Involuntary Community

Feb 08, 2008 |Tim Challies

You know how great it is to customize every feature on your computer, how cool it is to personalize every option? Yeah, church isn't like that at all.

I live much of my life basking in the glow of a pair of liquid crystal display monitors and with the gentle ambient hum of a computer fan registering somewhere just above my subconscious.

As a Web designer by day, a blogger by night and a writer whenever I can squeeze in a few moments, I live with my eyes glued to these 22" glowing rectangles.

Because I use a computer so much, I take great care in ensuring I have just the right machine — one that will suit my every need. I need to have a large monitor since studies and personal experience show that productivity increases proportionately with screen real estate; I need to have a fast computer because I am constantly jumping from program to program, clicking quickly from e-mail to Photoshop to the Web and back again; I need to have a sizeable and fast hard drive to accommodate a large collection of music and the files for hundreds or thousands of projects.

Even the keyboard needs to be just right. Because I type millions of words every year, I need to ensure that the keyboard "feels" the way I need it to in order to type my fastest — the keys need to have just the right amount of give and the keyboard has to have the extra buttons that make my life so much easier, one second at a time.

A couple of weekends ago, with my office computer fading fast, I decided the time was right to take the jump and to buy myself a new one. Though I searched the catalogs, Web sites and flyers of all the big box stores in my area, I couldn't find a machine that suited my every need. Reluctantly I concluded that the easiest solution was to build a system myself. I spent a few hours researching components, ensuring that each would work with the other and that each represented the best value for my money. I drove to a nearby computer store, bought the individual components, and then returned home to assemble it all.

By the time the sun set on Saturday I had built the system, installed the operating system, and had begun to personalize it, making sure that every setting was just the way I like it — just the way I need it to be to make me work my best and my fastest. It was ready for me to get to work on Monday morning.

As I went to bed on Saturday night I thought about the first computer I had ever owned. The computer cost far, far more, yet it had less than one ten thousandth the ability of this one. It came as it was — there was little room for personalization.

I was struck by how much I expect and demand today when it comes to customization. Today I want things to suit me as an individual. General doesn't work; I need specifics. I wasn't so picky back then — I was happy simply to have my own computer.

Customization and personalization have become the order of the day in our culture. We want our lifestyles and our personal tastes to be reflected in all we buy, all we own, all we wear and in all the things we do. Even if we are all compelled to buy the next big thing, we still insist that we make the choice as individuals, not as a mass of consumers influenced by clever marketing.

Sure, we all rushed out to buy iPods within a year or two of their release, but we consoled ourselves that we are different from the other people who bought iPods because we chose the pink one or we bought a snazzy protective cover to go over it. Our iPods were different because they looked different. They were expressions of our individuality.

Or so we insisted.

Customizing our appearance and our gadgets is not enough. We also want to customize the groups of people we spend time with, preferring those who are most like us. We go online and join social media communities made up of others just like us; we create Facebook accounts to compile lists of our friends and search for MySpace friends on the basis of our shared interests. We add our books to the LibraryThing catalog and see how many people have all the same books we do. We search high and low for what we have in common with others.

We demand today to be individuals and to customize everything we have and everything we are. But is this making us happier?

A recent article in TIME addressed the endless choices we face today. "The huge number of choices that assault us every day makes many of us feel inadequate and in some cases even clinically depressed," says Professor Barry Schwartz, a psychologist from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of The Paradox of Choice. "There is vastly too much choice in the modern world and we are paying an enormous price for it. It makes us feel helpless, mentally paralyzed and profoundly dissatisfied."

One might think that increasing choice would give us increased happiness, but it seems that just the opposite is true. The more choices we have, the less happy we are with the ones we make.

Christians face the temptation to understand the church within this same individualistic, consumer mindset. We see this when we walk away from church thinking "I'd be happier if the people were just a little bit more like me," which is, in effect, saying, "That church would be better if everyone resembled me."

In theory and in our hearts we know that Christ is building something amazing and something that is truly unique — a family composed of people of every nation, every tribe and every tongue; a family that spans the globe and spans the ages. We know that the diversity of this mysterious body is a reflection of God's own love of diversity and his commitment to save men and women from among every people group in the world.

But in practice we prefer to be individuals and prefer to surround ourselves by others who are as much like us as possible. The more society emphasizes our uniqueness, our individuality, the more difficult we find it to embrace diversity.

In his book A Journey Worth Taking, author Charlie Drew provides an important warning about the involuntary nature of the community God calls us to as His people. He warns us against elevating our individual tastes in the churches we attend.

"Church" is not an event. It is people — people whom God calls us to love. What is more, it is in a very important sense an involuntary community of people: we don't choose our brothers and sisters — God does. And sometimes (oftentimes) those people are not terribly compatible with us — not the people we would choose to hang out with. But it is this very incompatibility that is so important, for at least two reasons. First, learning to love the people I don't like is by far the best way to learn how to love (it's easy to love people I happen to like). Second, the church is supposed to be a sociological miracle — a demonstration that Jesus has died and risen to create a new humanity composed of all sorts of people.

We need to guard against being church consumers — people who shop for a church like we might shop for a computer. We need to ensure that we do not choose a church the way we piece together a network of social media friends. God values diversity in a way our culture does not.

He is building a community that is involuntary — one for which He determines the membership. And it is in the context of this community of people who may be vastly different from us, that we are to learn to love one another even more than we love ourselves. We are to love one another on the basis of our common humanity and on the basis of our shared kinship in the family of God rather than on the basis of preference or perceived compatibility. It can be difficult to love those who are unlike us, which is exactly why God calls us to do so.

When we see church through our consumeristic mindset we find ourselves treating church like we'd treat a store — as an entity that exists to meet our needs. If I go to a computer store and find they do not have the components I need to build my new computer, I'll simply go elsewhere. I will not adapt my plans to suit what they offer, but will go to a place where I can be given the pieces I need. And too many Christians treat church this same way.

But when I see church as the place God has called me to place myself, when I see it as that sociological miracle demonstrating that the new humanity extends far beyond people who are just like me, I will make my home there and delight in the diversity.

Last Saturday I went out and bought a new mouse for my computer since the old one was letting me know that it was nearing the time that it would click its last click. This isn't any mouse, but the Logitech MX™ Revolution — the latest and greatest in mouse technology. It has five buttons and two scroll wheels. Each of the wheels has multiple functions, scrolling back and forth, rocking right and left, so that, by gripping just that little mouse, I can control a huge variety of my computer's functions. Each button can be personalized and each button has been personalized so it does just what I want it to do. It's my mouse and I expect it to act the way I want it to.

Last Sunday I went to church where I met with a group of people who are most uniform in their diversity. They come from Canada and China, Romania and Sri Lanka, Poland and the Netherlands. They are young and they are old; they are black and they are white; they are long-time Christians and they are baby Christians; they are married and they are single; they are everything.

Few of them look anything like me. It's not the community I would have chosen; not the group I would have assembled had God asked me. But He didn't ask me because He knew better. This is the group I've come to love.

God has called us to community — few Christians would deny this. But God has called us to a community that He builds. He chooses the participants and He decides on its membership.

It is easy to love those who are most like us, so God calls us to more; He calls us to better. God calls us to love and delight in those who may not be much like us at all. And when we do so, we bear witness to the One who binds us all together in this fascinating, miraculous, diverse, involuntary family called the church.

Copyright 2008 Tim Challies. All rights reserved.

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