powerful to save, which is truly amazing. But it also transforms us. And since we know that our sanctification is a lifelong process that is always battling sin, we need to practice as individuals and as a community. If we are, we should be the same people in our churches, homes, and wider communities.
*Originally posted on March 23, 2016.