Community Vision -- Jack Flanagan

PicJackFlanaganII“And they devoted themselves to…the fellowship.” (Acts 2.42)  Many of us take fellowship and our community life as a fundamental, after all, we‘ve been at it for some time now.  It derives from the Trinity who is the ultimate community and family!  We view it as an essential support; it is one of the spokes in the wheel diagram, all the way back to the Life in the Spirit Seminars!  Perhaps this is why I found it remarkable that an article, written by a commission consisting of social scientists and child health experts, stressed the need for communities in raising youth. The secular case for Christian Community The article appeared in the American Family Association Journal, January 2005.  It is titled Hardwired for religion.  Its basic premise is that Christianity has the truth about community, so necessary for our youth and their need to grow in wholesome environments.  I would like to highlight portions of this article and then comment how our community life addresses our significant need, not just for young people, but for all of us, who are always young in the Lord!

The article opened with a series of provocative questions aimed at our youth: what if we could find something that would make teenagers less likely to become involved in crime, drugs and alcohol abuse?  And what if this little miracle “something” would turn adolescents into safer drivers, make them more likely to participate in extracurricular activities like sports or student government, and give them a higher sense of self esteem?   (Having served in a variety of jail and prison settings, these questions could as easily be asked of adults!)

The article goes on to state definitively that Christianity has the key – more specifically, Christian communities that are able to transmit the beliefs, values and morals that help give young people a sense of the transcendent, an ordered universe and their own place in it. 

Surprisingly, the source of this conclusion is secular, the Commission on Children at Risk that described itself as an independent jointly sponsored initiative of the Dartmouth Medical School, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Institute for American Values.  The 33 members consisted of a group of children’s doctors, research scientists and mental health and youth service professionals.  Their report is titled Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritarian Communities. 

The Need This commission considered the following: “In the midst of unprecedented material affluence, large and growing numbers of US children and adolescents are failing to flourish.”  It cited a number of troubling indicators: increasing mental and emotional difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, conduct disorders and suicidal thoughts, as well as a series of physical aliments rooted in emotional disorders, including heart disease and ulcers.  Related to this are high rates of behavioral problems, such as substance abuse, school dropout, interpersonal violence, premature sexual intercourse and teenage pregnancy. 

It commented on the long-term ramifications to these disorders and breakdowns.  “Large numbers of children, even including those who could be considered privileged, are no longer developing the empathy, moral commitment and ability to love necessary to maintain our society at the level that has always been our dream.” 

So what’s the problem? The commission observed the “crisis” is due to teens’ “lack of connectedness…to other people, and the lack of deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning.”  It states from our earliest years we are essentially “hardwired” to form close attachments to other people, beginning with parents, and then expanding this to include a wide group of people.  The authors note that parenting trends of the last 30 years promote “the development of unattached, uncommunicative, learning impaired and uncontrollable children.”  These trends have compro-mised children’s “opportunity for the connections and rituals and nurturing that are so necessary to children’s healthy development.”  Consequently, they grow up in a moral vacuum, one eventually filled with media values and a consumerist culture. 

What a deadly concoction: home and family breakdown, with pop culture and MTV media values filling in the gap!  As a consequence, the church continues to lose ground in our culture, and lose its youth to the world.

The solution…  What was surprising to me is that the commission actually stressed the need for moral values and religion in community settings!  It acknowledged that “we are hardwired for meaning, born with a built in capacity and drive to search for purpose and reflect on life’s ultimate goal.  The need for young people to connect to ultimate meaning and to the transcendent is not merely the result of social conditioning, but is instead an intrinsic aspect of the human experience.”  And these religious beliefs strengthen young people, putting them on a more positive path.  Such youth are actually safer drivers, more likely to wear seatbelts, and less likely to become juvenile delinquents or adults criminals.  They are less prone to substance abuse or to engage in other high-risk behaviors.  They are more likely to participate in sports, student government, volunteer in the community and take on more positive attitudes about life.  “If America continues to secularize the environments in which children are raised, Hardwired insisted that teens will pay the price.” And what’s the solution?

The commission went on to speak of “authoritative communities” as key to the solution!  They define these as “groups of people who are committed to one another over time, and model and pass on what it means to be a good person and to live a good life.  It is warm and nurturing, establishing clear limits and expectations; is multigenerational, with a long-term focus.  It encourages spiritual and religious development and is philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all persons and to the principle of love of neighbor.”  Wow!  Sounds a lot like…Christian community, expressed in sociological terms.

Such communities lend support and strengthen values that teens are also hopefully getting at home.  We need, then, healthy homes and families, as well as wider, nurturing communities of faith to reverse these eroding cultural trends.  And they believe this is our “best strategy” for addressing this crisis and improving the lives of U.S. children and adolescents.

Reflections Isn’t it striking to see a scientific body and experts on children’s health make such a clear call for a change in public policy and acknowledge the positive role of religion in culture?  By extension, I think many of these above statements apply to adults as well.  We, too, need some form of vital, faith-imparting Christian community to thrive.  I have a number of thoughts:

God’s word is true: yes, I know that we all know this.  But when I see the culture affirming fundamental scriptural realties, I am struck!  How essential for us to grasp “ultimate meaning and the transcendent” and to identify this as “an intrinsic aspect of the human experience”.  It spoke of our need for meaning and purpose and our ultimate end.  We primarily find this in the Gospel!  The report noted the need for nurturing, authoritarian community.  How critical to be incorporated into Christ’s living Body, to be built into that living Temple and to devote ourselves to “the fellowship”.  God’s word is true and it is life for us!

How good God has been to us: He has brought us to this.  God, who is Trinity and community, has made His Body a vibrant and formative reality for us.  He regularly meets us there; He dwells in our praises!  He is the one who invites us into this.  I am grateful and awed.  How rich and life-giving our life has been here in The Word of God Community for my family and me.  This has been a place of nurturing for us.  Huron Valley School was a place for my children to encounter the Lord and grow straight in Him.  Pine Hills Camps and various youth programs have radically affected our children. The brothers and sisters who served there were models for my children of godliness and wholesome maturity.  The community offered teaching and training for my home and family life.  There was the consistent touch of the Holy Spirit in our community worship and church life.  How good the Lord has been to us!

We are created (and recreated) related.  John 1:12 states: “Those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave them power to become children of God.”  If children (sons and daughters) of God, then brothers and sisters together.  This is a fundamental reality we have known and accepted over the years.  No Lone Ranger Christianity here!  It’s about being family, God’s family together.  Paul’s closing blessing in 2 Corinthians 13 is noteworthy: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  “The fellowship” we have known derives from the Holy Spirit!  With His release in us, our spirit’s DNA changed, to desire the fellowship.  He has made known to us the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God.  This fellowship has the power to make the crooked straight, to sanctify and redeem human lives, and to make us children of the light.  Here God Himself dwells among us and we take on the very image of Christ.  Of course, there is God’s power here to heal our dysfunctions and woundedness, to transform our character, and to bring the blessing of God upon our homes and families and to raise up youth strong in the Lord.  We partake of the very fellowship of the Father and Jesus, from whom all life and blessing flow.

“The fellowship: then is not simply on an “authoritarian community”.  Yes, our community does share some of it’s elements (“groups of people who are committed to one another over time, and model and pass on what it means to be a good person and to live a good life.   … philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all persons and to the principle of love of neighbor.”)  But it is much more than all this because it is something God Himself is inIt is not that God is part of our community, we are actually part of His!  For our community is already a participation in Trinity.  This is why it works!  This is why lives transform and we experience release from evil.  And this is why “they devoted themselves … to the fellowship.”  Here one encounters the Lord of heaven and earth.  Here one finds rest and peace, and comes to know why he exists.

Let us not fear what the Lord has called us to; let us not hold back.  Rather, let us give our lives to Him again, trusting as a good Father, He knows what is best for us.  Let us embrace one another, for this is the People the Lord has given to us to love and serve. 

“Lord, we trust you.  We thank you for your wonderful salvation.  We thank you for “the fellowship”, for our home groups and districts and district dinners and our community gatherings.  Please continue your work among us, keeping your hand upon us and making us your family!”