The Communion of Saints: Part One

 

This blog post is all Scot McKnight’s fault.

In the spring of 2004, Scot and I were having lunch at Tre Kroner, a tasty neighborhood café at the corner of Foster and Spaulding on Chicago’s north side.

At that time, Scot was a professor at North Park University across the street. I was an editor at The Covenant Companion, a small but feisty denominational magazine.

“You should start a blog,” I told Scot over a lunch of salmon quiche and Diet Coke. “You’d be perfect.”

“What’s a blog?” he asked.

“It’s like letters to the internet,” I said. “Trust me—you’d be great at it.”

Things worked out OK for Scot and his blog.

That same lunch, Scot had an idea for me.

“You should write a book about evangelicals,” he said.

His idea—put together a modern version of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”—Randall Balmer’s journey into the evangelical subculture of the 1980s. The focus—that there’s a lot more to evangelicals than politics.

For 12 year’s I’ve tried to sell that idea.

First I called the “The Army of the Lord.” Then later, “The Communion of Saints.”

The point of the book was this: that friendship—with God, fellow believers, and our neighbors—is at the heart of the evangelical movement. That when they aren’t voting, evangelicals do a lot of good, often behind the scenes. And that the talking head evangelicals we see on TV are only a tiny slice of the evangelical world.

And what drew many of us–or at least what drew me– to the evangelical world was kindness and grace—not anger and judgment.

No one wants to buy a book like this.

Especially not after the election of “He who must not be named.”

But I still want to write about this topic.

And I don’t need a book contract to write about it.

A contract with help, because there’s reporting I still want to do. But for now, I can post what I have so far.

And you can read it for free.

So without further ado: Welcome to the Communion of Saints.

Part One:

The last time I talked to my younger brother was in mid-October 2006.

Then, like now, the culture war in America was going ballistic.

In Colorado, James Dobson then-president of Focus on the Family, was battling gay marriage. In South Dakota, voters rallied against an abortion ban, which outlaws all abortions except those to save a mother’s life. On the New York Times bestseller list, renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins claimed that religious people are at best delusional, and at worst child abusers.

Dozens of other writers argue that America is slipping into a theocratic dark age. On college campuses like Brown and Georgetown, evangelical student groups were being told they were no longer welcome. Even Rosie O’Donnell was in on the act, comparing conservative Christians in America to Islamic fundamentalists.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Iraq continued to disintegrate with more than 2,000 American soldiers, and who knows how many thousands of Iraqi civilians, dead. The one thing that both sides in the culture war seemed to agree on is that Iraq is a disaster—either a well-intentioned attempt to fight terrorism and depose a dictator gone awry or an ill-conceived act of American imperialism that backfired.

And somewhere in Colorado, a male prostitute has been telling television reporters a supermarket tabloid-style tale about three years of supplying methamphetamines to—and allegedly having sex with—Ted Haggard, the head of the NAE. First dismissed as a political smear campaign, Jones’s confession turned out to be not far from the truth. The story will soon topple Haggard from the NAE and from his post as pastor of the 15,000-member New Life Church in Colorado.

But, inside the doors of Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois, all was quiet on this October day.

The brainchild of founding pastor Bill Hybels, Willow Creek was named for the movie theater in nearby Palatine where the church’s first services were held in 1975. When the church started, Hybels was a twenty-something former youth minister, whose first pastoral task was canvassing the neighborhood around the church, along with a group of volunteers. They carried surveys with them, and asked neighbors if they went to church. If not, Hybels and his volunteers, asked why. The most common answers— “church services are boring” and “churches are always asking for money”—helped shape the format of Willow Creek’s early services. The music was upbeat, the sermons delivered with humor by Hybels, who dressed in casual clothes. Dramas helped reinforce the main point of the sermon.

The services were aimed at what Hybels called “unchurched Harry and unchurched Mary”—people who were curious about God but suspicious of Christians, and designed to let new people investigate the church at their own pace. No one asked for money during  services or asked newcomers to do anything.

The idea was to take Christianity out of its packaging—hymns, pews, stained glass, religious artwork, fixed liturgy—and see if the message could still ring true.

Critics labeled it “church-lite.” Hybels called it “seeker sensitive.” Whatever the name, the approach worked, and within two years the church had outgrown the movie theater and bought 100 acres of land in South Barrington for their own building.

By the mid-2000s, Willow Creek’s campus had become part office complex, part theater, and part mall. The main auditorium, with state of the art sound, lights, and multimedia, seats 7,000. A small auditorium, which houses services for most of the church’s life, seats 5,000. There’s food court, a bookstore, and offices for the more than 100 support groups and outreach programs the church offers—everything from marriage enrichment and youth groups to ministries that feed AIDS orphans in Zambia and restore used cars for single moms. One wing of the building houses offices of the Willow Creek Association—a network of more than 10,000 churches who use Willow’s resources and approach to doing church.

I was at Willow Creek, on assignment for Sojourners magazine, to interview Kay Warren and Lynne Hybels, two of the most influential women in American Christianity. Almost single-handedly, they’d changed the public agenda of American evangelicals by convincing Kay’s husband, Rick, author of the Purpose Driven Life and pastor of Saddleback Church, and Lynne’s husband, Bill, to become involved in fighting the AIDS epidemic.

But Kay’s plane was late and Lynne had a last minute change of plans—her first grandchild had just been born, and grandchildren trump journalist every time.

As I waited for Kay Warren to arrive, Willow Creek began springing to life. Over in the food court, a group of workers in white uniforms were giving the dining area the once over. In a few hours, the dozens of round tables and chairs would be filled with Willow Creek members who’ve rushed in to catch a bite to eat between work and that evening’s midweek service. In the bookstore, a few people sipped coffee, while others browse the store’s offerings. The selection was predictable: titles on Christian leadership, Christian living, Christian marriage, a smattering of biographies (including one on   Dobson) Bibles, and a large Christian fiction section. The store also features, quite prominently, the Skeptics Guide to the AIDS Crisis by Dale Hanson Bourke and a video curriculum by Lynne and Bill Hybels on getting involved in AIDS ministry

Downstairs, past a waterfall that flows beside the main escalators, a maintenance man was repairing a ceiling tile just outside the Blue Sky Room. Later on this evening, Kay Warren will speak to about 200 Willow Creekers about how AIDS affects women, with a surprisingly frank discussion about sexual violence in the AIDS pandemic.

I settled down in the church’s vast central lobby, in one of half dozen comfortable chairs arranged in a semicircle. Nearby sat an information booth next to a life-sized mock-up of the front porch of a typical suburban home, complete with white pillars, light yellow siding, and brown shutters. The house is an advertisement for “Neighborhood Life,” Willow Creek’s new and improved small group program.

Willow Creek, like most of the more than 1,200 megachurches, (Protestant church with an average attendance of more than 2,000) in the U.S., depends heavily on a network of small groups to knit the congregation together. On the weekends, megachurches services resemble rock concerts or revival meetings. But during the week, often under the radar, church members meet in hundreds of small groups to pray together, study the Bible, and build the ties that bind a church together. Christians sometimes speak of “the body of Christ” or “the communion of saints” when referring to those ties—both being New Testament terms for the followers of Jesus after the resurrection. In a megachurch like Willow Creek, that communion, that body, is knitted together around the coffee table in the homes of church members.

In the quiet of Willow Creek’s lobby, by the Neighborhood Life house, I drank a cup of coffee and finally remembered to call my brother.

It had been weeks, maybe even months, since we’d last spoken. Not because of a rift in the family but because we were both busy. But my brother Paul and his wife were leaving in a few days for the Philippines to finalize the adoption of their first child. For two years they’d been navigating the red tape of adoption in the U.S. and in the Philippines, and finally had approval to bring her home. The last step was presenting their paperwork at the US Embassy in Manila and picking up a visa for their twenty-month-old daughter Connie Marie.

Paul was driving his pickup down Route 95, halfway between Boston and our hometown of Attleboro, Massachusetts, when I reached him by cell phone. “Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash, played in the background when he picked up the phone.

“How ah ya,” he said, his New England version of “How are you.”

The conversation was brief—as conversations usually are among forty-something brothers who live 1,000 miles apart. As he put it, he was “as busy as a one-armed paper hanger,” running his own company. (A master electrician, he spent most of his time installing the electronics that run cell phone towers).

I wished him well on the trip.

“I’ll give you a shout tonight,” he said.

Then he was gone.

The cell signal was lost.

It was the last time I ever heard his voice.

Once in the Philippines, Paul and his wife got caught up in more red tape and more delays. On the morning of October 22, Paul collapsed while out for a run. He was dead at age thirty-nine.

It was as if someone tossed a hand grenade into the center of our lives.

We recovered, or least survived, because of the communion of saints.

***

The communion of saints takes many forms. Sometimes it’s in a group of Christians gathered for worship; other times it’s a group of church members standing on a rooftop during a mission trip, working together to repair a home damaged by a hurricane. Sometimes you can even see it in a platter of cranberry squares or chicken salad sandwiches.

There were platters of both in my parent’s refrigerator in the days following my brother’s death. They were part of dozens of meals brought over by members of their church. The church’s youth group descended on my parent’s backyard, raking the leaves that my father hadn’t been able to get to. Other church friends came and prayed with my folks, and held them close.

The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of four friend so desperate to see their paralyzed friend healed that they broke through the roof of a house where Jesus was staying, and lowered their friend down on a mat, laying him at Jesus’s feet. In a similar way, says Arvid Adell, a retired minister and college professor, Christians sometimes practice “surrogate faith” for those who have been paralyzed by life’s circumstances. They keep the faith until their friends can be restored to health.

In the weeks following my brother’s death, the church kept the faith for our family, and carried us along when we could barely walk.

What happened to my family happens every day in evangelical churches, and probably churches of all kinds. When people grieve or need of a friend; when they are sick or lonesome or lost, the church welcomes them, carries them along, and keeps the faith for them.

Lauren Sandler, author of Righteous, a study of evangelical young people, calls this “the kindness of strangers.”

It is one of the great strengths, perhaps the greatest strengths of the evangelical church; practiced almost entirely by lay people, and often underappreciated by those outside the church.

For a long time, those outside the church included our family.

Back in the 1970s, my parents dropped out of the Catholic faith they’d grown up with. They’d been disillusioned, not with God, but with their parish, a congregation of several thousand where they felt lost in the crowd. For them, there was no small group meeting around a coffee table to bind them to the church. And their parish’s overworked priests had no time to keep track of families wandering out the front door.

The last straw came during a stay at the hospital—while recovering from surgery, my Mom spied her parish priest passing by in the hallway. He stopped in to see her but had no idea who she was, though she had been a member of the parish for years. Soon after, my parents stopped going to church.

It didn’t help that none of their children wanted to go to church either.

For a brief time, out of guilt mostly, my dad enticed my brother Paul and I to go to church. We went along, for a while at least, because of the possibility of donuts.

Dad would drop us off on Sunday mornings near the entrance of St John’s Roman Catholic Church in our hometown of Attleboro, Massachusetts. He handing us each a quarter before we scooted out the door. “I’ll be back in an hour,” he told us.

The money was for the offering plate. But Paul and I had better things in mind.

After my dad dropped us off, we stood in a back entryway of the church, watching Mass through the clear windowpanes in the leaded glass windows at the back. (I spent most of my time, especially in the fall and winter, blowing on the panes and drawing pictures in the condensation.) When we’d had as much church as we could stand, we snuck out in search of donuts.

A couple of times a month, a spread of donuts—glazed and chocolate glazed, coconut and jelly filled—would be set out after Mass in the cafeteria at St. John’s Catholic School, across the street and down the hill from the church. In front of the donuts was a tin can, asking for a 25-cent donation.

If there were donuts, our quarters went in the can. If not, they stayed in our pockets.

If there were none in the cafeteria at the school, we ran back up to the convenience store across from St. John’s. A candy bar or a few Ring Dings made an acceptable substitute for donuts.

By the time I was eleven or so, I’d come up with a church exit strategy. On Sunday mornings, about ten minutes before we were supposed to leave for church, I pulled myself away from the cartoons on TV, and snuck out the back door. Climbing on my five-speed Schwinn bike (complete with a banana seat and baseball cards in the spokes), I peddled away as fast as I could, headed towards the woods and paths behind Peter Thatcher Middle School, a mile and half from my house. One the few occasions when my dad discovered I was gone and called after me, I peddled faster and pretended I hadn’t heard him.

When I was reasonably sure that it was too late for church, I rode home. If my Dad was looking for me when I got home, I played dumb—and pretended that I had no idea I’d missed church.

This strategy worked for a few months. Then one Sunday, after riding though mud puddles along the paths in the wood, I turned for home. My clothes were caked with mud, as was my bike. Suddenly, a horn blared beside me, and a green Plymouth Town and Country station wagon, (with fake wood panels on the side) pulled up beside me.

Without a word, my dad got out of the car, tossed both me and my mud-soaked bike into the far back seat, and shut the door.

“We’re going to church,” he said, when he got behind the wheel.

“I can’t—my clothes are soaked,” I said.

At this time of my life, I was already a social outcast—a bookworm who preferred reading the encyclopedia to going out and playing with my friends. I’d become “husky” as I approached adolescence, and already had bad acne and even worse, thick tortoiseshell frame glasses. I did not need to show up in church covered in mud—more proof that I was a complete loser.

My dad won that battle, but the church war was lost. That Sunday was the last time our family stepped foot in St. John’s. My dad finally gave up.

We were done with religion.

Or so we thought.

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