1. Does Christ call us into community?
We can be certain that Christ calls his people into community. One of the most explicit examples of this point is when Jesus says that the world will know that we are his disciples by the love that we have for one another. (John 13:35) Jesus even prays for such close knit community that he actually prays that his people would be one as he is one with the father. (John 17:21) From this perspective, the eternal unity of the trinity is the model of community set before us. When we move to the pages of Paul, the same emphasis is present. In fact, very often Paul is at pains to bring unity among Jews and Gentiles. Large sections of the books of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians deal with this concern. For example, Paul speaks of the dividing wall of hostility that is now broken down in Christ to make true community possible. (Eph. 2:14) The author of Hebrews has the same emphasis on community, as he urges his flock to persist in meeting together even under great hardships and persecutions. (Heb. 10:24-25) Can community be that important that we should even risk our safety and comfort? Just ask any persecuted Christian and he or she will answer with a resounding, “yes.” In my opinion these people are closer to the worldview of the pages of the New Testament in this area than many of us in the West.
2. What should this community look like?
To answer this question is not easy. The world is complex and characteristics of Christian community may vary from place to place and time to time. However, all Christian communities will have four key qualities.
a. Love. There will be love in any true Christian community. This love is twofold. For community to exist, the experience of the love of God in Christ Jesus must be a reality. In fact, this love will be the fuel to love others. Furthermore, when this love is present, it will be very different than the love found in the world. Why? Christian love at root will be “unconditional.” By this I mean Christians should love not because of a list of reasons for love, but because they have been loved by the unconditional love of Christ. In other words, we are giving to others what God has given to us, namely, his love. This logic is essential, because in a fallen world, who really is worthy of love in the final analysis? The reason for love must be the love of God.
So, it might be helpful to ask yourself: why do you love a community? Is it because of some benefit that you derive? Or is it because you have been loved by God and cannot contain his love any longer? In time, selfish love will run its course and run dry. When community becomes “old” or felt needs are no longer satisfied, or a person finds something else to move onto, love will diminish, because it was about that person in the first place. If, however, love is based on Christ’s love, then there will be consistency through all seasons, because the one constant love is the love of Christ. So, what is foundational to all Christian community is to experience and share the love of God.
b. Forgiveness. No church is perfect. In fact, ironically growing churches will have the greatest amount of people asking for forgiveness. The reason for this is not necessarily that these churches have the greatest proportion of sinners, but because as a church grows in the character and holiness of God, it will naturally repent more as they walk in the presence of God. When this happens, a community will experience God’s love in forgiveness. For a community to thrive, this forgiveness must be shared. Let me be clear about this point: in a broken world Christians will sin against one another, and sometimes egregiously. Furthermore, as a community gets closer, the hurts may at times be magnified due to the closeness of the fellowship; you hurt most deeply those who are closest. Apart from Christ, there is little recourse, but to let time heal, lash out in anger, or simply leave the community. However, in Christ, we have everything we need to forgive, because at the center of the Christian message is the forgiveness of God in the death and resurrection of Christ. The experience of this forgiveness can produce forgiveness, reconciliation, and therefore the strengthening of community. This will have to take place for community to grow.
The good news is that when this type of forgiveness exists, there can also be paradoxically more love – as Jesus explains to Simon, the Pharisee: he who is forgiven much loves much. (Luke 7:47) I am not saying that this forgiveness will be easy or come naturally. What I am saying is that we have the resources in Christ to forgive. In light of this, we may want to ask, “Whom do I need to forgive?” Or “Whom do I need to ask for forgiveness?” Take that step of faith in view of Christ’s love, grace, and forgiveness.
c. Authority. For communities to function, there needs to be some common authority. This makes sense, since the alternative is chaos. For the Christian, this authority is found in the Scriptures. This point is especially important to emphasize these days, because post-modernism has pretty much done away with any form of external authority and the only thing that is left is a person’s opinions, feelings, or impressions (another form of authority, but one that is rooted in our fallen whims – not much better). In this context, the one with the loudest voice or most “power” usually wins out. From this perspective, biblical authority is a breath of fresh air in light of all the misuses of power in our world. Living under the authority of a good God is the best that a person can do. This is certainly why Jesus calls us to take his yoke and burden on ourselves, because his burden is easy and his yoke is light. Moreover, he states that he is gentle and humble in heart. (Matthew 11:28-20) What we need is the authority of a humble king.
Perhaps one of the best places to start a discussion on what the authority of God calls a Christian to do can be found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus essentially offers a vision of the ethics of the kingdom of God. What is valued is almost in perfect contradiction to the world’s value system. Consider what Jesus prizes: being poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering for righteousness, mercy, purity, peacemaking, and being persecuted for righteousness sake. Now consider the outcome of a lifestyle based on these ethics: inheritance of the kingdom of God and the earth, comfort, satisfaction, mercy, the ability to see God, and the honor of being called the children of God. (Matthew 5:3-12)
It will take time for any community to show visibly these characteristics and to experience these blessings. Not only do these qualities take time to cultivate, but also they are extremely counter-intuitive. However, persistence will bring great blessing. To be practical, the leaders should set an example as they depend of God. People need to see these actions in practice in concrete ways over time. If the dynamic of the authority of God is present, the upshot will be an extremely attractive community to all people, because God’s reign is a gracious one.
d. Spirituality. Too often what gets labeled as Christian community is not Christian community. It is merely worldly fellowship among Christians. This is not an innocuous situation if protracted, because it is opposite of what Christ calls Christian community to be and do. In John 17, Jesus calls his followers to be in the world but not of it. Therefore, subpar Christian community is being of the world but not in it. In short, Christians must not ape the world’s understanding of community. Christian community must be spiritual. To use the language of Paul, Christian community must be spirit filled (Eph. 5:18) or produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5: 22-23) In our dealings with one another, these are the qualities that must be present. This is what makes Christian community truly spiritual. When Christians see it, there is great encouragement and when non-Christians see it, they see a glimpse of the glory of Christ. This is when the church becomes spiritual, attractive, missional, and powerful.
3. What are some challenges in creating community?
a. Lack of Commitment. The most common problem in building community is the lack of commitment. I do not think it is unfair to characterize modern American culture as commitment-phobic. Why? There are many reasons for this, but let me just mention one. I believe that many people do not want to commit, because something better may come up. For this reason, commitment falls to the wayside. If we are going to experience true community, commitment will have to be present. This commitment must also be strong enough to weather some difficult storms. If this takes place, the outcome will be robust community, which provides a wealth of blessings, such as companionship, encouragement, identity, and joy. The irony is that most people are looking for community, but they never stay long enough to truly experience it. Far too often, people leave right when they should stay most. Only through perseverance will people truly experience the greatness of community. As an illustration ask people who have been part of a community for twenty years how many times they were tempted to leave. They would probably say that they were tempted to leave many times, but it was their perseverance and commitment that made all the difference in growing in community.
b. Consumeristic mentality. If anything is clear by now is that we live in an exceedingly consumeristic culture. We are programmed to shop and consume. Moreover, because the church is part of this society, even churches commodify themselves for consumption. More importantly for our purposes, this mentality does not lend itself to community in two ways. First, if people see themselves as shoppers, there is little commitment and even if there is commitment for a season, they can go shopping again whenever they want. What is at the center is a person’s desires and not the importance of the community. Second, since churches are part of this social matrix, they too may feel as though they need the best programs and whatever is novel to attract people. The motivation, I am afraid, feels very consumer driven, instead of Spirit-filled. By so doing, churches send a wrong message as well. Instead of sending the message of loving for Christ’s sake, they send the message of loving as long as you are entertained. In light of this, I would say that consumeristic community is a counterfeit one that is not rooted in the love of Christ. This will be a challenge for a long time.
c. Lack of Perseverance. One of the most difficult characteristics to cultivate in a person is perseverance. I would go so as to say that a person’s maturity is largely determined by perseverance. There is good biblical warrant for this point. Romans 5:3-5 makes this point: sufferings produce perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces secure hope. If we follow Paul’s logic, perseverance is the key to character (maturity). But this is a hard teaching to follow, since we will only learn perseverance through sufferings.
So, when difficult times come to a person in community, it may be God’s blessing to grow a person, or the answer to prayers for maturity, or even God’s loving commitment to a person to make him or her more consistent with his character. What is called for is perseverance in community. This is one of the most important things to which a person can commit. Think of marriage, child rearing, friendships, and the like. They all need people who will persevere. So, if you are going through a difficult time, praise God for this opportunity to grow.
d. Good Desires. More time than not what hinders community is the desire for good things. The logic here requires some sophistication. Just because we desire something good, it does not make it beneficial for us or for community. Like Paul is wont to say, “all thing may be permissible, but not all things are beneficial.” (1 Cor. 6:12, 10:23) Paul had to write these words, because the church of Corinth was preoccupied with permissible things. Sure, there is much freedom in Christ, and because of the common grace of God the goodness of the creator fills the world. However, if a person only commits to good things, then a person may miss what is best, namely a relationship with Christ and his people.
From this vantage point, it is not bad that a person wants to be successful, but how badly does that person want it? Similar, it is not wrong that a person desires to be in a relationship or to have security, but the question is how much does he or she want these things. The excess of human desire has a way of distorting good things. That ability is the root of idolatry. In the end, these excess desires of good things will lead a person away from what is best and who is best, Christ and his blessings. Therefore, if people are committed to only good things, not only will community suffer, but also their own spiritual well-being.
4. What are the blessings of community?
When it comes to the blessings of community, there are too many to mention. So, I will limit myself to a few points.
a. Friendship. If you are able to make a great friend as an adult, you have accomplished something noteworthy. I think most people will agree that most friendships are made in college. This makes sense. You are with the same group of people for four years and you see them nearly everyday. After college, people go their own ways, get married, and are preoccupied with work and other things. Friendships inevitably suffer. However, there is a solution in Christian community. One of the great joys that I have experienced as an adult in church planting is the privilege of seeing people who did not know each other come to be best friends – people from different walks of life sharing their lives with one another, shouldering each others burdens, and in some cases even getting married together. All of these blessings are because of Christ and the community that he came to establish.
Without being part of a thriving church, I am almost certain that a person’s communal side will suffer greatly. No matter how well adjusted a person is, true community can only be had with other believers, because the glue to the deepest community possible is Christ. I know that this sounds narrow-minded, but Christ is the center and source of true community. This is why as we grow closer to Christ, we grow in fellowship with one another.
Another reason why friendships thrive in Christian community is because Christians have a special resource in Christ. Christ calls us friends. John 15:12-15 states: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” When we realize the friendship of God, we will be able to extend incredible love and thereby create communities of love.
b. Maturity. Growth only takes place in community. To put it another way, it takes the messiness of community to cause a person to grow in Christ-likeness. Think about it. How does a person grow in patience? Probably when someone in his or her community drives him or her up the wall repeatedly and he or she has to deal with it in a godly manner. How does a person learn to grow in forgiveness? When someone in their community sins against them and the two parties work things out. Similarly how does a person grow in love? When a person commits to community and is challenged to love in all season of life.
In addition to these points, maturity takes place in community because it is within community that there is encouragement and accountability. No one is strong enough to go it alone. We need each other. We need to remind each other of God’s grace, his love, his forgiveness, his kindness, and his perseverance. And when we get off track, we need people to be honest with us and to persuade us that there is nothing better than Christ. We need the accountability of fellow believers, if we are going to be the people God wants us to be. Apart from this deep fellowship, there will be limited growth.
c. Joy. There is incredible joy in Christian community, but this joy is paradoxical. Most people want joy and so they seek it, but joy is elusive. The more a person seeks after joy, the more a person will realize that joy escapes human pursuit. Let me give an example from 1 John 1:4, John and his companions are on a mission to persuade people of who Christ is, so that their joy would be complete. The point is that deep joy is found when we do not seek it, but when we seek the joy of others. Christians find joy when they seek to increase the joy of others. Their joy is rooted in the giving of joy. This pattern is expressed ultimately in Christ’s work. Hebrews 12:2 states, “…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
A few examples may be helpful. One of the great heights of joy a parent can experience is when a parent realizes that he or she has caused the joy of a son or daughter. Teachers know something of this logic as well. Teachers often feel joy when they realize that they were instrumental in the development of their students. Even within friendships, joy is often had when one friend increases the joy of another. And this dynamic is certainly true of romantic love. A lover is most joyful when the beloved is joyful as well. The logic is: I am only happy when you are happy.
If we look at joy from this perspective, joy will be had only when you serve people and commit to a community. This means you will need to know people well enough to shoulder their burdens. True community takes time, energy, forgiveness, messiness, and sacrifice. Sounds hard, right? But who ever said the pursuit of joy or community building would be easy? If we seek to live this type of life, one day you may wake up one morning and realize something: you are actually joyful!
I believe we all want community, but there will be pains as we seek to grow deeper. In other words, going deeper in community will take a lot of energy and sacrifice. Difficult decisions will have to be made. But I ask you not to focus so much on the difficulties of the process but the beauty of the outcome. Moreover, during this building time, leaders will be refined and made. In Christ, we have everything we need. In view of this, let us ask God for grace, humility and courage to grant us true community. Let us build.