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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

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Shalom is commonly understood to mean “peace” or “health” or “prosperity.” It carries within it the idea of completeness. Cornelius Plantinga writes that the word shalom is “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment and delight.” Shalom is the vision of community; it is what community strives to be.

It reminds me of something I once read about Mother Teresa. When asked how she could give so much of herself to the poor, she would always say that when she looked at them, she saw Jesus in a distressing disguise. That is the heart of authentic community—being Jesus to others and seeing Jesus in others. If you’re married, you are to be interacting with our spouse as if unto Him. If you’re a child, you’re obeying as if unto Him. If an employee, you’re working as if working for Him. And the reverse is true: you’re parenting as if you’re parenting for Him; you’re leading others as if you’re leading for Him.

It’s a radical idea.

Even more radical is what such shalom is built on. Namely, grace. Grace, at its heart, is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do. Grace is the essence of any successful relationship—grace toward other people’s differences, weaknesses and sins.

And that is quite the challenge. Not that we don’t like grace—we do. Not that we don’t want to experience grace—we do. It’s just that we are better at receiving it than giving it. But it is precisely the giving of grace that allows us to work through the relational stages that afford community. 

You know the stages. You’ve lived with them your whole life.

The first stage is usually some kind of general attraction.

Not many people instantly hit you wrong. Usually there is something there that’s likable, or at least you’re openly neutral. So stage one is extending a general welcome to the relationship.

But you know what that stage is almost always followed by? 

A second stage: disappointment.

You start by viewing someone from a relational distance. All you have are short, quick interactions that haven’t been subjected to the test of time. But once you get to know someone beyond that level, you start to see their dark side. And they will have a dark side. They will have weaknesses. Differences. Sins. Now our tendency is to let the second stage of disappointment be the defining stage in our relationship with someone. Sometimes it’s called for, like when you find out that someone’s dark side is too strong to deal with, or you realize you’ve got an unsafe person on your hands, or that what you thought was chemistry turns out to be an allergy. Then it’s okay to let this stage be a wake-up call.

But a lot of the time, the differences that we often let end a relationship are trivial and we just don’t extend the grace or maturity to let the relationship go through the necessary – yes, inevitable – disappointment stage. But if you don’t work through it, you will never move on to the third stage, which is where real community begins to take place. 

And that third stage is acceptance. 

This is when you work through the disappointments, you do the labor of extending grace and understanding, and from that allow yourself to come to a healthy understanding of someone’s strengths and weaknesses. Then you accept them on those terms. The Bible specifically challenges us on this. In the book of Romans, it says, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:7, NIV). If you’re not able to do this, you will never have meaningful relationships in your life. 

Ever.

If you are unable or unwilling to move into the stage of acceptance, then you will be a very lonely and isolated person. No human on earth is free of things that might disappoint you. If you don’t believe this, you’ll just go from person to person, relationship to relationship, and never have any of them move into real community. But if you’ll journey through the second stage and into the third, then you can move into the fourth stage.

The fourth stage is appreciation.

This is getting back to what you found attractive about the person to begin with, and enjoying all that is good and wonderful about them. It’s almost like a return to the first stage, but with wisdom and insight. If the first stage is like a first date, the fourth stage is like seeing a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and you see the look in their eyes toward each other—the deep, mature sense of love they share. 

And it’s a beautiful thing.

Is there anything more? Yes.

Intimacy: a fifth stage where you can love and be loved, serve and be served, celebrate and be celebrated, know and be known.

So do you see how the work of commitment is key?

Too many of us have a brightly illuminated “EXIT” sign over every relationship in our life—where we work, where we live, where we go to church, even in our marriages. As long as we hang that sign over the door of our community life, we won’t do the work of commitment that is needed to experience the community we long for. The secret of the best friendships, the best marriages, the best job situations and churches and neighborhoods, is that they’ve taken down the exit signs. And when there is no exit sign, you can only do one thing: whatever it takes for the relationship to flourish.

I recently read of a family who brought home a 12-year-old boy named Roger whose parents had died of a drug overdose. There was no one to care for him, so the parents of this family decided they would raise him as if he were one of their own sons. At first, it was difficult for Roger. This was the first environment he had ever lived in that was free from heroin-addicted adults.

As a result of the culture-shock, every day – and several times during the day – Roger’s new mom or dad would say, “No, Roger, that’s not how we behave in this family.” Or “No, Roger, you don’t have to scream or fight or hurt other people to get what you want.” Or “Roger, we expect you to show respect in this family.”

In time, Roger began to change.

For so many of us, community – particularly the new community that the Bible calls us to – demands new behavior. The death of old practices and the birth of new ones. We’re like the boy, adopted into a new family, needing to relearn how to interact with people. 

But here’s the good news: when we hear the Holy Spirit say to us, “No, that’s not how we act in this family,” we can say, “You’re right. It’s not.” 

And change. And begin to have the relationships with others we want as part of the new community God desires for us to experience.

Sources

James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom. Get the eBook on Church & Culture HERE.

Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin.

“How God’s Children Change,” Preaching Today, cited from Craig Barnes from sermon, “The Blessed Trinity,” May 30, 1999.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Rawpixel


James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram

One of the great myths of relational life is that community is something found. In this fairy tale, community is simply out there – somewhere – waiting to be discovered like Prince Charming finding Cinderella. All you have to do is find the right person, join the right group, get the right job, or become involved with the right church. It’s kind of an “Over the Rainbow” thing; it’s not here, so it must be “over” there.

This is why so many people go from relationship to relationship, city to city, job to job, church to church, looking for the community that they think is just around the corner if they can only find the right people and the right place. The idea is that real community exists somewhere, and we simply must tap into it. It’s not something you have to work at; in fact, if you have to work at it, then you know it’s not real community.

This mindset runs rampant in our day. If you have to work at community in a marriage, you must not be right for each other. If you have to work on community where you are employed, you’ve got a bad boss, bad co-workers or a bad structure. If you have to work at community in a neighborhood, you just picked the wrong subdivision. If you have to work on things with people in a church, well, there are obviously just problems with the church, or its leadership, or yep, its “community.”

I cannot stress enough how soundly unrealistic, much less unbiblical, this is. Community is not something you find; it is something you build. What you long for isn’t about finding the right mate, the right job, the right neighborhood, the right church—it’s about making your marriage, your workplace, your neighborhood and your church the community God intended. Community is not something discovered, it is something forged. I don’t mean to suggest that any and all relationships are designed for, say, marriage. Or that there aren’t dysfunctional communities you should flee from. My point is that all relationships of worth are products of labor.

This is why the Bible talks about people needing to form and make communities, not just come together as a community, or to “experience” community. 

It’s why principles are given – at length – for how to work through conflict. 

It’s why communication skills are detailed and issues like anger are meant to be dealt with. 

It’s why the dynamics of successfully living with someone in the context of a marriage, or family, is explored in depth. As the author of Hebrews put it so plainly: “So don’t sit around on your hands! No more dragging your feet... run for it! Work at getting along with each other...” (Hebrews 12:12-14, Msg).

But that raises a problem. You probably don’t know how to work in such a way as to create community. 

Don’t worry; you’re not alone.

Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris once wrote how several monks told her that one of the biggest problems monasteries face is people who come to them “having no sense of what it means to live communally.” They have been “schooled in individualism” and often had families that were so disjointed that even sitting down and having a meal together was a rarity. As a result, “they find it extremely difficult to adjust” to life in community.

Monks called into monastic life feeling unprepared for relational life? 

Welcome to our world. We spend years in school to prepare for a career without having to take a single class on getting along with a coworker. 

We spend months planning a wedding, meeting with caterers and photographers and wedding directors, and never once have to explore what’s involved in communicating with our spouse.

We go through prenatal classes, decorate the nursery, and set up the college fund, and never even think about how we’re going to interact with our kids when they’re teenagers.

Add in our flaming depravity and things really get sketchy. Running alongside our longing for community is a deep current of anti-community behavior. We are filled with anger and envy, pride and competition. We do not naturally extend grace or forgiveness. We seldom take the high road, and we usually assume the worst of others. 

What is missing from most of our visions is a picture of community. It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. One of our family traditions is putting together a jigsaw puzzle on New Year’s Eve. We lay out the pieces on our kitchen table and invite anyone and everyone to put it together. Of course, the picture on the box is always front and center. Why? Without a sense of what we’re trying to produce, we’re just putting pieces together in random, haphazard ways, hoping something good comes out in the end.

So what is the picture on the community box?

The Bible calls it shalom.

More on that in the next post.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom. Get the eBook on Church & Culture HERE.

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

I was once asked by another pastor how he should feel about all of the sheep swapping going around in his city.

In the Bible, those in Christ are often referred to as “sheep” and pastors as “shepherds.” From this, there have come all kinds of catchphrases in regard to church life, most notably “sheep swapping,” which is when people move from one local church to another. 

More to the point, it should probably be called “sheep shopping.”

So, is that ever a good thing? 

Always a bad thing? 

Something in between?

Yes.

Five good reasons to shop around:

  1. The teaching veers away from historic orthodoxy.
  2. The leadership consistently lacks integrity.
  3. Habitual disunity has infected the community.
  4. The mission has no focus or clarity.
  5. The church’s finances lack necessary accountability.        

These are good reasons to shop around because they revolve around substantive issues.

Five bad reasons to shop around:

  1. You don’t like long check-in lines and parking/exit hassles.
  2. You don’t like capital campaigns for buildings.
  3. You don’t like the influx of new faces and new staff.
  4. You don’t like finding your favorite seat taken.
  5. You don’t like having limited personal access to the pastor.

These are bad reasons to shop around because they center on not liking growth.

Five really bad reasons to shop around:

  1. You want to gravitate to the “next, next” thing out of spiritual insecurity. And then the “next, next” thing after that… and after that….
  2. You are fleeing the community after being exposed and admonished for serious, unrepentant sin.
  3. You voted on a non-doctrinal, non-substantive matter and it didn’t go your way.         
  4. Your toes were stepped on in regard to a lifestyle or obedience matter that, in truth, the Bible is clear on.
  5. You were “offended” by someone, but never practiced Matthew 18:15 to try and resolve the offense.

These are really bad reasons to shop around because they are rooted in sin, or at least immaturity.

Five “gray” reasons to shop around:

  1. Your new address makes it too far to drive.
  2. Your teenager wants to go somewhere else.
  3. Your age group or “stage of life” group is under-represented.
  4. Your philosophy of ministry is different or has changed.
  5. Your passion in ministry isn’t offered or enabled.

These are gray because sometimes they are legit, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they should be “catered” to, and sometimes they should not. In truth, most of the time “not.” 

Five reasons used most often for shopping around:

  1. I’m not being “fed.”
  2. I’m not being “fed.”
  3. I’m not being “fed.”
  4. I’m not being “fed.”
  5. I’m not being “fed.”

So is being “fed” good, bad or gray?

Yes.

In most cases, it’s bad. The apostle Paul talks about those who still want to be “fed” as akin to a middle-age man sucking on a baby bottle. Most of us already know more at this moment than we will ever act on. We don’t need to be fed more—we need to live more. And, if anything, feed others. 

Being “fed” is often a euphemism for any and all disagreements that desire a spiritual smokescreen for departure. The irony is that I have dialogued with many of the leading teachers of our day – those who write books, have radio programs, have hundreds of thousands of podcasts downloaded (the teachers of the teachers) – and even with their qualifications the #1 reason people give for leaving their church is, “I’m not being fed.”

Go figure.

The bottom line is that continually shopping around as a sheep, as a rule, is not best. What is best is to find a church home, be loyal and committed to it, and work to make it all that it isn’t with a servant’s heart.

There will always be more

… convenient churches,

… hotter churches,

… newer churches,

… better stage-of-life churches,

… hipper churches,

… larger churches,

… and smaller churches.

But there will only be one that is your church.

Like a marriage that goes the marathon, there is a depth and sweetness to staying in a community year after year, decade after decade. 

Knowing the stories, the people, the milestones.

There are people at Mecklenburg Community Church who have been with us since the earliest of days. Some since the very first year. Some since the very first service.

They would tell you that it is among their most precious investments and realities.

Why? It’s their church.

The one that God called them to.

That’s not something you shop for and buy.

It’s something you make.

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note

This blog was originally published in 2015, and the Church & Culture Team thought you would enjoy reading it again.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram

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