The opportunity to read this book was timely as my church is currently in a process of discerning how to have an impact on the growing immigrant community in the neighbourhood that surrounds our building.
Author Christine Pohl is a professor of Christian social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary and has written other works focusing on community. Particularly at the beginning of the book, there was an academic flavour that reminded me of works I read in theology classes at seminary. This book is worth the read, however, I wasn’t easily pulled into it.
The four components of flourishing community, according to Pohl, are:
1. Embracing gratitude – “Gratitude and thanksgiving help to make all of the other practices more beautiful. When gratitude shapes our lives, fidelity is more likely to be joy-filled, truth is life-giving, and hospitality is offered with generosity and joy.”
2. Making and keeping promises – “It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God, and promises of Jesus that we are able to keep our promises and commitments in the hard places…. The capacity to make and keep promises is central to all of the other practices.”
3. Living truthfully – “Communities that love truth will make a safe place for the awkwardness of confession, forgiveness, and healing…. Truthful communities are communities of encouragement.”
4. Practicing hospitality – “Churches that practice hospitality have countless contexts in which to tell the story of God’s welcome. When [Communion] is more explicitly connected to regular expressions of hospitality in shared meals, caring, and friendship, a distinctive Christian identity and way of life are reinforced.”
The preceding components are essential to maintaining healthy community. Pohl balances well factors that strengthen or weaken community.
There are challenges of maintaining close-knit communities in Canada today. We distrust leadership; both inside and outside our faith communities. It’s difficult to garner volunteers as the consumer mindset has pervaded our churches. Our community roots aren’t as deep as they once were, and people tend to leave when things get difficult. Pohl addresses the challenges of maintaining promises, commitments, and boundaries, working within church community.
I particularly appreciated Pohl’s section on hospitality. “Historically, homes have been a central location for hospitality, but in this society, we view our homes as private space…. It is difficult to welcome people into our lives when no one is at home, when households are small, and when homes are very private.”
Hospitality is the essential art of maintaining connectivity. Has the church of today lost its sense of hospitality? When I grew up, as a pastor’s kid, our home was open to drop-in visitors – and this characteristic wasn’t unique to us. Sunday was the day many headed out to someone’s home for lunch and fellowship after morning service. Today, our hospitality includes coffee at Tim Horton’s or lunch at our favourite restaurant. Is this sufficient to create a community of truthful living and promise keeping?
Pohl keeps the challenge of community in front of us at all times. She draws a distinction between contentment and lukewarm or half-hearted participation. Contentment allows for growth and moves us toward a “fuller” life, even though we still need to overcome life’s obstacles. About “lukewarm” participation, she acknowledges that not all Christians are looking for “a fuller, more complete experience of life in community…. There are church members who resist efforts to build stronger community because they are satisfied with Sunday-morning services and an occasional activity. In other cases, they are wary of a substantive recovery of particular practices, preferring, more ‘moderate’ versions in which practices are not too costly or personally inconvenient.” But when groups opt for “business as usual” over the long term, “they are facilitating their own deaths.
“The goal in all of this is not to try harder to build community or to get the practices right. It is about living and loving well in response to Christ,” Pohl concludes. “In the end, it is as simple and as compelling as ‘loving those whom God has set beside us today.’”
I recommend this book. It’s not an easy afternoon’s read; however, Pohl’s principles make sense, and are a worthwhile challenge to anyone who desires to create, live in, and maintain better community. This book would be a valuable resource for church leaders, pastors, and church planters.