May 2012 - Vol. 60
I suppose I live in one of the more radical expressions of community. I sometimes introduce myself as an ďurban monk.Ē Recently in a business context the person laughed, incredulous, and asked if that was simply a marketing gimmick, or the real thing. I smiled. ďYouíll have to answer that yourself.ĒThink itís easy to build real community with teenagers? Think again. Urban monk Jamie Treadwell explores how youth workers can create lasting community through commitment in an increasingly selfish society.
I am a member of the Servants of the Word, a Christian missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. We live together a common life with shared finances and a daily pattern of life inspired by a Benedictine rhythm of prayer and work. I live in one of our households in west London, UK. We currently have 10 men living here, representing an age range from 23 to 64. We hold positions of service and leadership in mission projects here and around the world, yet after every meal together we all pitch in and do the dishes. Iíve been doing this for about 30 years. His response, ďWow, thatís the real thing.Ē
What is real community all about? Itís the place where Christ-love is expressed day in and day out. Itís counter-cultural and life transforming. It requires us to die to self so that we can discover new life in Christ. Itís all about looking not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. Itís joy-filled and sometimes painful, intentional, and naturally relational. It takes time. The foundations are servant-heartedness, mutual respect, and submission to one another. Commitment enables it to happen. Inter-generational expression gives vision for the long haul. How to do all this must be modeled and taught. Itís one of the great needs of our time and one of the challenges the church most struggles with. When it happens, a youth group is totally alive, a neighborhood celebrates together, and the love of God is known.
Commitment enables real community to take root and grow
Another example. Members of the Antioch Community, also in London, made a radical decision almost 20 years ago. Many members moved to Acton in west London in order to be close enough together to express day-to-day support and mission in the local area. Itís an ecumenical community, and its members are active in numerous local churches, including Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and free church members. There are now about 90 adults and 70 children in the community. Multi-national and with all ages represented, from grandparents in their 80s to lively children and full-on teenagers, the community provides a place for integrating singles and families.
Antioch aspires to be ďa community of disciples on mission.Ē This phrase expresses that active mission grows out of the foundation of real community. Last autumn the community hosted a healing event with the involvement of local churches that attracted over 400 hundred local residents, and made a lasting impression of the power of God released in the healing service. From the community life itself springs a regular pattern of open dinner parties, neighborhood BBQs, menís and womenís events, Alpha courses and practical service projects. Every Tuesday evening our household cooks dinner for a family who lives down the street from us. In many ways, the Antioch Community is joining with others to rediscover what it means to be neighbors.
Andy Pettman, senior leader of the Antioch Community, highlights that community requires commitment, the willingness to stick at it when the going gets tough. And it will get tough. Commitment requires that we work through disagreements. The Antioch Community follows a biblical process for handling conflict based on respect of one another, attentiveness to how the disagreement is talked about, and agreeing to submit to outside help. This sort of process needs to be taught, and agreed to.
Knowing how to manage conflicts and reconcile broken relationships is a key skill for young people. When you lay foundations for working through disagreements, youíre training a generation of peacemakers in a world of conflict.
Lessons from the Book of Acts: Real community is counter-cultural. Itís not going to happen without serious effort.
Christian community was born through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We read about these heady days in the opening chapters of Acts. Peter preached, people responded, and then this radical community of prayer, sharing, dinner parties, and outreach mission appeared overnight. It all looks so easy.
Letís look a bit deeper though. There are important lessons tucked in here, and in what follows as, Paul picks up the community building work outside of Jerusalem.
Acts describes how the church was born out of the fabric of God-fearing Jews. Peterís preaching in Chapter 2 focused on a clear message: ďThis Jesus whom you crucified is risen from the dead, and this is proof that he is the promised Messiah.Ē All those listening knew what Peter was talking about. They needed to respond, they just needed to know how. Three thousand did respond, and joined the way of life modeled by the disciples. The church was born.
These pioneers of the church were able to adapt quickly to a new way of life because they had a common starting point Ė as God-fearing Jews they shared a common set of values and cultural norms. For example, they knew what it meant to have fellowship over meals and to pray together. Most importantly, they had a context to understand what it meant to be a dwelling place of God through the Spirit. There was also a practical reference point: the disciples themselves were already modeling a common life shaped by their experience as disciples of Jesus. The early church was an extension of this community, it was all about how the believers lived their life together.
Notice how the community building work changed as the faith spread to the Gentiles in Corinth and Ephesus. These cities were not God-fearing places. Corinth was infamous for its shameless and immoral lifestyle. Ephesus was a center of economic power and wealth as well as the worship of idols. Paulís pastoral letters to the Christians in these cities reflect this difference. The converts in these places had a much more difficult transition to make. A whole new way of life had to be taught, and it was hard work.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul begins with the encouragement that indeed Jesus has provided all that they need to become Godís people. But notice what he writes about next Ė he gets straight to the business of addressing key issues in their inner life. Most of the letter deals with concerns over how they handle disagreements, morality, and relationships. Paul encourages them to get these inner dynamics working well so that the life of Christ is known among them. Paulís interest is in building a way of life that is sustained over time. God gives grace for this new life to grow, but we need to cooperate with this grace through our practical day-to-day decisions.
The church (then, as it is now) was made up of real people, people who struggle with sin, disagreements, selfishness, and simply the difficulty of learning how to live with others. Yet these were the people called together to express a Christ-centered love day in and day out. Paul recognized that the people needed to be taught how to do this, both through his word as well as through the witness of his own way of life. Jesusí profound act of service to his disciples in the washing of the feet at the Last Supper was meant to be a foundational lesson for us. ďNow that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one anotherís feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.Ē (John 13:13,14)
The challenge for youth workers is how to cooperate with grace to work ďon the insideĒ to build community. We need to be taught. Christ-centered community wonít happen naturally, even though we are born of the Spirit and are a worshipping community. Indeed, the three qualities at the heart of community Ė servant-heartedness, respect of others, and submission Ė are counter-cultural concepts (as in, practically unknown) in most young peopleís experience.
Community in our Youth Groups: Itís easy to love neighbors who live far away, but not the ones I live with.
Internet canít create the type of community weíre considering here. It can get people connected with shared interests, but this is not real community in flesh and blood. I recently talked to a young man experiencing a painful loneliness, despite living in a shared housing situation with other Christians. At first impression, nobody in the flat had time in their busy schedules to hang out together. They had become like ships passing in the night. We looked again, and noticed that each of the guys spent several hours each week (sometimes each day) on Facebook and Skype with friends in other places. Interesting.
We need a re-wiring out of the Western mindset of individualism. The internet provides opportunities for connection with others, but can also reinforce the default position of looking out for number one, with no real commitment to others. We need to step back, re-envision what community could mean in our context, and then commit to action to make it happen one small step at a time.
Cultivate real community in the young people we serve
Andy Hewitt is the executive manager of Youth Initiatives, working in several locations of social need in Northern Ireland. He notes that young people have a sense of disconnection, sometimes expressed in their family situation, society around them, and the anti-social behavior of their immediate peer environment. Youth Initiatives expresses community by providing a place to experience a strong sense of belonging. Ideally, young people connect when they are 11 or 12 years old, and then stay connected through to their adult years.
A key concept for Youth Initiatives is creating a shared agenda.
We begin by reaching out to them where they are at, in school or on the streets. When they come along to something weíre doing they experience it as a safe place, a place where they can feel vulnerable as well as challenged. We have to get below the surface and be real. But when the young people come to us they also notice something different. Theyíve come into a new way of doing things. The older members are involved in service as well as leadership. They are the ones setting up and cleaning up afterwards. They are the ones welcoming in new members and setting the inclusive tone. Thereís an attitude of respect thatís noticeable, even amidst all the fun and banter.
Community is first experienced. Itís perhaps intangible, but the young people know if itís there, and if itís genuine. We work on simple skills that make a big difference. We remember names, and what theyíre about outside the youth group. We encourage our team to write these details down if they need to. We pay a lot of attention to how young people relate to each other. We work on things like respect, the way guys and girls interact, the language they use. We donít do gossip. We recognize contribution and hold service as a high ideal. We offer small groups where they can get below the surface in real conversations. For many young people, this is one of the rare experiences of positive, formative contact with an adult.
So letís be ready to be counter-cultural and transform the way we do
life together. Pay attention to the inner life of our youth groups in order
to cultivate our ability to see, to act, and to listen as individuals and
as a group. Model real community as leaders, and create opportunities to
train young people in how to live this out themselves. Real community requires
commitment in order to take root and grow. Through the grace of God it
releases life into our youth groups and celebrations in our neighborhoods.
[This article was originally published in the April 2012 Issue of Youthwork Magazine, an evangelical publication for Christian youth workers based in London, UK. Used with permission.].
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