Wednesday 2 December 2015

Communities of God (Passionate Community)

After a really long semester, I'm finally writing again. Hopefully I can use the December holidays to finish writing all the posts that I want. So this will be the first, and it'll be a trilogy post together with the 'Loneliness' and 'Caretakers'. Do read those posts after you finish this one, they will be a meaningful addition to what I wrote here! :)
Note: This post is long because I share a lot of my personal stories so it's not so dry :D

I wrote on this topic because I felt that there are many people around me who seems to have different notions and levels of enthusiasm for being involved in their Christian communities; from those who are really tight with their community, to the 'solo' Christians who live their faith out alone (or if at all) with Jesus. I write this not only as someone who has benefited from structured communities in church and school: by feeling included in one and developing a sense of belonging with them; but also as someone who felt left out by such structures. Lastly, I also have experienced firsthand holding the role of the caretaker of a community and requiring the use of structures so as to serve and meet people's needs better. Thus, I believe that my viewpoint should be adequately holistic enough for you! :)

What are "structured communities"?
Psalm 133:1 NIV - How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity!
Structured communities here generally refer to a community (Christian communities in this context) with some level of hierarchy. By some level, I can mean a very flat organization structure, with very few or no titles or leaders or authority given to leaders. It can also refer to complicated organization structures with several tiers of leaders and followers. In specific church terms, this generally refers to things like cellgroup, ministry e.g. youth ministry, young adults ministry, or congregations. Often, within these structures there are also side structures such as mentoring, musician bands, particular interest groups, leadership team and so on. Here, regardless of whether its an official (where a church leader is currently in charge of it) or unofficial where it's just a group of you who meet regularly or time to time, the common thing is that they are all considered a distinct community with some boundaries. I make a distinction between structured and non-structured ones because I feel that communities in society today may be created without a particular purpose - such as the Chinese community or the NUS community, whereas structured provides the notion that it is created for a purpose. If you're confused, then TL:DR - just think of your cellgroup or christian communities in either your school or workplace. From here on, I'll just use the word 'communities' to refer to structured communities. 

Possible Experiences in a Community
I need to make a disclaimer - the labeling and division I use here are merely painting the extremes. On one end, we feel included. On the other end, we feel alienated or excluded. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Please do not use these labels on people in your community. Instead, try to find out where they lie on the spectrum.

Communities whereby we feel included
Most likely, such communities are where we grew up in (not necessarily like growing older, but growing as a Christian) -  or where we are serving actively in. For many of us, it is quite the comfortable place. Our needs are met; we have friends who care; leaders who look out for us and can speak into our lives God's truth and love; we are also growing to be more Christlike and closer to God.
How I experienced such inclusion and sense of belonging in a community was when I came to Hope Church as a Junior College student and was found by Christ. My days there had been a core foundation for my understanding of the importance of living with a community. I'm sure that for most of you, especially if you're serving in church in a particular ministry, generally at least half the weekend is taken almost entirely on church stuff. Likewise for me. However, mine wasn't taken up by meetings or serving, but rather lots and loads of fellowshipping and talking about our lives. A typical day program would be like this: 

1. Leave house at 10.30am
2. Reach at about 11.15am
3. Camp at some fastfood restaurant and TALK with my church friends (including lunch) 
4. Go for service at 2pm, until 4pm
5. Go somewhere nearby to TALK and spend time together (including dinner) till 8pm
6. Go supper and TALK until late, sometimes till the last bus and train.

This repeats every single Saturday, on top of weekly cellgroup meetings and church events.
Occasionally, we have meetings or birthday celebrations before/after service, but otherwise it's simply pure fellowship. We don't only talk about fun and happy things, but also about our struggles, insecurities, problems we face, evangelism and outreach, BGR relationships and everything. In fact, in Hope Church we don't call it cellgroup, but Lifegroup, because we believe in doing life together as a community. Let me just list several of my personally convictions about the importance of a community through my experience in church as a new believer who benefited much from it.

A community is....
  • a place to practice loving and discipling one another - I learn to practise the commandments of God to love ourselves as our neighbor as I live with these people. How to accommodate and serve them, how to give them my time, attention and vulnerability, how to not say hurtful things to them, how to forgive them and learn to call them family - brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • a safe place to grow and keep each other convicted on following God - from my community, I receive discipleship, rebukes, convictions, attention to my blind spots and sin; whatever that needs to be removed, restored and encouraged to be more like Christ. Without them, who else would be in such close proximity and also willing to watch over me as I seek the kingdom of God? 
  • a place of rest and comfort - after a week of school, family and society, I come to this place to just enjoy their presence and company. When I'm down and emo, I can find solace, comfort and people to emo with. When I'm excited, I find people to rejoice with me. When I'm tired, I find people whom I can lay down my head and heart and do nothing with. 
Major Update: Passionate Community
I also want to add in a portion regarding what I learnt from the Bible about the 'role model community of Christians' in Acts 2:42-47. v42: 'They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.' From this v42, we can divide it into 4 points, to be elaborated with the rest of the verses in 43-47. 
A Passionate Community of Christians is one where people:

1) Teach and Grow one another
This is taken from v42 - 'They (the believers) devoted themselves to the apostle's teaching ..'and also from v43 - '...awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles'. The Christians then came to meet one another and learnt and grew, not only from the teachings, but from the wonders and signs, having their faith in God strengthened. In our context today, the teachings and sermons by our spiritual leaders still exist in the same form as in the 1st Century AD, whereas the wonders and signs are in our sharing about the goodness of God in our lives; our testimonies on how He moved and transformed lives, cultures, negative circumstance for His glory. However, to benefit, we have to turn up at such meetings. Not all, but most of it and as best as we couldAt the same time, we also have to realize that all of us are able to teach and grow one another. The Holy Spirit is in us, and therefore God can use us. We may not be able to teach through a sermon, but we can still teach and grow others through "wonders and signs" of God in your life as you share God's fingerprints as you walk with Him. Again, though, we have to be present to do these - to bless one another by teaching and growing them. 

It is true that we all have our own responsibilities and commitments in life. We, not just you. Here in v42, the Greek word for 'devoted' is proskartereo, which means to endure; remain steadfastly with someone. Likewise, it costs us to turn up physically - but we have to remain steadfast and commit to our community as God desires (this need not mean 100% attendance, or even 60% - must ask God how to juggle our commitments!) Not because we must, but because we love. Not because we are noble in paying a cost, but because our community also paid a cost to come and serve us, just as Jesus did.

2) Are of One Bread
V42 - 'devoted to... the breaking of bread' and v44-46. The bread signifies the body of Jesus given for us (Matthew 26:26) and reminds us that we are all of one family in God. In v44-46, the passage wrote of how the Christians (probably the richer ones) gave to the poorer Christians amongst them 'who had need'. In times of economic downturn and financial issues in the 1st Century AD, the Christian community went through it as one Bread - they did not cast out those who had issues, but gave out of their own pockets. From here I want to draw out a sub-point:

A) One Bread means that you don't go off on our own even if it is faster/better for you
Sometimes as Christians we have the tendency to just ignore/forget about those who are not doing as well as us. This can be in terms of our walk with God, or tangible issues like grades, wealth, health. One area that strikes out at me about this point is how during exams season in university,  many people I know will go into their 'cave' to study, and somehow nothing else remains in your conversations with them except practice paper questions and concept discussions. The reasoning I usually get is: "I study better alone" or "I cannot study in groups". All this is natural, because they have always went through exam seasons alone -no way to be good at it. However, we have to trust God that as we go through trials of any kind as a community, being together with the community will also yield blessings. If you're good, help the weak ones. If you're weak, help those weaker than you. If you're the weakest, serve the community in other ways. In the early church, everyone sold their possessions and gave to those who had needs. And God moved supernaturally, in v47, 'the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved'. 

B) One Bread means we don't drift away from the community when it gets tough

In the passage in v44-46, those who are poor came to the Christian community knowing that they can have their needs met by them. And they, at least in part, most likely stayed there for similar reasons. Today, however, the reverse is true. When we struggle, even if we know where we can have our needs met, we rather not go there and instead struggle on our own till we are in destitute. I'm also guilty of it, of course. We have to learn to be supported by one another, and also support one another. Also, what puzzles me further is that when eventually we learn to struggle WITH people's support, we will go to them in everything but our studies - which is the bulk of our responsibility in university. During exams, I see even those academically weaker ones choose to go into their 'cave' and struggle alone. Why? Why not depend on your community to struggle together? I suspect because they do not want to be a 'burden' to others - and the reason they feel that they are a burden to others is simply because they are not serving their community/friends in other ways. Such people may aim to give and serve others, but ultimately they don't, and eventually they realize that they are not contributing in any way and therefore don't feel 'good' about taking anything from them. Please, we are one Bread for a reason!!! Jesus died for us, so we should die for one another: John 15:13 NIV - Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. If you feel bad, give back unto them, not refuse your community's love. Not because you owe them, but because you love them and want to repay God.

3) Fellowshipping with glad and sincere hearts
v42 - 'devoted... to fellowship' and v46 - 'meeting together everyday... eating together with glad and sincere hearts.' Fellowship is a very loaded jargon in our Christian world today. However, I don't want to go into the details; I'll just define it as 'Christians spending time together and bonding'. Sometimes when we turn up at fellowship events, we do not do so with 'glad' hearts. Simply put, we see turning up as a chore, as an additional inconvenience in our busy schedule. Sometimes the reason for not turning up is that we are 'tired'. Then why not come to be refreshed? The Bible says in Proverbs 11:25b NIV - 'those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed'. The reason you don't feel refreshed when you come is simply because you do not have the expectation to receive and have your needs met. God is the one who will meet your needs through your community, not your community. Even in a community that doesn't give much (or where you're often the one who gives the most), God can still refresh you. We must have this expectation that God will add unto us through our community, and only then will you be 'glad' in your hearts. Don't let the 'costs' be at the front of your mind - things like "guess I'll go home really late today" or "guess I won't have time to finish my work for tomorrow" - yes, they are real and valid, but how are you going to enjoy fellowship if you're worrying about all this? In the same way when we eat chocolates and ice cream, we don't think how much calories and sugar we are eating, but instead enjoying the taste of it. Only then can we truly enjoy and be glad :)

And when we do come, sometimes instead of fellowshipping with others, we choose to go to one corner, feel awkward and just use our phones instead. And the main reason I get for this is "I don't know anyone" or "I'm not good at talking to people". What makes fellowship gladden our hearts is ultimately people, not programs or environment. Thus if you do not get out of your awkwardness and comfort zone, you'll never enjoy fellowship or feel refreshed by it. And the reasons mentioned, true as they are, cannot be seen as valid. It's equivalent to saying: "Since my grades suck I shall not study. I'll go into a lecture and not try to understand what is going on." If talking in a group scares you, just make one good friend in the community at a time, and eventually you will know everyone! For the rest of us, if you see someone in a fellowship event who feels unengaged or awkward, do take the intentional step to befriend them :D

'Sincere' heart - To me, being sincere is not the same as being real. There are times and occasions whereby we want to treat people well and genuinely so (that is sincere to me) but we also have our own struggles that we are not comfortable with telling or showing others. Furthermore, we also don't want to be the kind of Christians that spew negativity wherever we go after all. So we may put on a front; some call it a mask. However, in the long run, having a mask all the time is tiring for us, and we also don't give our communities the chance to know more about us and support us. In that case, what I propose and something I do myself is put on a 'half-mask'. Don't need to reveal your problems, but leave some hints for people to follow-up and ask you privately. People who care about you and want to care about you will notice. For those who don't, it's fine, because you also don't want EVERYONE to know about your struggles. Give your community the chance to be 'sincere' to you as well :)

4) Expect God to move in supernatural ways
v42 - 'devoted to... prayer' and v47 'the Lord added...' A community of Christians is only complete with the presence of God, who will bring with Himself His supernatural wonders, as shown in the wonders and signs performed by the apostles through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have to increase our expectancy of how God will do His miracles in our community. We can also create space for Him to do so via:

  • Praying and interceding for a word from God to give to our friends: In our daily prayers for people in our community, on top of our usual prayers, we can ask God for a word or verse to encourage our friends and then message/write them a card.
  • Encouraging and ministering to one another with what God wants to say, not just ours: At times our friends have a situation or struggle, or they are simply sharing their lives with us. We may have something to respond to them about based on our own experience or knowledge of the Bible, but how about we first ask God if He has something He wants to say directly to our brothers and sisters first? After that we can decide whether we should say anything else to them.
  • Outreach and evangelize to non-Christians: Just as God added to the Acts community, He can do the same in ours. We must believe that He can and will use us to draw the lost back to Him. So we can invite our non-believing friends to church or our Christian events (or even plan outreach events for them!).
We must learn to expect the supernatural movement of God, because we are in spiritual warfare against the devil. What is at stake here is more than just what we can see! Partnering with God, our Lord and King, is important if we want to stand strong as a passionate community!

Imperfect Communities: where we feel alienated or excluded
The above portion on what the ideal and passionate community looks like is where we want to work towards. However, not all communities are perfect. In some communities, although in smaller amounts, there are definitely people who cannot 'fit' into the community - often and especially as the community grows larger in number - and feel alienated by the very same structured community that was intended for their benefit. I use the term 'fit' here very loosely; it's not like they become rebels or do not enjoy any aspect of the community. But rather, there is some sort of frustration due to a lack of their needs (important needs) being met - whether this is in terms of fellowship, discipleship, culture, interest or anything. At times this is possibly due to their excessive expectations on the community; at times it is the community that did not consider things from their point of view. Regardless, for those affected, the main sentiment and issue that arises is closely related to 'loneliness'. You may be unwilling to label yourself or someone else with such a powerful word, but as someone who personally went through it, I can't think of a better term. Even burn-outs often arise because people feel that they are the only one who can do the job: you look around to your left and right, and you feel like there is no one by your side. I'll cover some content for people who feel excluded or alienated by their community in the next post: 'Loneliness'.

However, there are some of us who just don't see the need or importance for community. Perhaps you have visited a community before, or are in name part of one, but your heart nor presence is hardly with it. The consequence of not being in a structure is as mentioned above in the previous section. The Bible describes the importance of being part of a community with these verses, amongst many: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, Acts 2:42, Hebrews 10:24-25.

Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV - And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

If you're not currently in a community, my guess is that it is because 1) you have never experienced the goodness of one before, or 2) you have been hurt by communities before. If you're in 1), then it's really simple: You read my post above on the benefits of communities and find a community that can provide them. Communities won't be perfect, but as you labor and remain in it, it'll eventually come true. (Refer to my post on 'Caretakers'). If you're in the second situation, my heart and prayer goes out to you:

My Personal Story of Disinterest in Communities
My exposure to the damaging effects of communities came about in university. Having carried some wounds and emotional baggage from my previous ministry, I was quite hopeful about the transition to a new ministry. Unfortunately, it was not as rosy as I expected. I was placed in a Lifegroup (LG) in which a majority of the more active members are girls, musicians or both. LET ME EXPLAIN. Having spent a great deal of my Christian life in a LG of only guys in the previous ministry, I needed to get used to the university context in my church where sisters exist. The way sisters relate to others and the way they serve God had become somewhat foreign to me after such a long time without them. So naturally, I feel some sort of alienation without the counterbalancing presence of other guys. On top of that, there were quite a few musicians in my LG. I have absolutely nothing against musicians and I really respect them for being able to serve God with their talents. But because of my lack of understanding regarding this field, I really have very little interest in it, and that became a rift. I vividly remember an instance whereby my LG leader encouraged us to come early to fellowship with one another before service. Although I wasn't very enthusiastic, I still wanted to be present and involved in the LG, so I turned up. So after reaching the venue, I sat down, 5 minutes later, suddenly, everybody who was present started to sing and jam with their musical instruments, and this lasted for quite some time till service started. When that happened, I was downright miserable and felt utterly scammed. It did not help that they felt that singing worship songs is always 'normal' and 'good' and did not understand when I expressed my discontent. As someone who just joined this ministry, while bearing my hurts from the previous one, this incident simply shunned me even further - a gap that I could only close significantly, and yet still not completely, 2 years later. 

If you have been on the receiving end of such alienation and felt community is a burden, or are fearful of the horror stories you heard and don't want to try being part of one, I want to tell you that God understands, knows what He is doing, and STILL intends for you to be there. I can't list down for you everything God intends to do with me through that period. But I am painfully aware of a few as I look back. Firstly, as I continue to spend my days in this community, feeling somewhat alienated and even orphaned, I discovered that in the end, God is really sufficient for me. No matter how hard it was to be there, I still depended on Jesus, the perfecter and author of my faith. Through that period I really grew closer to God and understanding His creation (myself) so much more. My 'independence' from my ministry grew from there: ultimately I understand that my loyalty and devotion should be first and foremost to God, not a particular ministry/church/field/group of people. I'm not saying we should not be committed to wherever we are placed in, or become unsubmissive to spiritual authority, but that God's direction and input is always priority. Through my days then, I also encountered people in the ministry who felt the same way as I do. Naturally, we got closer and were able to appreciate each others' pains more. We did NOT start a fight or a rebellion with our leaders, but simply began to be more sensitive towards some of the flaws of our community and any community in general; as well as those who are affected. From my dealing with the pains and struggles in my own heart, I also learnt how to minister to people in such situations. (I'll mention some of these learning points in the 'Loneliness' post.)

As I look back at those times, the whole affair only becomes more beautiful. While I did not fully comprehend the purposes of God during that period of struggling, and still do not comprehend today, I began to see how the puzzle of His purpose fits in my life. Now, I have learnt to commit, imperfectly but unconditionally, to wherever God has put me in. Not because it's an enjoyable place, but because God wants me there; because there is something I can contribute in there and learn from there. Everywhere seems enjoyable and beneficial and meaningful once I gain this perspective. I felt like I can understand Paul a bit better when he said: 
Philippians 4:12-13 NIV - I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.
So to you who have been hurt and have decided to give up altogether on communities, or are currently struggling and are considering quitting your current community to find another one in another church or just leaving church altogether, I really urge and encourage you to think again. Please feel free to contact me if you need me to pray for you and be there for you! My personal understanding of when should we leave a particular church and join another (in the absence of a direct response from God via prayer) is summarized into:
Leave only after you have 1) been there for some time (at least an entire year), putting up with the community despite your frustrations and feelings of exclusion. 2) You're also not currently in a leadership position or you have successors who can take over your place. This is because we do not want to irresponsibly and selfishly just leave and cause endless troubles for the community we're leaving. 3) The community is sinning explicitly, continually and is unrepentant about it even after being alerted about it. (Please check with someone  in your community about whether they are truly sinning, we do not want to use our opinion of 'sin' to judge people.)

Managing Multiple Communities
Converting receiving and giving
For some of us, we may have the privilege of being involved in several communities at the same time. These additional communities may perhaps be of a serving nature, such as musicians/bands, ministry operations' programmes team, children ministries, Sunday school teachers etc. Or they can simply be of similar (pastoral) natures as our cellgroup or pastoral ministries and have great overlaps: perhaps Christian Fellowship communities in our schools, workplace, or physical neighborhood. My personal belief, (which you can definitely contest) is that a person only have a limited capacity for social interactions and receiving discipleship in a particular duration of time. Beyond that limit, it seems counter-productive - it's like trying to cram an entire few months worth of work into our brain before the exams. You can only remember some parts and for most them you simply forget about them once exams are over. Based on this logic, I feel like having more fellowship or discipleship once I cross the limit of absorption become unneeded, counter-productive and may even cause damage, because I feel like I need to expand additional energy to be civil, polite and yet still sincere in social settings that I no longer enjoy nor benefit from - energy which I could use on digesting and appreciating the inputs I have been receiving prior to the limit. Of course, these limits can and should be expanded through effort/training (by God's grace) and God's supernatural movement, so that we can get more out of the privilege of being in a community. But this takes time.

Since there is a limit to how much we can absorb/receive, my own learnings from personal experience is: why not convert more of our time spent in these communities from fellowshipping to serving; becoming not a recipient but a provider, out of the abundance we have? Matthew 10:8b NIV - Freely you have received, freely give. Similarly, the principle of "to whom much is given, much is expected" is stated in Luke 12:48. This way, the time we spent in a particular community won't be 'wasted' once our limit of receiving is passed, and neither do we need to keep 'disappearing' or 'take a break' in more meeting-intensive ministries. This principle still relevant even if you're only in a single community - maybe your limit for fellowshipping and receiving is a little lower, or your ministry is a high-intensity one. But for some of us our limit is 2 or more ministries. I also want to add that in each ministry, the proportion of giving and receiving we get is different. In some communities, we give more and receive less (such as serving communities) and in others, we receive more and give less. I feel that the proportion ultimately doesn't matter in the short run (maybe less than a year), but eventually there shouldn't be a particular skew towards either direction (such as giving 95% of the time and only receiving 5%). Giving too much will often leave us feeling increasingly burnt out and bitter as time goes by - we feel shortchanged and unappreciated, while receiving too much with no reciprocation or service unto others often yields a sense of entitlement with no sense of belonging. With no practice on applying what we received, this eventually creates a weak foundation for our faith in and obedience to God.

Update: Equally Important in God's eyes
Sometimes we may have an internal ranking of which community is more important to us. However, in God's eyes, all communities are equally important, because they are all His chosen and beloved people. Our loyalty must ultimately be to God, not a particular Christian community or church (not saying cannot have preference, but cannot let our bias cause us to disobey God). Here I am referring to how in our heart we equally value all the communities we have, and not in terms of actions. After all, there are times where we must direct most of our attention to a particular community; maybe the people there are going through a tough time and therefore we need to be there more often than the other communities that we are part of. But if in our hearts we don't value them equally, as God would, this would have significant negative consequences:

Firstly, when we serve in the un-preferred community, we will often end up comparing them to the preferred community. And since we are already biased, they will never be 'good enough'. When we serve, especially when it gets tough, we won't be encouraged by how God is still moving in the lives our brothers and sisters there. We will then become much more easily upset, complaining, bitter and essentially bad-spirited about serving. Then our serving becomes a stench to God instead of a pleasant offering. Secondly, we also become much more tired easily and have a higher risk of burn-out. This is because we are not flexible, due to our heart prioritizing a particular community. As we serve God, He knows what we need (Matthew 6:32), which includes rest and restoration. Sometimes we may have clashing commitments at the same period of time. Perhaps you are at a situation where you really need rest, and for that week, the programme for one community is rest, while for the other is an outreach event, for example. Naturally, if we really need the rest, we will go for the programme that gives us rest right? However, due to our heart's rigid loyalty to one community more than the other, we may end up foregoing our rest instead, and miss out on God's intended rest for us. (Of course, this is just a simple example, there are a million things people can point out about my example but just catch the drift!) Let's not disdain God's people and His community. We are called to love God and love His people - all of them, not just some.

I would like to end off by suggesting a practical application for all of us as Christians, regardless of whether we feel included or excluded by our communities, which is to spare a thought for other people who are on the opposite ends. Whenever we make a choice or decision, ranging from where to go for dinner; a particular activity before or after service; the way we celebrate each others' birthday or significant events; to what sort of teachings to give; giving remarks about others; how to disciple each another - all this decisions may at times cause conflict or unhappiness from other people. At times these negative sentiments cannot be avoided, but at times it can. Let us learn to love one another, as fellow family members of God.
Ephesians 4:32 - Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Galatians 3:28-29 - There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.  
Author's notes: After this post, you can read 'Loneliness' if you want to know more about the struggles of people who feel excluded by the community. In this post, I'll focus on what we should do in such situations as people who are on the receiving end. There may be some overlaps with this post as I feel they are relevant and need to be mentioned again. Alternatively, you can go on to read the other post, 'Caretakers'. In this post I'll talk about the third kind of possible status in a group, which are the Caretakers. I'll also talk about what caretakers can do to create an environment that will help to accommodate and care for people who feel excluded, in general.

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