Community in Crisis

October 1st, 2009

As we struggle to form true Biblical community in our students, we might be wise to remember that the greatest challenges may come from within more than without.

Well before the advent of cell phones, iPods, laptops, videogames, personal DVD players, and all of the other things that we blame for the breakdown of genuine community among our students—there was a legitimate danger of fragmentation among the people of God. Judges 2 records such a time—fresh on the heels of an entire generation of deep, thoroughgoing community building that took place under the leadership of Joshua.

The text records that the people “served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived them.” The community’s experience of God was both experiential and cognitive, as they “had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel.” At the ripe age of 110, Joshua dies, and verse 10 is disparagingly immediate for me as a youth pastor: “After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.”

On the surface level, perhaps this could seem like an opportunity to rant about the generation that followed Joshua’s. Preachers have a special gift of that—the whole condescending “kids today” thing that we’ve mastered. But the text noticeably doesn’t place the blame on the youth or the culture. There’s just this simple, yet cryptic, explanation: “They knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.” There is crisis in the community, and trying to figure out the whys and hows is never as straightforward as we’d like it to be.

In our own community crises, we certainly aren’t getting help from the culture, especially as the church increasingly buys into the most lethal of its values. From ATMs to (where I should own stock by now), we learn that the tedium and hassle of people simply isn’t necessary to get what we want. The same principle is pervasive in our fascination with pornography—sexually we’re able to achieve the desired stimulation, without any of the challenges of intimacy. Via “cyber church,” intimacy with God can be achieved in a similar manner—without the smells or pettiness of real people to get in the way of communion with the divine. Warm bodies no longer become necessary for either sex or church. Ultimately then, God is no longer even necessary for spirituality. Books like Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines assert that spiritual sensation originates from a “God spot” in the brain, thus opening the possibility that “spiritual experience” can be stimulated mechanically in the mind—a sort of masturbatory mysticism.

Clearly then, the cultural challenges to community are legion. Yet in our own failures at spiritual formation, very seldom are we able to blame a lack of discipleship and development on either the students or their ethos. If they “do not know,” there has to be some kind of breakdown in the relationship between student and learner. Without the challenges of technology and media, it’s a sobering reality that community can wither and die internally without any help from the culture. After the death of Joshua, something chipped away at the teacher/learner relationship that had been so highly cherished and structurally ordered for Israel. Many of the texts in the Torah demonstrate the intentionality and diligence Israel had shown in maintaining this system:

Deuteronomy 6:6-7 “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise…”
Deuteronomy 6:20-21 “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded you?’ Then you shall say to your son…”
Joshua 4:6 “…that this may be a sign among you, when your children ask in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall tell them…”

From all of this marvelous structure of spiritual formation, there arises “a generation that did not know.” As these ancient texts show us, the most dangerous adversary to real community has never been an external force or pressure of any kind. The community begins to break down when the stories of the elders are no longer being passed down to the youth. The community breaks down when the lives and the testimonies are no longer compelling enough to demand curiosity, the kind of intrigue that would cause a student to come asking the big question: “What does this mean?” When the youth of the community stop having their holy imagination stoked, it isn’t a time to criticize them or blame them. It’s time to evaluate the educational/formational process of the community. It’s time to evaluate whether or not the stories are being passed down in a crisp, first-hand manner, or whether the stories have become less and less focused through too many faxes and second-hand copies. Or maybe they aren’t being passed down at all.

There was a clear expectation during the formative years of the Torah that there was a reciprocal relationship between teacher and learner that involved questions, substantive interaction between older and younger members of the community, and meaningful reflection on the practices of the people of God. There was teaching of the Word and stimulating visual markers of God’s provision for Israel, along with their response of worship. We all have ideas and updates of what these things might look like today, different methodologies by which community might be facilitated. Most of it’s accomplished through ordinary means.

Yet there remains no one-size-fits-all formula for building community, because the magic and mystery of it isn’t something we can conjure. It takes God being involved in the details—”the mystery and the manners” to use Flannery O’Connor’s language. It takes liturgy and real life in equal measure. What we can ascertain is that at the heart of this process are passionate, deep experiences with God from the elder members of the community. To this day, I find myself haunted by the testimonies of people in my life like my grandmother. She and other elders in my life are people who have known a God far less cultured than the one I keep trying to create, a God who is as worthy of fear as love. They minded the manners, but they also maintained the mystery. Their lives and their stories prompted, maybe even demanded, holy inquisitiveness.

As an X-Files fan, I’ve been pulling out the first couple of seasons on DVD and am reminded how Agent Fox Mulder began his life-long search for the supernatural. As a child, he sees his sister abducted by aliens and is captivated by the experience. Of course, he’s frightened. But he’s also mysteriously drawn to what he saw and lives his whole life in pursuit of seeing “them” again. Perhaps the greatest gift we could impart to our students is sharing stories of those in the community who have known this God that way—as the fire who can warm but also consume, create yet destroy. That is the God whose story the people have a responsibility to tell.

I’m less sure than ever what it takes to build community in a youth group. But I am sure that magic happens when students are drawn into the splendor of the story. The grand continuity—which runs from Sinai to the cross, from Pentecost to the throne in Revelation, to the real stories of saints in the fellowship whose experiences are richer and fuller than mine—is the substance of Biblical community. If it’s not conscientiously maintained and methodically passed down to the younger members of the community, the stories and the people will both die—deader than Joshua, laid to rest in Timnath Heres after 110 years.


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