My mother, who lives in a senior community which is a ministry of the United Methodist Church, told me today that she had a religious question. What, she asked, was the meaning of the term "Beloved Community?" It seems that this phrase is turning up all around her and she doesn't really understand what is being described, is not sure she will approve when she knows and is feeling generally cranky about the whole thing. Forgetting something which I used to know, which is that this is a term that Martin Luther King used to describe a community in which people were treated fairly, I blithered a bit about beloved community being a community where people were good to each other, took care of each other, and so on. She was all for that sort of thing, but hated the term and wanted to know if I used it.
As a matter of fact, although I hear the term a lot, I am not particularly comfortable with it either, but I had never stopped to ask myself what my problem was and finally said, "I guess I just think it's a bit over the top." My mother liked that. "I'm glad to make friends here," she said, "but 'beloved'....really...that's my husband."
I think she has a point. This big of jargon might be best used only with church leaders who can appreciate its history and unpack its meaning. Less committed folks might feel like they are being sucked into something more than they bargain for or, alternatively, may discover that the church actually can't promise them the level of help and intimacy which is implied by that term, "beloved."
In the same vein, I counsel the leaders in my church to be very careful when they use the word "family" to describe the church. While it is true that people take care of each other here, sometimes to an almost "family" extent, for most people in this large church, their relationships here are "neighborly" not "family-like", and to wax too eloquent about family is actually pretty scary to lots of folks and misleading to others. It's no accident of economics that most people don't live in large extended families any more; we escaped them gladly, by and large, finding them suffocating and time consuming and not really worth the energy. I'm always touched which I see evidence that the church has become family for some people, but I don't want to promise, and I don't think that that is what most people want from church.