Rethinking Church, Part Four: Community and Accountability

 This is part four of a five-part series I'm calling Rethinking Church. In this post, we're going to talk
about community and accountability. How does modern institutional Christianity define these two terms? Is institutional religion's model for community a valid one? Is accountability the means for creating genuine community?

As a reminder, I'm writing this series in the following order. I strongly urge you to read these in the order written as each one builds on the previous.

I think it's safe to say that in an institutional religious system of top-down authority, one would expect that the definitions of community and accountability would vary from the definitions of those same words outside the influence of that same institutional system. And that is certainly the case here. In a pastor-centered church system that's

modeled after Ignatius of Antioch's directives to "Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop…" it comes as no surprise that both community and accountability are given definitions that promote the ongoing influence of the institutional setting upon those in that system. How does this top-down authority structure that is present in so many institutional churches impact genuine community? Let's take a closer look. 

Does Accountability Produce Community? 

We might be tempted to think community and accountability are the same thing. Community is the agreed upon goal and we think accountability is the bus that will take us there. But it's not. In reality, that bus is traveling in the opposite direction. But in an institutional religious setting that has its own definitions of community and accountability based on its need to perpetuate and reproduce itself, it makes perfect sense. We mistakenly believe that accountability is the magic ingredient that will lead us into genuine community. In fact, we try to use accountability as the catalyst to form community. Don't believe me? Stop going to a Sunday morning event or tell someone you're not currently involved in an institutionally sanctioned small group and they'll respond with, "Who are you accountable to?" We've so equated community with accountability that we don't recognize how far apart the two are from one another. 

I was in a recent conversation with a friend who is a pastor at a local institutional church and when our discussion turned to small groups and he discovered I wasn't in one that was sanctioned by a local institution, his immediate response was the same: "Who are you accountable to?" as if the Holy Spirit's work in my life in leading me to community elsewhere was inadequate. His follow-up statement was "you need to be accountable to and under the authority of the elders." Go back and read parts one and two if you need a short refresher on pastors and authority. You might want to add a dash of part three as well. His assumption was (as was mine for many years) the way to produce community was through accountability. No accountability, no community.

What is Accountability? 

The best definition I've heard of accountability describes it as the right to compel action with the enforcement of that right accomplished through rewards and punishments to conform behavior. I would add that in the church, we use guilt, shame, fear, threats, and condemnation in the list of punishments for non-conformity to the rules, whatever those rules are. Accountability is needed in society (Rom 13) to prevent chaos and anarchy, but we've brought it into the church in a failed attempt to use it as a vehicle to compel community. In religious institutional-ism we use accountability in the form of manipulation, guilt, and intimidation to compel people to go where we want them to go and to be involved where we want them to be involved, and then we call the result, community. I've been a part of that system and you probably have too. I've initiated it as a pastor and been on the receiving end of it as one sitting passively in the pew. As pastors, we ask the question, "How can we get more commitment and participation in our mid-week small groups?" Then we answer it by placing more rules or restrictions on people like, "You're in this age group, so you have to be in one of these groups." Or, "You live in this geographical area, so you have to be involved in group A, B, or C", instead of letting genuine community just happen. But forced participation at institutionally sanctioned events using accountability to get the desired results is no community at all. It's fake. It's propped up.

I've been in countless conversations with people involved by compulsion in mid-week small groups who have no friends there or just feel out of place. But they're there simply because they've been told they have to be there and they fear repercussions if they pull out. Someone recently told me, "We've been told we have to be in this small group because of our age, but our close friends are in another small group. We don't know anybody here and we want to be with our friends, but we've been told we have to be here instead because of our age bracket. It seems so forced that we don't even go anymore." This is a common theme. But don't take my word for it. Become a member in most local institutions and don't join an institutionally-sanctioned small group and see what happens. Your days there are numbered! As I said earlier, I've been on both sides of this experience, as both a pastor and a pew sitter. As pastors, we herd people into these propped-up accountability-driven environments and call it community and pat ourselves on the back thinking we've done a great job of creating community. 

But that's not community. It's a cheap substitute for community. Community that is built on obligation to rules and fear of punishment for failure to conform to the rules is no community at all. Those things are community killers. And yet accountability remains our tool of choice to usher people into supposed community. We use the accountability trump card to compel people to join our mid-week small groups. And so they go out of obligation and fear of punishment if they don't go. And then we wonder why most of our small groups have such high turn-over rate. It's because they're based on accountability, obligation, and fear instead of being built on love and affection. 

But obligation is a cheap substitute for genuine affection. Accountability gets external results in the form of temporary behavior modification, but it can't capture a heart. Accountability can compel people to jump through hoops but jumping through hoops isn't community and it eventually exhausts you and causes you to give up and leave. People are so busy jumping through hoops that they don't have time for real community or to love their neighbor, should the option present itself. And if they stop jumping through the hoops we set up for them, they run the real risk of being ostracized or kicked out altogether. But Jesus came to set the captives free, not to hold them accountable! 

What is Genuine Community? 

I once heard someone say, "The incarnation is God's full-on commitment to win by love and affection, what fear and law could never win." I would add obligation, shame and guilt to that list. We see genuine community revealed in the incarnation and it is there that Jesus draws us into a relationship with the Father that is based solely on love and affection (1 John 1:3). Jesus came to reveal the Father to us (John 14:8-9) and in that unveiling, we get a glimpse of that first community, that of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into that community that Jesus brings us: 

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) 

Accountability leads to heavy-laden hearts and burnout, but the community Jesus invites us into leads to rest for our souls. Why? Because genuine community is founded on love and affection alone. Jesus showed us a Father who isn't mad at us or insisting we jump through hoops to keep ourselves accountable. Jesus showed us a Father who is eager to share with us in community: 

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:32) 

Christian, does that sound like a God who's mad at you? Does that sound like an invitation into community that requires things of you? Does that sound like obligation with threats of punishment if you fail to jump though all the hoops, or does that sound like one-way love and affection with no strings attached? It's the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. This is community in action at the highest level. 

Susan and I have been married almost 48 years. We're best friends. That doesn't mean we don't have problems. We do. You've probably already figured out that we love each other. But at times, what runs deeper than love or is more tangible, is affection. I love showing affection to Susan. I want to do things for her, spend time together, and I think about her when we're apart. That kind of engagement can't be forced, demanded, or coerced. And that kind of engagement is the community that the Father draws us into. It's his good pleasure to give you the kingdom! Did you catch that? It's his GOOD PLEASURE! Jesus showed us a Father that has love AND affection for us and that is our model for genuine community. We're walking in genuine community when we can say someone is a genuine friend and there is no pretending. Accountability encourages people to pretend. Community invites us in to the Father's affection where we can feel safe and accepted, fully known and fully loved without any pretense. 

In an accountability structure, we learn to hide the stuff that's the real us or that we think will disappoint others. We learn how to fake it and which masks to wear to fake people out in every circumstance. In accountability structures, we are focused on getting people to do what they don't really want to do by way of manipulation and behavior management with corresponding rewards and punishments. True community that is built on love and affection instead of obligation to the rules is a threat to our top-down authority structures in the institutional church because it can't be controlled or manipulated. It's going to do what it needs to do to remain genuine and that may or may not feed the institution's agenda. 

We are members of his body not to control each other, but to love each other, share life together. Not to hold each other accountable to behavior modification via guilt, shame, or threats of pending punishment for non-conformity. Genuine community can't be faked. In accountability models, we end up lying and being fake to keep people off our backs. But love takes us further than fear and obligation ever can. Fear makes us do the minimum. Love knows no bounds. Shame is a useful tool to exploit conformity to the rules but it too is a poor substitute for love and affection. 

Next up: Rethinking Formal Church Membership

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