As Albany Presbytery works to strengthen and build community among our members, one of the first questions that arises is “what does it mean to be in community?”
Living in community generally means that we think about our actions in relational rather than transactional terms. Rather than trying to maximize the benefit from a one-time transaction, we try to maximize the value of our long term relationship. Rather than just narrow self-interest, our actions and choices prioritize actions and responses designed to maintain and strengthen community relationships. For example, Jack is in my church so I hire him as my plumber even though he charges slightly more than Sam who is not in my church. My relationship with Jack is worth more to me than the few dollars I might save by using Sam’s services.
A second sign of community is that community becomes a decisive part of our discernment, intention, and values alignment. When we live in community one of the questions routinely asked is whether and how taking an action will change the community. Will taking this action strengthen or weaken the community? People who do not consider themselves a part of a community do not ask these questions; instead, they focus on their own individual outcome. Ayn Rand is a recent popularizer of this “red in tooth and claw” pathology. Professor Michael Jensen convinced a generation of business leaders to maximize shareholder value rather than to value the stakeholders and the communities where the businesses were based. The fruits of these efforts to denigrate the community and exalt the CEO has led to massive income inequality and a trail of abandoned devastated communities. Our economic choices and the values we choose to follow have ramifications beyond just dollars and cents.
Living in community means that we have as one of our core intentions the care for other members of the community, especially the most vulnerable of these members. When living in community we routinely make sacrifices for the benefit of the group. We privilege the success of the group over other groups and even over our own short-term gain. We work to align our actions so that they support and strengthen our community.
There are lots of different communities, but for our purposes, what does it imply for us to live in an explicitly Christian community? What makes a Christian community different from, say, a group of rabid Yankee fans? The general rules of community still apply, but they are further constrained and refined by the nature of what it means to be a Christian. In the Hebrew Scriptures we learn the history of how God chose the Israelites to be in community with Him (Leviticus 26:12). The New Testament can be taken collectively as a guide for how we are to live in community with one another — carrying each other’s burdens while following Christ and spreading the Good News.
As Christians our relationship is not just with each other, but also with God. Beyond times of celebration (weddings, baptisms) and mourning (funerals, memorials) when we explicitly call on God, our default posture in life is worship. Worship is not just a formal ritual one morning a week, but rather (as Brother Lawrence and Kathleen Norris remind us) worship is in the everyday quotidian actions we take such as washing the pots and pans as long as these actions are dedicated to the glory of God. If we transform our daily routines into worship, then God is never far from our thoughts. Our lives become living prayers. This is how we become the body of Christ.
We call the Christian community of which we are a part “the church” and as members of the church we call ourselves “Christians”. Our identity as Christians derives from our membership with one another as well as with God. Jesus explicitly bound us to each other as neighbors and bound us to God with his faithful sacrifice. There is no Christian outside of community; living in community is an inherent part of being a Christian. We seek to build a Christian community because that is how Jesus told us to live – loving our neighbors as ourselves.
How then should we act? Beyond the relational and community orientation, to be explicitly Christian we can weigh self-initiated actions to see if they grow out of generosity, hospitality, honesty, and love. We can weigh our responses to see if they reflect forgiveness, gratitude, and fidelity. Of course, we face challenges to acting in this way in every circumstance. We give in to the seven deadly sins and our fallible human nature. We are often falling short of the goal and missing the mark with our conduct. That’s okay. Perfection is not the goal. The imperfections of humanity and of the church are the cracks that the Holy Spirit uses to enter into our lives.
Living together in Christian community is hard. Sinners cause all sorts of problems, and saints can be a real pain in the ass to live with. Still, this is our calling: to be in community with God and with each other. So then let us resolve to follow Jesus, love God, and love our neighbors. If we do, in the words of the old hymn, “they will know we are Christians by our love”.
Arthur Fullerton is a Ruling Elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, NY, past chair of Board of Trustees and Moderator of Albany Presbytery. He consults with nonprofits about fundraising and organizational leadership.
The purpose of the Albany Presbytery Blog is to share information, tell stories, and promote the mission and ministry of the presbytery, synod and beyond. While the breadth of this medium is intentionally broad, it is not a platform for opinion pieces related to business coming before the presbytery unless designed as part of an initiative to provide a diversity of viewpoints at the direction of the presbytery. Exceptions to this policy may be brought to the presbytery officers who will determine appropriateness of submissions.