I remember attending the worship of a young pastor a few year’s ago who was presiding over his first communion. He served a rural congregation, known far and wide for the ongoing conflicts within the small fellowship. It was hoped he could bring peace to an embattled situation. As he raised the bread and pulled it apart, he intoned loudly, “This is the body of Christ, broken by you.” He hesitated, realizing his mistake, and rosy-red flushed both cheeks. But instead of going on, instead of apologizing, he lowered the bread and looked out at the congregation and said, “I meant to say, ‘broken for you,’ which is the glorious gift of God to us; but I am going to stand by what I just said. This church is breaking the body of Christ in an unacceptable way. Christ did not die for us so that we could continue in our sin. Christ died that we might have a chance to start over. I invite us all to share in this communion meal as an act of repentance from what we have been, and a pledge and promise to become something better.” I was deeply impressed by this young man’s courage. Sadly, all but a handful of the congregation went forward to receive communion that day.
What are we doing to the body of Christ? Why do we keep abusing it? Petty differences define some congregations. Massive splits destroy others. Factions form within long-standing congregations, undermining any possibility of true “community in Christ.” “Us/them” thinking predominates in many of our congregations, and some churches do little more than mediate fights. What’s wrong with us? Where did we get the idea that animus, hostility, disrespect, aggression, rudeness, and contempt were acceptable behaviors — anywhere, let alone the church? Our culture is filled with discontent and discord fueled my media moguls looking for a sensational story and by outrageous talk-show hosts stirring up base instincts and baser behaviors. Fine. If the world wants to live that way, everyone has a right to choose their own poison. But the church? Come on, we should want something better. And not just want it; demand it.
When the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we should have a lens through which to judge our thoughts, words and deeds. Name-calling, gossip, disrespect, put-downs, and attempts to undermine others should not be tolerated. Civility, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, willingness to compromise, a desire to listen, and compassion should govern our life together. But these things can only happen if we decide to make them happen. People have to choose to be Christian. It won’t happen to us by accident.
I have long been a proponent of relational/behavioral covenants — guidelines for shared conduct in local churches. These covenants lay out behaviors that we will not tolerate, behaviors we will nurture and support, and practices that we can engage in together (like prayer with and for one another) that will build bridges and strengthen bonds. We shouldn’t have to be reminded to be kind and Christlike, but hey, we’re only human. No one is perfect, all have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God. But we still need each other.
I believe some of the most important work any congregation can do it to work on building healthy, positive relationships. If we can transform our congregational environments into counter-cultural centers of kindness, grace and civility, we truly offer an alternative to a sick and broken world. If we embrace the fruits of the Spirit and define ourselves by these fundamental qualities of the Christian life, we cannot help but become better than we are and make our churches safe havens in a less-than-friendly world. And we become the people God wants us to be. All we have to do is to want it for ourselves.