by Eric Hoffer
"We're different, here at my church. We aren't captive to the world." Have you ever encountered such a place? A Christian community where they see themselves as something special, something holy, something different? Sometimes these places are wonderful, filled with wonderful people with wonderful hearts doing wonderful things for those in need. Quite often, though, when we call ourselves different, we establish boundaries between us and them.
In her book, Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness, Lois Y. Barrett gathers traits and essays based on those traits to articulate what missional communities look like. One of those traits is "Taking Risks as a Contrast Community," which she describes as a church that "understands itself as different from the world because of its participation in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord. It is raising questions, often threatening, about the church's cultural captivity and grappling with the ethical and structural implications of its missional vocation." The main themes indicated in this pattern are the "difference" from the world, the connection to Christ, and the question raising/risk taking that results. To be sure, this mindset often results in great things, but to what end?
In Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, Richard Beck addresses the tension that Barrett hints at between contrast-type church communities and hospitality. In order to welcome the neighbor fully, or rather join with them in their journey, in love, we need to understand our barriers between each other. For Beck, it all centers on the concept of disgust -- and I agree with him. He states that "the emotion of disgust prompts most of this activity, acting as an existential buffer. Disgust motivates us to avoid and push away reminders of vulnerability and death, in both others and ourselves. What is needed to combat this illusion is a church willing to embrace need, decay, and vulnerability."
Disgust builds walls to ignore the death and vulnerability of our neighbor, but also of ourselves. Beck continues, cautioning that "calls for embrace, hospitality, or solidarity will flounder if churches are not attentive to the psychological dynamics governing these experiences. ... It's simply not natural to think this way." Moreover, hospitality and love are not simply charity, but remaking the heart that changes your emotional and physical stance toward "otherness."
Barrett does a good job beginning to articulate what it means to live into your missional vocation as a church and as an individual. However, I doubt how productive labeling yourself as "different" or "contrast" can be -- especially when it cannot help but build some sort of wall between you and your neighbor, whom we are called to freely love. Barrett calls us to be a contrast community made up of members who conform themselves to Christ. There is truth in that, but what if we took Matthew 25:34-40 to heart and saw Christ in the "least of these," our neighbor, instead of ourselves? Might we avoid calling ourselves "different" and begin to humble ourselves in service and love? Our call as Christians is to love -- not from a distance, but by breaking down boundaries and walking side-by-side, hand-in-hand, even cheek-to-cheek with our neighbor.
About the Author: Eric Hoffer is a pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park, Minn. He received his M.Div. from Luther Seminary with an emphasis in Congregational Mission and Leadership. Eric has a heart for the city, will get into a discussion about pretty much anything, and isn't sure what he loves more -- cooking or eating. About the Missional Lab series: In Spring 2013, members of Dr. Mary Sue Dreier's "Transforming Congregations for Mission" class launched a deep and broad conversation about how to better follow Jesus in a new era -- an era where the church is losing privilege and nothing can be assumed about the people who go or don't go there.
The blog posts in this Missional Lab series are drawn from those papers. Thanks to the contributors, to Prof. Dreier, and to Luther Seminary's Center for Missional Leadership. Photo credit: toad (Creative Commons image by Tony Delgrosso on Flickr)