Politics and Church Community

You can’t have the second without the first. Not because it’s an inevitable evil, but because without politics there can be no community.

Stained Glass Depicting Jesus Christ

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If you spend some time in a large church I attended for a while, you notice one thing pretty quickly. The place is spectacularly well run.

The PowerPoint slides (and, on occasion, video clips) are clearly done by professionals. The thousands of people who attend the five services each week get in and out of the sanctuary quickly and efficiently. If they want it, they’re fed a hot breakfast on the way in or out. The music, indeed everything that goes on onstage, has got to be extremely expensive; because those artists could sell a lot of CDs if they wanted to.

If you looked behind of all this, you would learn that the church has two leadership teams—one that handles teaching, and one that handles logistics and administration. The admin team could be a company by itself. It’s large, and includes top-notch business directors, marketing directors, graphic designers, sound engineers, and so on. Makes sense—the pastor isn’t trained to direct a large organization, and the admin director isn’t trained to preach. It’s very efficient.

Even the congregation’s social life is a well-oiled machine. The leadership knows it’s tough to get connected in a large church, so things have been set up so that you really have no excuse. There are small groups at every conceivable time of day, every day of the week, in every part of town, and themed according to everything from topic to age to geography. And there are lots of great social and spiritual outreach programs with which you can volunteer.

On one level, all of this makes Sunday morning a very smooth, predictable experience. It really is a great show, and the social ministries are very effective.

And yet, at least for me, there was something missing there: community.

I don’t say that because the Sunday services felt like a show (for a large church, it does a nice job focusing things where they should be focused). I don’t say it because it’s a personality cult church, where people just come to hear the preacher (though that is to a large extent true). There are plenty of things one could nitpick about this or any other church, but they don’t determine whether or not the church is a community.

What makes any community a community, I think, is politics.

I don’t mean Republicans and Democrats. I mean that a community is inherently political, in the sense its members not only connect with each other relationally, they also connect with the whole institutionally.

The word community, as we know it, has 14th-century roots, and didn’t merely mean “relationships with individuals.” It meant “a body of fellow-townsmen” (Latin), or “communion/common ownership” (German), or “commonness/everyone” (French). Implied in each of these descriptions is a relationship with the whole; a form of ownership.

In other words, community includes a “horizontal” relationship (with the other members), but it also includes a “vertical” relationship (with the institution). I’m not just a spectator who has friends; I’m not just a recipient of spiritual goods; I have a stake in, and a responsibility for, the whole.

Marriage works this way. It’s not just a contract where two people agree to get into it because it is in each person’s interest to do so. Any marriage counselor can tell you that there is a third party involved—the marriage; the institution. We are trying to make the marriage succeed. We can’t help it; it’s a natural and unavoidable part of how the thing works. The marriage picks up baggage and a history of its own, influenced by but independent of the two individuals.

The spiritual dimension of Christianity works this way too (the vertical relationship is with God, brought home regularly through the tangible reality of the Eucharist). For a church to reflect that spiritual reality in its community, it has to have the political element; the element that allows the individual to build into the whole.

During a few lovely months while living in Arlington, Virginia, I attended a small church plant that actually worked this way. As a new church, it had only 40 or so members at the time. And they were the political life of the church, not just the social and spiritual life. Either through the conduit of the priest or through direct congregational interaction, this group had both horizontal and vertical relationships. If construction or cleaning or cooking needed doing; if the music needed improving; if somebody needed help packing a moving van or needed their kids babysat; if the church could really do with a better website; if somebody had a concern about a trend in the group’s social dynamics and wanted to bring it to the whole group…the congregation was there. We were connected to the whole. We were invested in the success of the church. We didn’t make friends over shared interests so much as over shared membership in a never-ending project. We had community.

In contrast, my spectacularly well-run big church lacks that vertical connection. Virtually everything is run by professionals. If you’ve got the right talent or nab one of the paid jobs, you might get to become one of the professionals. Or you might be a great networker and make friends with enough of the professionals to gain some influence over them as individuals. But institutionally speaking, you don’t have a connection with the whole. It doesn’t need you. It’s not a community. And no number of friends you make will turn it into one.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.” This is as true for the institutional church as it is for individuals. Without politics, a church is only an aggregate of individuals with a common interest who happen to in many cases be friends with each other. But with rightly ordered politics, with an institution that listens, a church becomes a community.

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