Recently, a group of us in Virginia gathered with one of our clergy peers, Jan Holton from Yale Divinity School, to think about the nature of community.
During the time of the "Lost Boys of Sudan", orphans of war wandered for hundreds of miles as refugees in east central Africa. Along their meandering journey, they would sometimes run into wild animals, specifically lions. They learned that their only hope of defense against a lion was to put the small children in the center of a human circle, and for the older children to surround them facing outward, in order to create the perception of something that was bigger than the lion.
Amazingly, this worked - and would usually persuade a hungry lion to move on. But they had to stand their ground, even as the lion came very close. If any one of the boys would succumb to their fear and to the natural instinct to break from the formation and run, then they would surely die, alone. Boys are not able to outrun lions, neither to defend themselves solo. So, with fear and trembling they would stand down the lions together. I find this to be a compelling metaphor for healthy faith community.
Dr. Holton went on to remind us how most of the great faith community traditions formed in fearful times, in times of great peril. Think about Judaism in the centuries of captivity, occupation and Diaspora prior to Jesus or to Christianity in the Roman Empire. Think about early Islam and the harrowing experiences of Mohammed's spiritual cohorts in sixth century Arabia. Think about the African American church in early America. Or more recently, think to the rise of the powerful Christian movements from the twentieth century persecutions in China and Southeast Asia. The book of Revelation in fact is rooted in a very candid assessment of the church's peril in a moment of great suffering, encouraging the early believers to link arm in arm together against the beasts.
Ironically, just before Dr. Holton shared, we heard from another presenter, who shared a story of her experience in her congregation when her husband went to jail because of a sex crime. This woman found herself at one of the most perilous places that any of us might imagine. Suddenly the man she loved was in jail in another state. She was alone, angry, embarrassed, sad, and terribly afraid. So she went to her church, looking for folks to love her, to link arm in arm and to surround her. But instead, she experienced people fleeing her, darting around the corner when they saw her coming, avoiding her pew, and treating her like she was unclean. In terms of the Lost Boys metaphor, her church left her to the lions. It was a case of faith community collapse. Her church behaved like a catty sorority rather than a church.
Right now the United Methodist Church is ramping up to plant 1000 new faith communities between 2012 and 2016. We can pull it off, if we can pull together! But unless these communities are wired to love hurting people - even when it is uncomfortable - what good are they ultimately?
I cannot imagine my congregation abandoning someone who was at a vulnerable and painful place in their life. I cannot imagine such behavior in any of the places where I have served across the years.
But we never know for sure until we are tested in real life.
What kind of faith communities are we cultivating in North America? Are we teaching people to embrace folks who are different? Are we teaching people to love folks who suffer or struggle in ways that we cannot imagine? Or are we just trying to stem the tide of institutional loss?
In my 2009 book, Finding Jesus on the Metro, I said that the world doesn't need (or want) more church people (as opposed to un-churched people). We need more community. We need more people who are ready to love and serve their neighbors, even when they want to dart around the corner.
The "Lost Boys" carry a sobering reminder to us, about who we are, and about the kind of community God calls us to cultivate.