Saturday, August 18, 2018

Community 101

Willow Creek Church has been in the news. I don’t know much about it, except that some years ago, Bill Hybels came to Christchurch in New Zealand. I was not really interested in his ministry model, but my Dad asked me to go with him. He was only going because his pastor said he should go.

I don’t remember much of Bill’s teaching, but at the book table I picked up a book by Gilbert Bilezikian called Community 101. I had not heard of him, but the book says that he was one of the founders of Willow Creek Church.This was topic that I was interested in, so I grabbed a copy and later read it.

The book has some good theological teaching on the nature of Christian community. I found it helpful, but I thought there was too much hierarchy in some of the teachings on ministry.

In the final pages of the book, Gilbert tells a story that he says illustrates the nature of community at Willow Creek. A woman told him the story of her plight.

A year and a half ago, my husband left me without warning and ran away with a woman he knew from work. He took the car and left us with two months’ rent due on the apartment. The telephone had already been cut off. There was no money and almost no food. I was alone with two mall kids.

I went through a very hard time. I could not call anyone or go anywhere. I had never been on welfare before. I didn’t even know who to talk to. Our neighbours went to work every day. The three of us sat alone in that empty building, crying all the time. Soon, we became hungry. The children were asking for food. I became sad and could do nothing. All that came in the mail was bill and letters from lawyers asking for money. It dawned on me one day that we might die. I was only hoping that the three of us would die at the same time.

One evening I had an idea. I waited for the building to become quiet and, in the middle of the night, I went out to the garbage bins. I learned to move my neighbour’s garbage from one bin to another and gather leftovers that we could eat. But I felt depressed and wanted to die.

Then a miracle happened. One evening the buzzer rang. When I opened the door, an angel of the Lord was standing there. She came in, saw my predicament, and left. That same evening, some people came in and bought a beautiful hot meal. A man and his son brought bags of groceries and children’s clothes. They said it was all from the church’s food pantry. Two people came with a stack of twenty-dollar bills and said the money was ours. I could not believe my eyes for they were complete strangers.

The next day, the rent was paid and the phone reconnected. Two ladies came in and put a set of keys on the table, and said there was a car parked outside that was provided by the car ministry of the church and it was mine (Community 101, p185).

Gilbert explained how the help came.
I learned that the angel was none other than the Sunday School teacher of one of the children. She had noticed the child’s absence and had tried to reach the family over the phone. Upon learning that the phone had been disconnected, she assumed that they moved away and removed the card from the file. She had established the habit of praying through the roster of children periodically. Each time she came to the name of this child, she felt a strange unrest within her. Although the toddler and his family were out of her life, she could not bring the matter to closure. She tried to call again but without results. Finally, she got up one morning pulled out the family’s address, located it on a map and in the evening after work, drove over, just in case (Community 101, p186).
Gilbert describes the incident as a “real-life account that will illustrate the values and working of a biblically functioning community”. This is a powerful story, but it left me disappointed. I wrote in the margin of my copy of the book.
This is not community. He husband left her in distress and no one in the church knew. She was discovered by someone that she did not know. It was an efficient social welfare system, not a community.
If the woman had been part of a strong community, they would have known that her husband had left. She would have been able to tell friends about her debts and lack of food. If she had been part of a strong community, her friends in the community who loved here would have provided help.

In this story, the Sunday School teacher is the hero. She initially just followed the process, but then listened to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and acted. The woman that she helped was not part of her community. The help when it came was effective and generous, but it was delivered by a welfare program, not by a community of friends.

Jesus set a higher standard for assessing the quality of a community. He called his followers to love one another as he loved us. That is the kind of community that he wants to build. When his people love one another, broken people will not slip through the cracks.

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