THE COMMUNITY OF BELIEVERS
If you’ve been around here any length of time, you will have heard the story of the beginning of our church. You will have heard how Rev. Harold Trinier was driving to his cottage when he saw someone putting a “for sale” sign on a red brick building. You’ll have heard how he wheeled around on Yonge Street and went back to get the details. And you’ll have heard how he convinced the Baptist Convention to buy the building so there could be a Baptist church in Thornhill.
But, of course, merely purchasing a building and labelling it a church wasn’t all it took to make a church in this place. Even adding a pulpit, a piano and some chairs didn’t accomplish this. There could be no church here without people. Since Rev. Trinier was the editor of the Canadian Baptist magazine, he was able to use the resources of his office to get the word out that a new church was starting. And before long, a small congregation had gathered – a congregation that in a few months time was big enough to call their first pastor, Rev. Percy Buck.
It was a good thing that in those days people had no hesitation in joining up with a new group. Even though this location was then practically in the middle of nowhere, with farmers’ fields across the street, the building was soon full – full with people bound together in a community of believers. With this it had really become a church.
As our society changes, it’s increasingly necessary for us to remind ourselves that being a Christian involves being a part of a group. Sixty-three years ago, nobody had to be told that. People were quite used to belonging to groups – whether it was the Lions Club, the bowling league, the bridge club or the P.T.A. The church was no different. It was quite naturally assumed that if you were a Christian you would gather together with other Christians. These were your people. This was where you belonged.
And this wasn’t just a matter of sociology. There was a biblical basis for it as well. All the way through the Bible there is the strong understanding that to belong to God is to belong to God’s people. Faith doesn’t come alone. There’s a whole community of people attached to it. And it is within that community that we live out vitally important aspects of our relationship with God.
When God made himself known in the Old Testament, he declared that he wanted a relationship, not just with individuals, but with a whole people – his people – God’s people – the people of Israel. And he wanted these people to see themselves as a community – where everyone belonged, where everyone had a place, where everyone had value. The most dramatic presentation of this came in the book of Deuteronomy, where God told the Israelites to observe the year of Jubilee. Every seventh year was to be like a Sabbath year. And it was to be marked in quite an extraordinary way. In the year of Jubilee, all debts were to be cancelled, and all servants were to be set free. It was a way of demonstrating that the Israelites were their brother’s keeper – and their sister’s keeper. They all belonged to one another.
In the New Testament, God puts a similar emphasis on belonging to the community of faith. In the book of Acts, after the day of Pentecost, we see the believers gathered all together. They’re not just off on their own exploring their relationship with God on an individual basis. They’re not just spiritual soloists. They’re together. Acts says they were one in heart and mind. And this unity went to lengths that we might find hard to imagine. According to Acts, “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. Someone would sell a house or a field and bring the money to the apostles, and it would be distributed to those in need.
In Acts we see Christian community in its highest form. We see the community of believers in practically a perfect state. Everyone belongs. Everyone is important. Everyone has a place. Who wouldn’t want to join a group like that?
The challenge the church has faced ever since is that it has been hard-pressed to reach this perfect state again. It’s difficult to have a perfect group when it’s made up of less than perfect people. And the church is no more likely than any other group to be made up of perfect people.
Parker Palmer is a Quaker who has written extensively about community. He spent eleven years living with a group that sought to follow the example of Acts 4. He was one of eighty people who shared a daily routine of worship, work, study, social action, decision-making and common meals. After a year of doing this, he came up with what he calls Palmer’s Definition of Community: “Community is that place where the person you least want to live always lives.” After his second year, he came up with Palmer’s Corollary to Palmer’s Definition: “And when that person moves away, someone else arises immediately to take his or her place.”
You might think such realities would make it impossible for community to exist in any form. Why would anyone want to share in life together with someone who aggravates them and annoys them so much? But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps it is through such realities that God is teaching us – and offering us blessings that we may not foresee.
There’s a story about a spiritual community in France that was led by a particularly wise man. In this community there was an individual whom no-one could get along with. He was irritable. He was always fighting with people. And he refused to help in any way. After many months of frustrating interactions, this man left the group and went to Paris. The leader of the group followed him and tried to convince him to return. But the man said no. Finally the leader offered to pay him a large monthly stipend if he returned. On this basis, the man accepted. When he returned, the other members of the group were aghast, and when they heard he was being paid to come back they were absolutely furious. The leader called them together and listened to their complaints. Then he said, “This man is like yeast for bread. Without him here you would never really learn about anger, irritability, patience and compassion. That is what you have come here for, and that is why I have brought him back.”
I doubt very much that the people who gathered here 63 years ago were thinking about the church this way when they joined up. Most of them were just natural joiners. That’s what people then did. But things are different now, especially among the younger generation. Joining isn’t as natural an activity as it used to be. In fact, many young people in the so-called Millennial generation don’t have much interest in joining anything, let alone the church.
Erin Lane is a twenty-nine year old writer who lives in Durham, North Carolina. She’s written a book she has called Lessons in Belonging From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe. In this book she wrestles with her own struggle to make a commitment to join a church, even though she is a person of deep personal faith. Erin’s story is far from unique. A sizeable portion of her generation is just like her. They believe in God, but there’s something holding them back from joining a church.
Erin describes going as a theological student to a women’s prison to take part in a program that educates persons who are incarcerated alongside those who aren’t. The class she was in required the students to learn how to tell their own personal stories. One of the exercises involved writing down the thing that they most wanted to keep hidden about themselves. Erin was stunned when she saw that she had written, “The thing I am most desperate to keep you from finding out about me is … I want to belong, but I don’t know how.”
This may well become the inner cry of an entire generation – a generation that wants to belong, but doesn’t know how. Our parents and grandparents wouldn’t have understood any of this. But this is the new reality for countless people – and, it goes without saying, it has huge implications for the church.
The belonging Erin is talking about is different from fitting in. She refers to a study of grade eight students in which they were asked to distinguish fitting in from belonging. According to these young people, “Fitting in means I have to be like you. Belonging means I get to be me.”
This is a point we need to look at very seriously in the church. It’s easy for those of us who’ve been around here a while to think that when newcomers come to our church, they need to fit in. In other words, they need to become like us. But that’s not really the way to build a community of believers. A community of believers has to be based on belonging, not fitting in. It has to be based on the idea that when people join the church, they get to be themselves. Or at least they get to discover the selves that God wants them to be. Their individual identity is not lost within the group. God calls each of us by name. He doesn’t want us to lose those things that make us distinct individuals. He wants us to be ourselves.
As Baptists we should know this better than anyone. We talk at length of the need for a personal relationship with God – a relationship that’s based on a faith that is ours alone. We also talk about the freedom each of us has to interpret scripture according to the leading the Holy Spirit gives us. And we affirm that none of us has the right to tell someone else how they ought to experience God. We Baptists are all in favour of being ourselves.
But being ourselves doesn’t amount to much unless we also belong – unless we have a place among God’s people – a place where we can be part of something bigger than ourselves – a place where we can experience the blessings and challenges of being part of the community of believers – a place where we can truly be ourselves within relationships of trust and caring.
Belonging for many people today seems to come harder than it used to. They fear they will lose their true selves if they become immersed in a larger group. But in reality, belonging is what we were made for. And in the end it is only through belonging that we can really discover our true selves. As the theologian Janice Soskice puts it, “We become ourselves through being with others.”
The chair of our Board of Management likes to say, “We are in one another’s hands.” And that’s exactly right. This is what it means to belong to the church. We don’t just belong to an organization. We belong to one another. We are part of a web of interdependence that reminds us that being a Christian is never something we can do on our own. We have to do it in the company of other believers.
According to Erin Lane, “The church is a package deal with belief in Christ; we are an unavoidable trinity of belonging – me, you and God.” And she’s not just talking about hanging out with our own little group – the people in the church we have the most in common with. She’s talking about meeting new people. She talking about taking the risk of reaching out to people in the church we don’t yet know.
She describes one Sunday after worship at the church she attends speaking with a couple of her close friends in the congregation. She said to them, “I was planning on trying out the young adults’ luncheon today. What do you think?” The husband of the couple said, “I’d normally be game. But I’d rather spend time with you than a bunch of strangers.” Erin says she gets this, so her reply was directed as much to herself as to her friend. She said, “But isn’t that what Sunday is for? Aren’t we supposed to be hanging out with a bunch of strangers?”
Being a true community of believers involves just that. It involves hanging out with people who to one degree or another are strangers. It’s not surprising then that the church is often a messy, confusing, imperfect place. It requires a lot of us to belong to such a community. No wonder so many people hold back from joining. But if we make the effort to belong – to truly belong - God blesses us in countless ways. He blesses us with spiritual growth. He blesses us with opportunities to learn patience and compassion. And he even blesses us with glimpses of his kingdom – glimpses of what heaven itself will be like.
For 63 years we have been a church that has invited newcomers to join us – to find a place where they can belong. By God’s grace, may we continue to be such a church. We will undoubtedly never be a perfect church – because on this side of eternity we will never be perfect people. But, by God’s grace, may we be the church we are capable of being. May we be the church that God calls us to be.