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Church as Non-Transactional Family

I’ve been trying to read various different Christian books lately that are authored by people who are not white men. One of them is At Home In Exile, by Russell Jeung—Asian American Studies professor at SF State and incidentally, someone connected through the sister church that started my church, who has come to preach for us a couple of times. His book memoir details his narrative living in East Oakland’s “Murder Dubs” neighborhood, and finding solidarity and community with the Latino and Cambodian refugee families there. I found one particular passage particularly scintillating for me:

Our market-driven sensibility pervades even church discourse…where American Christians tend to assume a type of community based on a market exchange model. Rational individuals invest their time and psychic energies. In return, they receive emotional support, prayers for their issues and circumstances, and most significantly, a Spirit-led sense of belonging as God’s people. When these transactions aren’t fully met, however, the social contracts between individuals may break down. Often, Christians base their understandings of community from therapeutic models…where members are contemplative and self-aware, safe and vulnerable, free and non-hierarchical.

On the other hand, Chinese gung ho solidarity differs from such communities of consumption. Rather than a group of individuals coming together on their own terms, solidarity starts with the collective as one’s extended family. Members think of themselves as family first and foremost. The group is not made up of rational individuals, but of persons who cannot survive without one another. Individuals don’t seek what they can get out of the group, but instead look to how they can contribute to the group’s overall health and well-being.

As Jeung writes, gung ho in Chinese means to “work together.” He alludes to the San Francisco’s Chinatown where he grew up as being a community that took care of itself with a gung ho attitude, where—rather than divide along nuclear family lines—everybody worked together with cooperation, unity, mutuality, and social responsibility.

And that’s the same vision he casts for the church. “We are already the community of God; we simply need to examine ourselves to see if we are living out this unity.”

This is where I’ve been reflecting and musing on that powerful indictment of the average church-goer in America. And when I say “average church-goer,” I include myself as well. I admit I am fully guilty of this individualistic, transactional mindset, even when it comes to church. As Christians, we often celebrate community to be a place where we feel known, where we can celebrate warm, fuzzy circles of affirmation, intimate sharing, vulnerable tears. We may crave “deep talks” because in other areas of our life, relationships oftentimes are shallow and transactional. But when I really dig deep, I admit that even these feelings and cravings that I have for “true community” is rooted in a transactional nature—if I don’t receive the positive affirmations, the emotional support, the consensus of rational individuals sharing their psychic energies… I become discontent. Why should I open myself up to others in that way? Why do I show up to those small group meetings if I’m not getting something out of it, be it emotional support, intellectual stimulation, satiation of my need to help and support others?

The analogy to family helped me to uncover my own dependence on these needs. In contrast to the “therapeutic-modeled”/transactional community, where each individual still wants to have their emotionally and psychological needs met in order to belong… family can be really scrappy. You are born into a family and you are stuck with them. If you have an aging parent or a sibling who falls mentally ill, they cannot serve you or provide you with any of your emotional or psychological needs. Yet you still love them and take care of them. Why? Because you are family. Because that’s the baseline assumption. Because you are not operating as an individual, balancing your investment of time and energy with your “return” that you get from others, but rather seeing yourself as part of a larger unit—you stick together because you have no choice and therefore you want want the group’s overall health.

This is fascinating to me and I will continue to think about the implications it has for how I should choose to live out life with my local church body. I have to dig through layers and layers of desire and expectation before I can honestly say that I’m willing to invest my time and energy into others expecting absolutely nothing in return. It will be a long while before I can see the entire church as my natural extended-family, rather than a group of individuals that I’m in an unstated, pseudo-therapeutic relationship with. Were I to receive no emotional support, intellectual growth, a sense of belonging… would I still choose to stay? In a family, there is no choice to but to stay. In a capitalistic, consumeristic culture, however—the plentiful options almost beg you to leave and find something better.

The bible refers to church community as the “body of Christ.” Ephesians 2:19 says: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” We are called to be a family, God’s family. Am I still living in a way where I see myself as a transactional passer-by?

Question: what was the best community you’ve ever been a part of? Why?

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