The Challenge of We
When I did my Doctor of Ministry work my focus was discipleship. Mainly how our focus on membership in churches was detrimental to our more primary task of discipleship. The two do not need to be mutually exclusive, but it often works out that way. The focus by the end of my research was on our welcome of new members to our church community and how that process relates to discipleship. If I were to sum up my whole paper in a couple sentences it would be something like this:
- The task of the church is to follow in the way of Jesus with our whole lives serving as a source of shared challenge and mutual affirmation to the way in which we are called to live.
- We do that by walking together as we follow; discerning together God’s calling, inviting others to follow with us. That is we create a culture of discipleship with the intention of getting others to join us on the journey (not very different to Jesus’ own group of twelve disciples – sadly we often use the crowds that follow the disciples as our church model rather than the circle of disciples themselves).
- The invitation to new members (followers) is not an invitation to a set of beliefs but this corporate journey; we aren’t seeking right thought but shared action. And the commitment to an individual community (membership) is to say that in my larger discipleship journey I am declaring my intention to live that out for this time and place with this particular group of people.
- The task of the church then in that moment of initiation is not about informing new people but nurturing their sense of belonging – it is about cultivating a sense of “we” in service to our shared journey in the way of Jesus.
The concept of “we” is an interesting one, mostly because we are very tempted to towards a way of them and a way of me. Early on in the process I became very attuned to such language. When you talk to someone and they say something about you or they – this person generally doesn’t feel like they belong. I went through that myself last year as I became a part of a new community of faith. I watched myself slowly stop saying “you all do this,” or “your history has been,” etc. And begin to say “our” and “we.” In moments of conflict our temptation to do this is even greater. We distance ourselves (intentionally) when we say “they are doing this” or the “the session decided” or “you all thought.”
We do this when we do not belong. Now to be fair sometimes we don’t belong because the leadership doesn’t care to have us belong. We do not get a voice, and so we don’t really belong. We aren’t following together in the way of Jesus – we are following the voice of those with power as they follow their discernment of Jesus’ way. Other times we do not belong because we do not seek to belong. We seek to protect ourselves or keep our independence; we aren’t willing to compromise “my” way to “our” way.
Being we is hard work. Being me is much easier, and seeing it as them versus us is a constant challenge. The way of we is harder yet because I do not mean that when we are “we” there is uniform agreement (see the last post on being assimilated). Rather the joy of we is that we bring our different perspectives to bear on a common journey, and we stick with that journey even when me doesn’t agree with the decision of we.
I will give perhaps my two favorite examples. John 6 and Matthew 19. In both cases Jesus taught hard lessons about the kind of journey he invites us on (you might check out the end of Luke 9 as well for examples of people not ready to make the commitment of “we”… but I’m trying to resist make this list really long but do note that there “we” doesn’t tell someone else they don’t belong, it is the me that decides it is not ready or able to be “we”). In John 6 many disciples left offended – they stopped following. I do not think Peter and the twelve are any less offended. But their sense of belonging – commitment to Jesus’ way – means that unlike the others they stayed in for the journey. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69).
Similarly Peter (I think, but it’s a loose interpretation) has regrets about leaving everything behind (personal possessions at least) to follow Jesus when the rich man (Matthew 19) is told to sell all and give it to the poor. What is the different between this man and Peter? The next day Peter still follows, and the other has slunk back into anonymity. Maybe he does it in the end, maybe he follows in Jesus’ way eventually. But he wasn’t yet ready to commit to the way of we.
As “we” we seek common good. Humility calls us to think our voice and opinions hold no more weight than anyone else’s. We belong regardless of whether we are entirely happy with where we are going or not. We give our best effort even when it’s not the effort we would have chosen. We take responsibility not for ourselves but for the whole and we recognize that all parts or inter-dependent. We is a challenging way to live. It challenges me. And yes, I’m to challenge it. That is part of we: there is no passive role in the journey. No-one is just along for the ride, we are all given an active part. There is no “they” in a community of we. We are they. This is what it means to belong – it is a combination of commitment and ownership.
So are you taking on the challenge of we? Are you empowering others to live into that roll? Are you listening, and speaking, and then listening (and hearing) again? Do you belong and make spaces for others to belong as well?
These are questions we need to ask ourselves every day and they are the question I find at the center of my quest to wrestle with discipleship and my calling to follow in the way of Jesus. Thanks be to God.