A good friend and I were chatting the other day about the difficulty of discipleship and mission here in the Northeast, and in particular, here in Syracuse. In a culture steeped in and characterized as post-Christian, we have found many factors impeding the deepening and broadening of Jesus’ movement. We both strongly believe in the necessity of the Church returning to square one in her efforts. This means many things, but at its core, it means a return to Jesus’ intentions for community, mission, and incarnation.
One factor has consistently reared its head: commitment. Try as we might to disciple people into community and mission via incarnation, without commitment, things will unravel rather quickly. This might seem like an understood factor, but the reality is many people practice pseudo-commitment. When things get messy, when their romanticized illusions blow up, when the new and shiny appears on the horizon, many peoples’ “commitment” fades.
We have become a culture known for its commitment-breaking rather than its commitment-keeping.
Most, if not all, of this rests upon our consumer mindsets, practices and their resulting identities. As John McKnight and Peter Block state in The Abundant Community, “Consumer society begins at the moment when what was once the province or function of the family and community migrates to the marketplace. It begins with the decision to purchase what might have been homemade or neighborhood produced.” Once we yield to this way of life, we begin to filter our practices through the lens of consumerism. In this shift, our commitment moves from the family and neighborhood (community) to the self and its wants.
Furthermore, this mindset – and again, its identity forming practices – is founded upon detachment. One would assume consumerism’s main goal would be attaching buyers to objects. This is its lure. We think we need purchasable objects and once we have them we will stay attached to them. The truth lies in consumerism’s “counterfeit nature” which is built upon an inherent sense of detachment. It has to be, otherwise we could not go out and continue to consume. McKnight and Block quip, “The marketplace in this way promises what it knows will not be fulfilling.”
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise when we find the difficulty of commitment to incarnation. In a world of pseudo-commitment, it is much easier to tether ourselves to excarnational realities. I have heard many people say they have community on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. Or people rally around an ideology or social issue. Again, as McKnight and Block state, within a consumer culture, we form communities around and with those who are able to purchase like us. The same is true here: we form communities – and stay committed to them – as long as they aren’t demanding, differ from their original intentions, or are full of people who share a similar affinity.
In other words, we tend to give our commitment to things which are void of actual responsibility and relationship.
Enter the baby pictures:
I love these pictures. The children in them are the two sons of friends and our daughter in the middle. The first picture is of them all soon after their births; they all were born within 3 weeks of each other. The second was taken a few weeks ago, as they all are preparing to be (or already are) 2 years old.
To me this is much more than a picture. It is much more than a group of beautiful children. It is a picture of commitment. These babies represent the families they are a part of; families who stuck it out over the past several years of community building, church planting, and church collapsing. They are the embodiment of what it means to tether together when it doesn’t make sense or when things get difficult. They are the symbols of birthday parties, dedications, hundreds of dinners, tears, laughter, and everything else in between. In a very real way, they are indicative of commitment, or as Christine Pohl describes, the “internal framework for every relationship and every community.” Their smiling faces are afforded by the trust between us all as we venture together into the future as friends turned family.
I love Peter Block’s words regarding commitment:
Commitment is a promise made with no expectation of return. It is the willingness to make a promise independent of either approval or reciprocity from other people. This takes barter out of the conversation. Our promise is not contingent on the actions of others. The economist is replaced by the artist. As long as our promise is dependent upon the actions of others, it is not a commitment; it is a deal, a contract…Commitment comes dressed as a promise.
I’m not saying everything has been perfect or without trouble. (You did see me mention “church collapse,” right?) Yet, there has been an intentional decision to incrementally push through our addictions to consumerism and to stick with mutual commitment. It has been this intentional mutuality that has allowed us to take pictures like the ones above and certainly many more to come.
If you are wondering about commitment and what it means, I’ll leave you with these questions from Peter Block’s wonderful book Community: The Structure of Belonging. Bring them to your community and have a conversation. See what happens. Talk, and if you want to truly ground the conversation, write things down and come back to them in 6 months.
What promises am I willing to make?
What measures have meaning to me?
What price am I willing to pay?
What is the cost to others for me to keep my commitments, or to fail in my commitments?
What is the promise I’m willing to make that constitutes a risk or major shift for me?
What is the promise I am postponing?
What is the promise or commitment I am unwilling to make?