Summary: Living in Christian community means: 1. Unity in love. 2. Focusing on Jesus. 3. We lose ourselves in service.
What Is Community?
I talked with a friend and her husband from another town this week who are having trouble with their teenage daughter. They have been to court several times because she is completely out of control. They have also taken her to professional counselors who have told the parents that she has a diagnosis of NPD: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describes it this way: “Individuals with this disorder have a grandiose sense of self-importance (Criterion 1). They are often preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love (Criterion 2). They may ruminate about ‘long overdue’ admiration and privilege and compare themselves favorably with famous or privileged people.” It seems to me that this is not just the diagnosis of a few individuals, it is the diagnosis of the culture at large — narcissistic self-absorption and self-centeredness.
The term “Narcissism” comes from the Greek god named Narcissus who was known for his beauty. Many fell in love with him, but he spurned all lovers, until one day he became thirsty and went to a pool of water where he clearly saw his own reflection. He fell deeply in love with himself and could not pull himself away from his reflection, even to eat, so that he ultimately died. His death was caused by total self-absorption. How many beautiful and talented celebrities do we know who destroy their own lives because of a complete preoccupation with themselves? When we worship ourselves, we become our own god.
I read the book by Robert Bellah Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life not long after it came out in 1985. It is about the rise of radical individualism in our culture which is committed only to the self. It is even more relevant today than when it was written. He described how we are moving away from concern about family, community and what is good for society as a whole, to a culture that is narrowing its concern to what is good for us personally as individuals. In the book, he gives this fascinating illustration about a young woman named Sheila: “We interviewed, in the research for Habits of the Heart, one young woman who has named her religion after herself. Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as ‘Sheilaism.’ This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. ‘I believe in God,’ Sheila says. ‘I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.’ Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls ‘my own Sheilaism,’ she said: ‘It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself.’” This is fast becoming the dominant religion of America: the worship of self.
Is it any wonder that we are experiencing the deterioration of the family? Is it any wonder that our friendships are so shallow? Even in the church, we find that people come for what they can personally get out of it. Almost no one visits the church and says, “How can I serve? What can I do to be in ministry here?” Because of this, the church turns into a commercial enterprise that tries to market itself like a business. People actually “shop” for a church much the way they do for a car — one which exactly suits their particular desires. The church growth movement encourages us to decide which market we are aiming for (usually the successful and financially stable folks who have it together) and target a homogenous group — a church where everyone is alike.
Increasingly, in American Christianity, we are seeing what I call the “Me and Jesus” syndrome. Christians don’t want to be answerable to anyone. They see themselves as independent, and not needing the church or any other group of Christians. They only associate with people like themselves, and often it eventually comes down to where it is only “Me and Jesus.” The radical individualism of our pagan culture has brainwashed them, and they don’t even realize it.
One of the great things about our church is that it is so diverse. We have people from every conceivable church background. We have committed Republicans and Democrats. We have people who love contemporary worship, and those who can’t stand anything but traditional worship. We have those who want to clap and raise their hands, and those who are uncomfortable doing so. We have wealthy and poor; people with post-graduate degrees and people who did not complete high school; very conservative people and those who tend to be more liberal socially and religiously. We have various races and ethnic groups (at least as much as you can have in Mount Vernon). It is what makes our church so wonderful and interesting to me, and also what makes our church difficult at times. The problem comes when any one of those groups insist that everyone see things exactly the way they do. We are learning to live together and love each other in this wonderful diversity.