When is our “personal” faith is too personal?
More than ever, our faith has become personal and private, having nothing to do with anyone but “me.” Faith is my business—personal relationship with Jesus, silent prayer, private devotions and secret sins. The individualism that has invaded our world has affected Christianity.
Ironically, our lives are more transparent in an ever-connected world. Social networking sites invite us to display our religious beliefs. Our online diaries—oops, I mean blogs—reveal our beliefs to the world and our every move can be captured by someone’s camera phone and eventually posted online for all to see. It’s no surprise that many of us have stumbled on a friend’s MySpace who would be embarrassed if he knew we’d seen it.
As Mennonite Brethren, we don’t believe that our faith is “personal and private” and has nothing to do with anything else. Instead, faith is a public expression, and my life is an open book to those in my community. We encourage each other to do right and challenge each other when we see sin.
The MB Confession of Faith says: “The church is a covenant community in which members are mutually accountable in matters of faith and life. They love, care and pray for each other, share in each other’s joys and burdens, admonish and correct one another.”
If our congregations are covenant communities, how do we hold each other accountable without falling to the extreme of religion (rule-keeping) or privatization (turning a blind eye)?
Menno Simons’ understanding was simple: “Therefore take heed. If you see your brother sin, then do not pass him by as one that does not value his soul; but if his fall be curable, from that moment endeavor to raise him up by gentle admonition and brotherly instruction, before you eat, drink, sleep or do anything else, as one who ardently desires his salvation.”
For Menno, church discipline was a simple concept: We are as concerned about the spiritual well-being of others as we are of our own. We love those in our community enough to help them be the best they can be.
Only when a congregation decides to enter into a mutually responsible and accountable covenant community can church discipline function healthily. Recently I had a conversation with a friend who had some major struggles during the past year. She needed someone to talk with and to confess her struggles. She looked to her church but couldn’t find a single person in the congregation with whom she felt safe enough to share. So she went looking elsewhere, outside her so-called covenant community to find someone safe.
Would her story be different if she felt like her community consisted of mutual accountability and had people who truly loved, cared for and prayed for her? It challenges me to ask whether I care enough for the people on my pew and across the sanctuary to encourage or confront them.
Covenant community means providing safe places for sharing one’s hurts and confessing sins. It requires a willingness to confront one another when we are unwilling to deal with sin. It means responding with love and appreciation when we ourselves are confronted with our own sin.
What, then, do we do? We begin by battling the temptation to privatize our own lives and faith. We confess our sins, our doubts and our hurts to one another. We put down the façade that we’re always doing good, and we get real with each other. We open our lives—our views of God, our doubts, our hurts, our homes, our secret sins and even our checkbooks—to one another. If we view congregations as covenant community, we can no longer hide behind our “personal” faith.
Even more, we can ask people how they are doing and truly listen. We can make eye contact and only say “uh huh” when we mean it rather than fake listening. We can write people cards, notes, e-mails or use other forms of communication. Healthy communication always promotes community and always creates safety.
As singer/songwriter Sara Groves reminds us, this is both difficult and messy. Yet it is what helps us work out our salvation:
“Here in the stillness
where thoughts are born
here in our frailty we're tattered and torn
here in confession
here in our mess
here in the place where we're mostly undressed—mostly
oh honesty, oh honestly, the truth be told for the saving of our soul
only the truth and truthfulness can save us now.”
This month, may the one who is The Truth shape our lives, and may we care for others’ faith as much as our own.