The Church as Alternative Community

Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have...
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Mick Turner

If we truly desire to see positive change in the world, not just cosmetic window dressing which does little to alleviate the causes of social ills such as crime, violence, and crippling poverty, then that positive change must first be seen in the Body of Christ. The kingdom of God is not a reality to be discussed, but instead, is a body of principles that are to be lived. Just as Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk and his cohorts aboard the Enterprise had a “Prime Directive,” so we, as Christ-followers, have an overriding directive from our Master. As Christians, our prime directive is to give flesh to grace.

The church is meant to be an alternative community, a place where new principles, values, and interpersonal ethics are lived out in healthy, balanced social relationships. Gandhi nailed it when he said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” If we are faithful to living by kingdom principles, people will take notice and naturally be drawn to the peace, justice, and grace they see being lived out in this alternative society. It was this very reality that led to the widespread success of the early church. People were drawn to the fledgling Christian communities because they lived the prime directive – they gave flesh to grace. Jim Wallis, long-time Christian activist and founder of Sojourners, speaks to this aspect of kingdom living, where the church:

…………is meant to be an alternative community living a new way of life, visibly demonstrating the values of Jesus and the kingdom of God. That necessarily will create a countercultural community living by different values than the surrounding society and providing a real evangelistic model of the healthier and more human way of life that the gospel offers.

Or, in the very succinct words of John Howard Yoder:

The church is called now what the world is called to be ultimately.

On a practical level, what this means is that the church, although intimately in contact with the surrounding culture and in fact deeply embedded within that culture, must not take on the core values of that culture. Although some within the Emerging Movement might take issue with this idea, I think that as a Christian community, we are called to a different reality. Throughout its history, when the church has been at its best and most influential, it has been a counter-cultural force – often a revolutionary alternative community. Jim Wallis describes the church’s position this way:

…….the Christian presence in the world is a perpetually revolutionary posture. This is not, however, another call to violent insurrection; it is much deeper and more “revolutionary” than that. . . . . . .The kingdom of God literally brings a great reversal to the values, assumptions, and norms of the world as we have known them. This is why Christianity in defense of the established order – “Christendom,” “Christian civilization,” “Christian nation,” “Christian empire,” and the rest – has never made sense.

With these counter-cultural realities in mind, exactly how does this play out in the context of our contemporary socio-economic and cultural values? If the church is to be a model of alternative community, what are some of the guiding kingdom principles that must be both visible and defining? Without a doubt, the Christian socio-economic ethic of justice and equality take center stage. As followers of the Master Jesus, we must model and ethic built upon the principles of fairness, equal opportunity, and yes, even more equitable distribution of wealth.

 As Christians we are to be guided by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount in general and Matthew 25:31-46 in particular. Perhaps this flies in the face of the current status quo and especially runs counter to those Christians who have become joined at the hip to one political party for years. Personally, as Christians, I firmly believe that it is detrimental to our witness to publically declare allegiance to or agreement with any political party. Instead, I believe we should do all that we can to work toward eradicating the causes of such rampant, systemic poverty in this nation while, at the same time, working toward helping people become more self-sufficient. In this sense, we are to all become maladjusted.

I love the following words by Dr. Martin Luther King. In my mind, they encapsulate in a highly cogent manner the Christian principle of being in the world, but not of the world.

But there are some things in our social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I suggest that you too ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob-rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence. I call upon you to be maladjusted. . . . The world is in desperate need of such maladjustment. Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

In this present age of social and cultural transition it is especially important for people in general and the church in particular to be maladjusted. For it is only through such concerted, unified, and purposeful non-conformity that a new social reality can emerge – a rejuvenated, vital, and equitable social order, built upon principles of economic justice and true Christian love. A significantly positive sign is the emergence of a new generation of Christians that is catching fire with an enthusiasm that has not been seen for decades in the organized church. These young firebrands may well represent the spark that sets off a conflagration of renewal passion and purpose in the Christian faith, something that is currently lacking and sorely needed. Jim Wallis describes these committed believers this way:

The greatest sign of hope…..is the emergence of a new generation of Christians eager and ready to take their faith into the world. The Christianity of private piety, affluent conformity and “God Bless (only) America” has compromised the witness of the church while putting a new generation of Christians to sleep. Defining faith by the things you won’t do doesn’t create a compelling style of life. And young people are hungry for an agenda worthy of their commitment, their energy, and their gifts. . . . . . . . . . . .This new generation of believers are waking up and catching fire with the gospel again. Theirs in an emerging Christianity that could change the face of American religion and politics. Their vision cannot easily be put into categories of liberal and conservative, left and right, but rather has the capacity to challenge the categories themselves. I’ve met these new Christians across the country and have worked with an extraordinary group of them at Sojourners. Their faith is intended to change this world, not just prepare them for the next. God is again doing something new.

Although it is hard to pin down exactly what form and what direction this new and vital force within the Christian faith will take, one thing is certain: we can no longer afford to march along in lock-step with the status quo and grant blind approval to a system which systematically fattens the pockets of the privileged few while increasing numbers of hard-working, decent people are pushed below the poverty line.

 If such an economic and social ethic is the norm, and in this country that seems to be the case, then I am proud to be a maladjusted discontent. I refuse to be contented with an economic system riddled with injustice and that keeps a boot on the throat of the last, the littlest, and the least. It is not the way of compassion and it surely is not the way of Christ.

© L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved

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