Practices that sustain Christian community

From Faith and Leadership
By Gretchen E. Ziegenhals

Post-election, we continue to learn about our fractured political communities. Christians are not immune to fractured community, but fortunately we have practices and activities that bind us. “How we live together,” writes Asbury Theological Seminary ethicist Christine Pohl, “is the most persuasive sermon we’ll ever get to preach.”

What does it take to sustain Christian community? Pohl says it takes four core practices: gratitude, promise-keeping, truthfulness and hospitality. All of these not only express human need, but are “at the heart of God’s character and activity.”

Her recent book, “Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us,” explores these practices and offers careful analysis, shares stories of real congregations wrestling with each practice in concrete ways, and names issues that complicate, strengthen or weaken our practices.

  1. Expressing gratitude as a way of lifemeans that we understand our lives as “redeemed by costly grace.” So as communities, “our primary response can only be gratitude,” despite the things that disappoint and frustrate us. Pohl reminds us that in the book of Psalms worshippers enter God’s presence with thanksgiving and praise.
  2. Making and keeping promiseslies at the heart of the larger Christian story. When we enter into a contract, we see ways in which our promise could be broken; when we “think covenantally about promises,” we connect with a deeper set of shared commitments that don’t have escape clauses. Theologian Sam Wells defines this difference in his sermon on promises and covenants(link is external). Despite covenantal promise-keeping, congregations also present complications for promise-keeping, especially during times of leadership transition.
  3. Living and speaking truthfullyis not just a job for the individual, but is the responsibility of the greater community. “The best testimony to the truth of the gospel,” Pohl writes, “is the quality of our life together.” The Good Works community has a ritual that helps staff at weekly meetings deal with interpersonal tensions. After the opening prayer, staffers ask “Are we clear?” This is a code for making sure no one is harboring a grudge that could block ministry to God’s kingdom. Truth telling opens the path to forgiveness.
  4. Offering hospitalityto strangers calls on all three of the above practices. Grace, fidelity and truth create communities safe enough for people to take risks, handle disagreements and minister to the world. “Such communities grow by making room for others, whether friends or strangers.” When we invite people into our lives, our homes or our churches, we have to reveal who we truly are.

What’s different about these practices from the ones we usually hear about is that we don’t practice them alone in our rooms as a seasonal discipline. Rather, Pohl frames them as vital activities for congregations and other Christian institutions who want their corporate lives to reflect the very nature of God.

Gretchen E. Ziegenhals is Managing director, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity