Turning solutions into problems

While reading a not especially good article about the pastor of a thriving megachurch, I ran across this paragraph:

In devising New Life’s small-group system, Pastor Ted says that he asked himself and his staff a simple question: Do you like your neighbors? And, for that matter, do you even know your neighbors? The answers he got—the Golden Rule to the contrary—were “Not really” and “No.” Okay, said Pastor Ted, so why would you want to be in a small group with them? His point was that arbitrary small groups would make less sense than self-selected groups organized around common interests. Hence New Life members can choose among small groups dedicated to motorcycles, or rock climbing, or homeschooling, or protesting outside abortion clinics.

My first thought was this was the usual disgraceful pandering to a flock that is viewed as a fickle demographic that will blithely wander off when they see a greener pasture. How can we round off each other’s rough edges when we are so selective about our fellowship?

My second thought was, hey, isn’t this just what I’ve said myself in other contexts, namely that in everyday life farmers will want to be with farmers, bankers with bankers, paramedics with paramedics; there should be fellowship among the bankers and farmers and paramedics in a congregation, but it will naturally not run as deep as it will between two who live very similar lives, and we shouldn’t fret over that.

My third thought was, hmm, perhaps the problem is that modern life has divorced geographic proximity and common interests. Around here I naturally share a common interest with my geographic neighbors, because they are all farmers and I want to be one too. Even though a particular neighbor may do little or no farming at this time, this is a farming community and that is the basis on which the residents naturally relate. I don’t hang around with bankers because bankers don’t live around here. (I do hang around with an emergency room nurse who lives a couple of miles away, but that is because he is my pastor, and when we visit we are likely to be talking cows or gardening or healthy eating.)

My final thought is that, as Wendell Berry said somewhere, we are all too prone to take a solution and break it into two problems. In this case the solution was agrarian community, where you had very much in common with your next-door neighbor because of the nature of agrarian life. We divorced proximity from shared interests, turning neighborhoods into places where people have nothing in common except that they own houses along the same street, and now have to find a new way for people with shared interests to live in community.


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