Beckett: Inviting Community – The Church as Community in an Individualistic Culture

I’m currently reading through Inviting Communitywhich is a collection of essays by former and current Concordia Seminary professors, each of whom are a small handful of some of the best Lutheran minds in America. I was going to write a book review on Inviting Community, but as each essay is unique in the book’s overarching theme, I thought it best to write on my own thoughts on some essays. I won’t be covering every essay in the book, but only some I found to be striking for my own mind. The book seeks to address ways in which the Church can begin to become an inviting community in ways that are fundamentally counter to our culture. [The art depicted in the feature image is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818).]


The first begins with Dr. Rick Marrs’ essay, “Inviting Community: First Article Perspectives.” Before I begin, it is necessary to quote Marrs’ footnote on what he means by “first article perspectives” if you’re unfamiliar with Lutheran terminology:

In Lutheran theology, the three articles of the Apostles’ Creed are often used to distinguish between God’s work as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. In the second article, Jesus Christ is our redeemer and rescuer. In the third article, the Holy Spirit is our sanctifier, the one who brings us to faith in our redeemer through the church, through God’s Word and sacraments. The ‘first article’ is about how God the Father created us and still works his will through the created order, for both Christians and non-Christians. God works through civil governments to maintain some semblance of order and peace, and through secular science, philosophy, and other disciplines to help humans better understand his creation. (21)

So, with a basic understanding of “first article perspectives,” that is the foundation on which Marrs is writing vis-à-vis the church as an inviting community.

Marrs begins with an attempt to define what a “community” is. He was unsatisfied with the myriad definitions offered by psychologists and even paper encyclopaepdias. He was surprised to find a satisfactory definition from Wikipedia of all places, which defines community as:

a group of interacting people, possibly living in close proximity, and [it] often refers to a group that shares some common values, and is attributed with social cohesion within a shared geographical location, generally in social units larger than a household. The word can also refer to the national community or international community. (22)

Wikipedia later extends the definition, “Since the advent of the Internet, the concept of community no longer has geographical limitations, as people can now virtually gather in an online community and share common interests regardless of physical location” (22).

For example, as an avid gamer I am involved in several gaming communities: communities for Destiny 2 (and its prequel), Elder Scrolls Online, and several others. I do not need to gather in a physical location with other people in order to socialise with other gamers. Of course, I can still gather with friends at a physical location to play, say, Super Smash Bros., but for MMO (massive multiplayer online) games like Destiny, it is not necessary at all.

Anyway, the particular challenge of the Church in America today is that we live in a culture that is increasingly growing more and more individualistic and isolated. Social theories such as attachment theory show how “humans are genetically and physiologically structured to be social creatures” (23). As Christians, we would agree with this observation under the theological premise of Genesis 2:18 that God did not create man to be alone. Nevertheless, there is this growing promulgation of anonymity and individualism. So, how can the Church in America today begin to become an inviting community in a culture that values individualism and isolation?

I invite you to pick up the book and read the essay for yourself. Without going too much into detail, one thing Marrs discusses is attachment theory. Currently, attachment theory looks at how “our parents raised us leads us to ask two questions into adulthood: 1) Am I worthy of love? 2) Are others capable of loving me” (25)? At the end of his essay, on this Marrs says that “individuals with different early childhood experiences will approach community with different lenses and expectations. Some will be secure as they approach [i.e. comfortable with intimacy and autonomy], but many others will come to us avoidant, fearful, or anxious” (33). So, whilst some may feel quite comfortable getting involved in a church community, there are still others who will be much more hesitant and timid. Learning about attachment theory and being cognisant of these kinds of people will help a church to be more inviting.

Marrs, with his vast psychology background, mentions a few other psychological theories worth reading about in his essay. I won’t cover them here, but one comment he makes is worth discussing: “The ‘Millennial Generation’ (roughly those born between 1982 and 2000) may be reversing the downward trend of social capital, but may be doing so in a very different fashion from their parents and grandparents” (28).

That is, our parents and grandparents (Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers) lived their lives socialising in physical community groups. Now, however, the Millennial Generation socialising has moved from physical community groups to online community groups. On the surface then, it appears as if community is dying, but really it has just changed venues: the Internet. This is seen all over social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, text messaging, and other digital landscapes.

Marrs notes that some contend that because of this, Millennials keep in contact with their parents and grandparents more than the two generations before them. So, the Church is living in a unique culture it has never lived in before—one where people are physically isolating themselves from each other, but are still socialsing and communicating via online venues. We may breathe a sigh of relief, “Thank God! People are still communicating!” But this raises two other problems: 1) the relative weakness of face-to-face communication among Millennials, and 2) the Church is a face-to-face community struggling to bring in online communicators—that is, people who isolate themselves from physical community and view individualism as the crux of true Americanism.

I will not delve into the first issue since that’s not the topic of discussion. The second issue is what we are discussing. Marrs does not give a one-time answer because there is no one-time solution to this problem that will work in every situation. Yet the input he gives from his psychological expertise is really helpful. 

Besides, Marrs’ article sets the pace for the rest of the book. Inviting Community is actually the sequel to another book written by Concordia Seminary professors, The American Mind Meets the Mind of ChristSo, before picking up this book, I would actually recommend picking up the prequel (they’re both relatively short books).

That being said, Inviting Community seeks to offer some insights on how the issues addressed in The Mind of Christ might be approached. The problem of individualism is also a common motif throughout The Mind of Christ as it is in Inviting Community. As such, Marrs’ essay is merely one perspective on the issue, and the others that follow offer their own perspective on how the Church might begin to become an inviting community in an individualistic culture.

Bibliography

Kolb, Robert, and Theodore J. Hopkins. Inviting Community. Saint Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2013.

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