Yesterday while driving to work I began to think about what kinds of qualities would really make a Christian faith community exciting. This should be replicable at all sizes or types of community: from the small Julian Meeting I participate in (which often only has four people show up) all the way up to a megachurch. I don’t know if the community exists that has all 15 of these marks: but if it did, I’d want to be involved.
Granted, the Catholic magisterium is not about to start listening to my ideas about church. But perhaps my readers who are immersed in the emergent or house church movements would find this list useful.
Fifteen marks of a faithful, dynamic community within the Body of Christ (presented in alphabetical order):
- Apostolic: the community has a sense of its own identity linked to mission and outreach. By this I do not mean old-fashioned ideas about “winning souls for Christ” or even about filling empty pews. Rather, I would define apostolic mission simply as “love in action.” An apostolic community is not just concerned with its own welfare, but is continually giving its love away.
- Catholic: think catholic with a small c: this isn’t about the Bishop of Rome so much as it is about a community being truly universal in its meaning and scope. This involves overflowing, prodigal grace, grace that knows no boundaries. “Neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free”: in other words, gender, ethnicity, economic status have no power to create divisions within this community.
- Charismatic: think not in terms of glossolalia but rather in terms of recognizing and receiving the gifts of the Spirit — in whatever form they might come. A truly charismatic community is a community ready to receive the lavish gifts of God, which means it is a community confident in its own status as loved and blessed (and understanding clearly that such blessings are to be shared with others).
- Conciliatory: forgiveness and reconciliation are key themes of Christ’s message: “blessed are the peacemakers.” Therefore, an exciting faith community will be one that actively practices reconciliation, both within its own ranks and with others as well. The community might be involved in interfaith or ecumenical activities, and might work to redress economic or social injustices.
- Contemplative: perhaps the most subversive quality a faith community could embody is the commitment to silence, solitude (even shared solitude) and unhurried time for prayer and reflection. While contemplation should never collapse into narcissistic quietism or a funereal rejection of celebratory worship, it ought to be at least a significant dimension within any worshipping community.
- Evangelical: just as a catholic community is universal in its experience and expression of grace, so an evangelical community loves to ground its experience in the stories and message of the Bible, particularly the gospels; finding therein inspiration for life and love. Of course, such a community would not shy away from scholarly criticism, but would embrace such efforts as tools for a mature faith.
- Fruitful: this community sees its benchmarks as the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). In other words, it is a loving, joyful, peaceful community; a community marked by gentleness and patience, with qualities of kindness, goodness and trustfulness; it is a community that fosters moderation. In particular, I think joyfulness, gentleness and kindness are essential qualities, too often ignored in today’s world.
- Liminal: Christ said, “behold, I stand at the door and knock.” A liminal community is a community on the threshold, often occupying “in between” places that are ignored or forgotten: in between the empire and the wilderness, in between “respectable society” and the chaos of “the outsiders.” Such community is modeled after the Desert Fathers & Mothers and the earliest Celtic Christians.
- Liturgical: because it is charismatic, the community’s worship will be spontaneous and joyful; but liturgy reminds the community to emphasize public worship that is beautiful, orderly, consistent, traditional, and Bible-based. Written prayers are seen not as “dead” or “lifeless” but rather as choreography that enables a soul to concentrate on the relationship that surges beneath the words.
- Mystical: a mystical community gathers together to foster a heartfelt sense of the immanent presence of God. As such it celebrates experiential spirituality and takes seriously the teachings regarding the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the Church. It is a community that humbly acknowledges the ineffable mystery of God, and actively pursues deification and heightened consciousness as holy ends.
- Orthodox: like catholic and evangelical, this refers not to established denominations so much as to holy dispositions. An orthodox community is one rooted in tradition, with a clear sense of the great teachings of the faith: particularly the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Passion, and the eventual return of Christ. To be orthodox does not mean ossified, but grounded in ancient truths even while open to present realities.
- Prophetic: to be a prophet means to speak the word of God, particularly to those in power. A prophetic community stands up for what is right, and speaks (both with words and with action) out against injustice, oppression, and the abuse of power. It is a community that shares in God’s preferential option for the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden.
- Reformed: a reformed faith community is one that is willing to ask difficult questions of itself and is willing to prayerfully and patiently correct itself as it journeys into God’s future. This is not the same thing as being ceaselessly experimental: such a community loves and respects tradition, but is not in bondage to it. It loves having a groove but resists falling into ruts.
- Sacramental: a sacramental community avoids dualism and superstition by celebrating the presence of God in earthy and ceremonial ways. Particular Christian sacramental acts include baptism (where God’s accepting love flows through water) and communion (where God’s continual presence nurtures the community through bread and wine). Sacramental spirituality loves, honors, and protects the material creation.
- Welcoming: hospitality is a core Christian virtue, evident particularly in the Benedictine and Celtic traditions. A welcoming community welcomes everyone. It wastes no time with judgmentalism or dualistic purity codes, but rather honors the diversity found within its ranks and within the community at large. It is a moral community, understanding morality in terms of healthy relationships and loving conduct rather than in terms of rigid adherence to abstract rules of behavior.
Thanks to Brian McLaren, whose wonderfully inclusive book A Generous Orthodoxy was part of the inspiration for this all-encompassing list. Now, I’ve never yet found a community that seems to embody all fifteen of these virtues. It occurs to me that, while we’re all looking for the “ideal” faith community, in the meantime we could all be fostering these values within ourselves. After all, the more we all grow as individuals, the stronger our communities will be.