This blog post is adapted from a sermon that I delivered this morning answering the twin questions of Why Community? and Why Organized Religion? When I began working on that sermon, I loved the idea of preaching on community. I have always loved feeling that sense of belonging and purpose which can come from community. I have sought community for a long time. While contemplating this topic, it seemed that the more I thought about community, the less focused the concept became. Community literally means together one.
In Genesis 2:18 we read “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the human to be alone.’” And as good as dogs and cats can be, animals are not enough—it takes another human for a human not to be alone. At this point in human history it seems that we have that sort of being alone taken care of. There are around 7,068,183,567 people on Earth as of 6:05 pm Saturday, February 23, 2013.
The truism that it is not good for a human to be alone can echo in our ears in these days of mass shootings. We often hear of the shooters feeling isolated. On the flip side, we hear that if only people were in relationship with the shooter and talking to the person then they would have known sooner what was going on. Isolation and loneliness can become their own sort of boogey man.
All Alone in a Crowded Room
Isolation has other less obvious effects too. The challenge of Ecclesiastes holds. It seems that we can be utterly alone even with other people in the world. If we don’t have a companion close to us or a child or a sibling then how can we find meaning to our work and self-sacrifice? Who will benefit from our self-denial? Merely having more than one person on Earth is not enough. We need connection.
When the worship team for our congregation began discussing using Why questions for the sermons in Lent, today’s question was framed as “Why Organized Religion?” Offering a defense of all organized religion is quite a daunting task. Moreover I am not certain that I am the right person to do it. I left the Catholic Church for the Church of the Brethren. The Catholic Church seems to be the epitome of organized religion in Christianity. They have hierarchy down. Priests around the world follow the order of mass prescribed in books handed down from the Apostolic See. Catholics follow one supreme Pope whereas the Orthodox follow one Patriarch among many. Brethren have councils. And I left the Catholics behind for a group where the individual had more power. The Church of the Brethren is set up as a representative democracy which offers more hope for change.
Religion Without Hierarchy
Who am I to argue for religion that is organized? Yet, I find myself in good company in the Church of the Brethren. Before the Church of the Brethren existed, Luther and the Reformation began the process of questioning hierarchy and the Radical Reformation, which gave birth to the Church of the Brethren pushed it even further. People not only pulled their countries or even their parishes out of the system, but some Radical Pietists even stopped going to corporate worship entirely. Some of these people never rejoined organized religion. They found their unity by leaving behind their togetherness.
So what happened to “It is not good for the human to be alone?” By working together a group will get a good return for their efforts. Many gathered in small reading groups called conventicles. Together they read the Bible and together they prayed.
Around the turn of the 18th Century, one conventicle was gathering in Schwarzenau, Germany and they are remembered by the Church of the Brethren today. Five men and three women decided that they needed to be baptized as adults and these eight proceeded to baptize one another in the Eder River. While later Brethren would look back on Alexander Mack as their founder, these early Brethren wanted to avoid the sort of hierarchy having one founder implied.
A term used today to describe the sort of group who began the Church of the Brethren is an affinity group. Affinity groups tend to be small with perhaps 5 to 20 people. Decisions in affinity groups are made by consensus which allows a strong sense of unity when they do act.
Over the years, Brethren have allowed a sense of hierarchy to creep in. Unity was found by expelling individuals and communities. On an individual level this is called the Ban and which is more commonly called shunning. Part of our desire to become organized came from a fear of people who followed inspiration more than any tradition, even the Bible. Following the Spirit seemed to give way too much power to the individual. Elders were chosen to be leaders in our meetings. We assembled ourselves into districts. Annual Meeting decisions became precedents and precedents became Annual Conference Statements.
Unity Through Explulsion
Whereas individuals were placed under the Ban, communities were disfellowshipped. Brethren split into more and more sects following a push for unity by expulsion. The people of Ephrata left and eventually became the German Seventh Day Baptists.
A three way split led to the creation of the Old German Baptist Brethren who split again into Old Order German Baptist Brethren and Old German Baptist Brethren New Conference. Also from the three way split came the Brethren Church which split again giving birth to the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches which split again and gave birth to the Conservative Grace Brethren Churches. The third piece of that three way split led to the Church of the Brethren. Oh and there was this group called the Church of God: New Dunkers, but they disbanded in 1962.
Today, our friends who were once Indiana Yearly Meeting are experiencing pain from an effort to find unity by expulsion. Powerful people in Indiana Yearly Meeting thought that they would only lose three monthly meetings. Instead found themselves riven in half, torn in two.
Searching for Unity
True unity comes not from expulsion, but by building relationships. 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us that “the body consists not of one member, but of many” and that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” It is through honor and respect that we find our strength.
Early Brethren tried to emulate early Christians, but eventually hierarchy became a part of the Brethren too. Jesus broke down barriers and hierarchies by eating with outcasts, going against his society’s expectations. Jesus and John the Baptist offered ways to participate in religion that did not require traveling to the distant Temple in order to be faithful Jews.
In Acts 2 we see early Christians eating meals together following Jesus’ pattern and holding all possessions in common. Each person received according to their need. They met in Jesus’ name as Jesus had called for when he said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there with them.”
Glimmers of Hope
Community requires more than merely being together. In my life I have felt a strong sense of community only a few times. In college, I had a group project in my Communication Research Methods class where I felt community. The words “group project” are liable to make people groan because many of us have been forced to work with partners or on group projects where a sense of community is lacking. I faced this challenge throughout my education. Yet, in this particular class it was different. We were as at ease chatting with each other as we were working together and our project got high marks. Being with these people brought me contentment. Even though I rarely had reason to see them again, these people felt like friends to me.
Another time when I felt community was when I went to a protest to work to close the School of the Americas. I and some of the people with me heard that there were Catholic Workers there who were giving away food. We went over to the apartment where the Catholic Workers had stationed themselves and we were welcomed in. Not only was I offered food, but I was integrated into their group for the time I was present. I was quickly assigned to the job of chopping vegetables and found myself as much a part of their effort as the people who had traveled with them.
I have been a part of many choirs and choral singing requires cooperation, working together. A strong choir and even more so a skilled choir working in tandem with an orchestra are amazing. There is strength and a balance between unity and diversity. Yet there are times when people sing together but do not rise beyond the level of acquaintances outside of rehearsals and performances. This sort of disconnect can lead to cognitive dissonance and a dramatic emotional let down. First this shows up as rehearsals end, but can be even more intense after the final performance.
One incident that stands out to me came after I was singing Carmina Burana with a huge choir and a full orchestra. We had practiced together for a full semester. To begin with the choir practiced on its own and the orchestra practiced on its own, but by the end we were practicing as a full group.
After our performance was over and most everyone had left I found myself walking alone in the parking lot. Of course, I had arrived alone before the performance but after the performance there was no more sense of anticipation. The unity that had been building was dissipating and the loneliness surrounding me was palpable. Some friends and acquaintances had talked about going to a restaurant so I went there. My friends didn’t show as I waited in the parking lot. I went inside and looked for friendly faces. I figured with so many people in the choir and the orchestra there would be at least one person I knew. I finally found someone I recognized and asked, “Can I sit with you?” “No,” she answered, “I recognize you from choir, but I don’t really know you. Anyway, we have enough people.” I felt loneliness in the contrast—the sense of unity was gone.
Where Lies Our Refuge
The Buddhists can offer us insight into how to find unity. Buddhists affirm what are called the three jewels or three treasures. They proclaim, “I take refuge in the Buddha,” the Enlightened One. “I take refuge in the Dharma,” the teachings or the way. “I take refuge in the Sangha,” the community.
While we do not proclaim our faith in this fashion, Christians can also find strength in similar concepts. We take refuge in Christ, the Messiah. We take refuge in the Way. Early Christians called themselves followers of the Way. We are guided by the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. We join with a community that transcends time extending far beyond the present moment into the past and the future. We take refuge in community. Together we find strength. Together we find joy. We unite.
Indeed, I am not alone. I am together with the people who worked to lead worship and all of those who attended and participated. Beyond the people there in person were James Martin, Patricia Shelly, John Oxenham, Alexander Reinagle, and Brian Wren who composed the hymns we sang today. Beyond even them, we join with the Teacher who wrote Ecclesiastes and all of the writers of Scripture.
Merely being together, though, is not community. For a church to offer community we need to find common values and purpose. Like Proverbs tells us, “As iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens the wits of another.” Any of us might lose our way alone, but together we stay on the path. We must find unity, but not unity from expulsion or exclusion. A three ply cord doesn’t easily snap. Groups that freely gather and find consensus through listening to one another and honoring one another achieve true unity together they are one. We gather in Jesus’ name. Together we are one. Together we find community.