Called to Community
Dr Dorothy Mathieson was the Australian Coordinator of Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, and lived and worked in the slums of Manila in the Philippines as well as travelling to support Servants staff internationally.
Only the Spirit can bring forgiveness, love and patience,
so essential to community building
We are called to community with one another and with the poor in the slums.
This is one of the principles of a group of crosscultural workers called Servants in Manila,
Bangkok, Phnom Penh and other Asian cities. We are trying to respond to God’s heart for the poor. We have embarked on a journey of vulnerability discovering gradually how increasing intimacy with the Father leads to opting for the poor and the despised, not for the systems of power and control. Only the Spirit can empower this.
Servants’ principles are not just abstract Guidelines but living realities, forged in the context of the joy and struggles of welding teams together and living with the poor.
Incarnation calls us to the poor, to live with them, learn from them, discover the poverty of our rational, materialistic worldview and stance of western accomplishment.
Simplicity calls us to live focussed lives, discovering the freedom of releasing as many resources as possible to God’s agenda of lifting up the downtrodden.
Servanthood reminds us that followers of Jesus must live as he lived, as a servant. Then we will be eager to empower and liberate the poor through relinquishing our own agendas, expertise and control.
Holism calls us not to function with a limited mandate in the context of a complicated poverty and injustice. What is the gospel to the starving mother, the prostitute supporting her extended destitute family, the community worker jailed illegally? We are called to preach the word, show compassion, plant churches, heal the sick, but also to do justice. The whole gospel for the whole person means the Spirit must be allowed to operate so the good news comes truly in word, deed and in power.
Community challenges us to forgo our cherished individualism and private agendas and to
discover how others are totally necessary for our survival, effectiveness and spiritual growth. But it is here that we founder. We need a clear theology of community and we need to flesh out what this means for us.
Tim McCowan of the Manila team has worked on this:
Servant’s Community: Theological Basis
Christianity is a communal faith. ‘Individual Christianity is a contradiction in terms’ (McAfee Brown, The Bible speaks to you, 202). We cannot live the Christian faith in a vacuum, or without others. This belief is based on the following theological foundations.
1. God is ‘a community’
As Christians we believe God is a trinity of persons, called Father, Son and Holy Spirit. An intimate communion of three making one. Distinct but unified. A community, selfsufficient yet desiring to reach out and include others in their extravagant love.
2. God’s image
According to the evangelical German theologian, Karl Barth, we most accurately reflect God’s character and image when we are in community. God ‘created man in his own image … male and female he created them.’ The image of God is not so much ‘our rationality’ or volitional capacity, but our communality. God’s image therefore is only properly reflected when we are together in our differences and complementarity. Art Gish in his classic, Living in Christian Community (p. 21) says that the phrase ‘Let us make man in our image’ indicates that the fellowship in the Godhead created the manwoman community to reflect God’s concern for fellowship and communion. The human ‘we’ identity is to be a reflection of the divine ‘we’.
3. God is a covenant maker
God delights to make covenants to show his concern for ‘peoples’ rather than just individuals. All his covenants, although made with individuals, are focused on affecting his people or the nations. They embrace communities, not simply individuals.
4. Jesus is a community builder
Jesus intentionally called a group of disciples, and gathered them together into a community. They were to be ‘with him and to be sent out’ (Matthew 10:1; Mark 6:1; Luke 9:1, 10:1). Jesus’ central teaching was to the so called kingdom or reign of God. But
if it is true that God’s reign concerns history … we who live nineteen hundred years after the event [of Jesus’ living, death and resurrection] must share in its power, not merely by reading of it in a book or hearing it in a verbal report, but by participating in the life of that society which springs from it and is continuous with it … The centre of Jesus’ concern was the calling and binding to himself of a living community of men and women who would be the witnesses of what he was and did. The new reality which he introduced into history was to be continued through history in the form of a community, not in the form of a book (Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, pp. 5758).
He called them to leave their families and previous vocation and stay with him. They lived together, shared a common purse, and adopted an alternative lifestyle from the surrounding society. He also sent them out in pairs to preach, heal, cast out demons and invite others to join their wider band. He therefore formed them into a ‘community in mission’.
5. The church is a community
Throughout the New Testament, the church is described in communal terminology. It was a community of believers, centred on Jesus Christ, more than an institution. The Reformers, living in a time of ‘Corpus Christianum’, sought to define the church by its various functions, i.e. the teaching of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, and right discipline. Yet this misses a fundamental point. The church does not consist of those who merely do certain things, but by those who are ‘in Christ’. It is a fellowship of persons, entirely without an institutional character. It is the body of Christ; the family of God; a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (1 Peter 2:9).
Tim applies these biblical principles to Servants.
Servants’ community in Manila is:
1. A ‘missionary band’
We are expatriates in a foreign land, called and committed to a single, broad missionary mandate. We are not a community just to share our struggles and a few possessions, but to engage in holistic mission amongst the urban poor. Like the Moravians before us, we are a ‘community in mission’ that seeks to find empowerment for ministry through our communal life together. In other words, we are bifocal, aiming to keep community and mission holding hands. We live separately, but come together two days a month, in order to be sent out again. This is our missionary spiral, if you like.
2. A valiant attempt
Trying to engage in strategic ministry whilst living with the urban poor, plus maintaining a viable communal life, places us in an unavoidable tension. We often feel torn between the calls of our squatter neighbours and our own community. Where is the priority? Not wanting to lay down hard and fast rules, and keeping our bifocal vision, means we have sadly seen some fall through the gaps. We are still not sure how possible it is for us to ride this gigantic wave of the Spirit, who calls us with such amazing patience, to trust him for ‘the impossible’.
3. A fragile association of ragged radicals
Every Servant starts off as an idealist. We are all very different, but we all come out generally to see the slums transformed. Pretty soon we realise that most squatters are set in their ways, and are not so open to being changed. When all our plans have filled the waste bin, we discover just how much we need each other in the team. Maybe our self esteem or a particular project is in tatters, so that our frustration level is up and our energy level is down. These are the times when we come into ‘teamtime’ wounded, bruised and broken. This is why we are unashamedly committed to each other, to be burdenbearers, available to be agents of the Lord’s healing for each other.
4. An ‘open circle’
Servants is not a selfperpetuating community. Our real empowerment for mission comes not just through our corporate life together, but our corporate worship life. In our fragility and brokenness, we unashamedly open ourselves up to our Healer, Redeemer and Lord. The depth of our need goes beyond ‘the water’ each of us can contribute. We need ‘the living water’ that only he can give. He is the reason for our leaving family, friends and earthly treasures, and embracing the pain and joy of serving the ‘little ones’. Beside the extravagant generosity of our God, we are mere grateful beggars, trying to encourage some others to accept his gracious invitation.
5. A ‘little leaven’
Servants is a small daring minority, that seeks to be an agent transforming both the squatters and their slum communities. Although we boldly cling to such a grand vision, few outsiders know of our existence as a community. It is ‘hidden’ and seemingly insignificant to any social analyst. We are seeking not to multiply our organisation, but our distinctive ethos and values. Slowly, yet wonderfully, this leaven is spreading through ‘the dough’. Others (both Filipinos and Westerners) are now joining us as we follow the Lord into difficult discipleship amongst the poor and marginalised.
6. An unfinished story
We have made many mistakes on our journey as a ‘community in mission’. We don’t claim to have the whole truth, or to be on our last chapter. We are on a big learning curve, wanting to keep listening to the Lord, each other, the poor, and our brothers and sisters in the wider body of Christ. We’re not builders laying concrete footings, but sojourners putting down a few tent pegs, that we may just have to pull up tomorrow. Our structures, our leaders, and our composition have all changed, but the One who calls us on is faithful and he will accomplish what he has set out to do (1 Thessalonians 5:24). We don’t wish to put ourselves up as the only model of mission amongst the urban poor, but to be faithful to the vision and invitation that the Lord has given us in this small corner of his world. Please pray for us.
Community only possible through prayer
The theology is sound; the derivative principles are inspiring. But the gaps created by the reality of community living are glaringly obvious. We discover that our desperate inadequacy for the huge task reveals not only our own weaknesses but those of other team members. After the first thrill of involvement, we reach the awful conclusion that we don’t like one another, doubt the others’ callings, disrespect their motivations.
Closeness lowers the barriers, then we fear losing control. We dissolve, become belligerent, too passionate for side issues, too reformist about others, too accusing of our own shortfalls. The more and more we try to create unity, we destroy it. The high call to selfsacrifice that community issues jars against our pervading personality preferences, impressive education, theological training and expertise.
Only the Spirit can bring forgiveness, love and patience, so essential to community building. And it is happening, but it’s so fragile. We have to abandon ourselves to the dynamic of the Spirit, not to legislation or to past successes. What will the Spirit reveal next …. in me …. in us …. in new directions?
As we respond to his painful and joyful refinings, we can build ourselves into communities which the poor can see and say in amazement, like the earliest observers of the faith did, ‘See how they love one another.’
© Renewal Journal 3: Community (1994, 2011) pages 17-24
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Now available in updated book form (2nd edition 2011)
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