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The Long Haul

Mike McKinley, pastor of Guilford Baptist Church, writes, “Young men tend to overestimate what they can accomplish in the short term and underestimate what they can accomplish in the long term.” This has certainly been true in my own life.
I am a very passionate person; and when I set myself to a project, I want to see immediate results. When Faith and I founded Capitol Hill Friends, I imagined that we might get the Meeting up and running within a year or two. By year three, surely, the church would be ready to stand on its own, whether Faith and I could stay or not.
I can see in retrospect how much my expectations and imagined timeline revealed both my impatience and my ignorance of how human community actually works – or, perhaps, how it does not work – in 21st-century urban America. I thought that with a little determination and elbow grease I could start a new church and move on in just a few years. If George Fox or the Apostle Paul could do it, why not me?
It is easy to see now how naïve I was. I believed that the needs of post-modern America were essentially the same as those of 17th-century England, or the 1st-century Roman world. What I did not understand was that the ministry of Paul and George Fox took place in an environment where people were already organized into organic communities. These communities needed to hear the truth; but no one needed to teach them how to live as members of a community as such.
Our situation today in the post-industrial West is different. Most of us are locked into a society that is so intensely individualistic that our ability to live in community is severely hindered. Extended family networks and friendships are strained and broken through the unceasing quest for more money, status and personal well-being. Most of us no longer have any concept of what real community might look like; or, if we do, we are repelled by it. Community can seem like poverty when we are used to being autonomous individuals, ruled only by our appetites and our need for money.
In such an environment, simply sharing the good news of Jesus is not enough. The evangelist must demonstrate a new way of living that draws women and men into stable, committed community. In a society such as ours, genuine community is a striking witness to the power of the gospel.
This witness requires a different model of ministry from that of Paul or George Fox. I believe that the work that God is calling me to has far more in common with that of Benedict of Nursia. Benedict is considered the founder of Western Christian monasticism. He lived and ministered during the collapse of the Roman Empire, when civilization was falling apart and human community was in great danger. In this context, Benedict offered a new way of life – a disciplined community in which women and men could live faithful Christian lives. In the midst of social chaos and confusion, Benedict held a space for community rooted in obedience to Jesus Christ.
In many ways, Benedict provides a more helpful model of ministry for my historical context. However, I must admit, it is a tough pill to swallow. Frankly, I find the ministry of Paul and George Fox to be far more exciting than that of Benedict. I would rather hop from place to place, preaching and helping to gather a far-flung movement. Benedict’s discipline, on the contrary, terrifies me with its admonition to stay in one place indefinitely, cultivating faithful community year after year, decade after decade. Frequently, however, God teaches me and helps me grow through those things which most challenge my natural inclinations. Though I find Benedict’s model less appealing, I sense that it fits better with what God is calling me to.
I am convinced that the work that is needed here in Washington, DC is not primarily the fast, mobile ministry of George Fox or Paul. Instead, I believe Christ is calling me to the slow, patient work of cultivating the vineyard of God’s people. I am here for the long haul. As long as it takes. As long as God requires.
  • Nice one Micah! You’re not the only one. Good writing, I think this is spot on.

  • “Most of us are locked into a society that is so intensely individualistic that our ability to live in community is severely hindered.” You might want to define your “us” very carefully. This is not true of many of the communities I have lived in, where people know each other pretty well, families have stayed put for generations, etc. No doubt that what you describe is true for many, many people in industrial societies. Sartre called it “anomie”, which has overtones of both anonymity and angst. But it is far from universally true. Defining the “us” could be very helpful in accomplishing what you describe in this post.

  • Annie Kelley

    I also disagree with your assessment of modern society. I’ve seen lots of good communities: they form because of jobs, ukuleles, roller derby, mustaches, a coffee shop, a neighborhood agency or books; there’s groups for active singles, actors, stay-at-home mothers and so on.

    When I interview these people, it always impresses me how these strangers come together, and the level of respect and support. If anything, there are now more opportunities to build and participate in a community. You’re right, it’s not the same kinds of groups that were formed way back when, but we’re a different kind of people. We have airplanes and Internet and indoor plumbing and Tina Fey!

    Things are more jointed but that doesn’t make these micro-communities any less meaningful. And no one is going to die if they’re exiled from the community for not conforming. People and groups are more flexible. Being able to bond with people in the moment can be as important as elbow grease.

    Luckily, you have Faith. She has an instinct for hospitality and connecting with people, and those are things that build up to a positive long-term effect, even if the commitment is only short-term. This is especially helpful in an area such as Washington, D.C., where the population is more transient.

  • Such a good and insightful post, Micah. To a certain extent it is miraculous how we can in the modern world form a degree of community over great distances. I deal with some of the problems you’ve encountered by being part of both Catholic and Quaker communities. I wish we were all closer. I think the one good thing about today is that we are less “tribal” in our communalism, weak as it is. Bless you for all your efforts.

  • The thing about our modern “communities” centered around shared interests/lifestyles, is that we choose them. We’re not born into them. Yes, there can be an incredible closeness in these groups, but if some great division arises, it’s relatively easy (physically, at least) to uproot yourself and find somewhere new to connect.

    While living overseas for awhile, I had the experience of being in a “forced” community, as you might call it – a small group of American expats living in the same area for a couple years, and very much dependent on each other for emotional support, professional assistance, and friendship. Many of us would never have found ourselves in the same social circles or communities in America, but in those circumstances, we had no choice but to care for each other. As a result, we formed very close bonds and grew in our understanding of what it means to love people different (sometimes vastly so) from ourselves. Meanwhile, the native culture around us was based on exactly that: unbreakably close connections between families and villages – where, as Micah put, no one had to teach them how to live as a community (unlike us Americans).

    I believe this experience was closer to what used to exist in, say, 1st century Rome, than our modern sense of community. Where you’re pretty much stuck with the people immediately surrounding you, so you better learn to take care of each other or everyone will be miserable – regardless of whether your interests, beliefs, or life situations match up. It’s the kind of necessary interdependency that, for many of us, no longer exists. At least, not naturally. It’s also the kind of interdependency that forces you to learn intentional love, of the kind that Jesus (and Micah) speaks of.

    Sorry for the essay; the question of community is a deep interest for me so I couldn’t help but weigh in!