Monday, February 26, 2007

Living in God's House

Submitted by Andrew McLeod and published in Vol 1 No 4 of the Canaanite's Call

The Church of the Sojourners is more a community than it is anything that fits most people’s idea of a church. They are 35 people sharing four large houses in the Mission District of San Francisco. It is certainly a congregation, but the level of commitment to each other and to God is far beyond that found among any group of people who each go to church together on the Sundays when it is convenient.

The Sojourners don’t go to church. They live at church.

This is not to say that they don’t do the things that are ordinarily brought to mind with the word “church.” They do have a “gathered worship” service on Sunday evenings, crammed into their largest living room. But even here, they take the extraordinary step of incorporating a shared dinner into the service, and take time to affirm how they see the Holy Spirit moving in each others’ lives.

This is only one of many weekly rituals which occur on almost every day of the week. Other beats in their weekly rhythm include a Bible study and a three-hour “Sabbath silence” on Sunday mornings; Saturday is the only day without a regular event. Church members coordinate vacations, and expect each other to generally show up for meals. Each household functions as a family within their larger family, often starting and finishing each day in prayer together.

This monastic devotion might seem like an atmosphere that would attract puritan fanatics, but the Sojourners listen to U2 while washing dishes and sprinkle their sermons with phrases like “pain in the ass.” Their book collection includes Harry Potter and their dinner conversation includes casual reference to an expected visit from the Tooth Fairy (albeit one in which it was clear to all that this was not a real fairy, but perhaps a housemate dressed up in a tutu). These are clearly just a bunch of regular folks who all are really enthusiastic about Jesus Christ.

They seek to live according to the example in the book of Acts, which describes how the first Christians lived together. “There was no poverty among them, because people who owned land and houses sold them and brought the money to the apostles to give to others in need.” (Acts 4:34-35)

The Sojourners are committed to each other, sharing resources with each other, and providing hospitality to others. While they are not a full-blown commune—each member has his or her own possessions and spending money—they do share cars, and any income earned above a certain level.

Within this group is an inner circle of “covenanted members,” who are those most committed to the community, and who collectively provide its leadership. The depths of this commitment seem to rival that of marriage, and their single members sometimes claim domestic partner status for each other under the liberal laws of San Francisco. Members are free to go, and are encouraged to have personal savings that could be used in the event of a departure. But most stick around. One member wanted to attend the seminary, and submitted this major life decision to the group’s consensus through a process that took months.

The church recently co-hosted a “School for Conversion” with the New Monasticism Project. This movement is a decentralized effort to live by the example of Jesus, and its identity is formed around a dozen “marks.” These are not rigid rules which all must obey—rather, they are some general principles that are generally agreed to be indicative of their collective efforts.

One of the high points of the weekend was the testimony of one of the church’s newer members, who had arrived by way of a long and torturous path. It was a familiar, almost routine story of coming to Christ, complete with years of addiction and failed relationships. However, it lacked a key ingredient of the stereotypical tale of salvation: There was no happily-ever-after moment in which he just gave in to God and got everything miraculously fixed. There was certainly no altar call.

What made the story so compelling to me was that it centered around the humble admission that he had repeatedly failed to turn his life around, and would have probably continued to fail had he not encountered a community of people who were willing to love him even when he betrayed their trust, who invited him to join them after he had lied and stolen. In all likelihood, his story is not over. The struggle still continues, as decades of habit cannot easily be set aside. But hopefully by finding community that shows him love in spite of his flaws, he can loosen the grips of those flaws.

Given the normal evangelical style of working up to a climactic sales-pitch built around a “salvation moment,” (and the loaded name of the event) one might expect that this weekend was geared toward that favorite Christian pastime of saving souls. However, both the preparatory materials and the event itself made clear that the conversion is an ongoing process for all involved. The atmosphere was one of general exploration, and openness to others’ states of faith.

This openness was reflected in the diversity among the Sojourners and the new monastic movement in general (as well as the school attendees): In addition to a large number of evangelicals and Mennonites, there were Catholics and Anglicans and mainline Protestants.
Here were people that supposedly can’t make it through a Sunday morning together, living together in intense round-the-clock fellowship, in a community that has lasted for more than two decades. Doctrinal disagreements do come up, but the focus is kept on the practices. Of course, this leaves certain questions unanswered—for example, who will do the dishes if part of the community gets raptured? But there are more pressing issues to address, like how can they best provide hospitality and love to neighbors in need.

The weekend underlined my uncertainty about what I believe, but also reaffirmed my sense that these people are onto something. If nothing else, Jesus had some really great ideas that—if carried out on a large scale—would make for a much more peaceful and pleasant world. I left with more questions than I had when I arrived, but I do know that the Church of the Sojourners and New Monasticism Project are doing essential work in the ongoing effort to reinvent the Church for the 21st Century.

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