For the last several years, has the church discussed any subject more than community? With the new year now upon us, I’ve reflected on Christian community. For all our talk of community in the church, how are we doing at actually realizing it? Christians and non-Christians long for something approaching real community. It’s absence from our lives stings. So many of us, even as believers, feel alone, maybe even unloved, or unwanted. Meanwhile we yearn to belong to something larger than ourselves. We have an urgency both to know others, and to be known. We need something more like deep friendship than casual acquaintance, and we don’t even know how to get it.
So many factors conspire to make community a serious challenge. I contend that our thoughtless despising of cultural institutions (including the church) has contributed structurally to undermining community. Similarly, since it takes time to build community, our mobility as a society impedes it. Technology, likewise, can be misused in ways that mitigate against community. But the biggest challenge is probably simple human nature, nurtured as it is, by an uncritical tolerance for selfish individualism. Nevertheless, I won’t dwell on the challenges in this post. Instead I’d like to offer five principles that I believe are essential for building healthy Christian community.
1. Christian community requires shared truth.
Ephesians 4:11-15 sets forth that principle. The passage culminates in verse 15: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” We are to grow together into the head, into Christ. That is Christian community. Vital to the process of growing together is speaking the truth in love. Jesus gives the word offices to equip the saints for the work of ministry (verses 11-12). That ministry continues until we attain to unity of the faith and the knowledge of God, “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about about by every wind of doctrine….” (Ephesians 4:13a).
Ironically, there’s tremendous temptation to jettison truth. Too often we’ve succumbed to it. The reigning doctrine says that truth is no way to build community. We may point fingers, but all of us feel the temptation to find the least common denominator. It seems obvious that we should downplay doctrine as much as possible. Certainly there are ways that the church has in the past–and continues to in the present–misuse doctrine in a way that brings unnecessary division. But it seems to me that the far greater danger for the church now is to abandon the adhesive God gives to bind our community together, namely the truth. I would go so far as to say that, to the extent we seek to downplay doctrine, to that extent we undermine our best chance for Christian community.
2. Christian community requires embodied interaction.
When God created human beings, he gave us bodies. In Jesus’ first advent, he took to himself a true human body (and a reasonable soul). After His death He was raised bodily. When He returns, He will raise us in glorified bodies. From the beginning to the end, to be human means to have a body. Technology tempts us to overlook this reality. We’re tempted to think that humans may flourish and build community in virtual environments. I’m here to tell you that it won’t work. Such “community” will always be second-rate, and necessarily deficient.
Our bodies our vital to making healthy relational connections with one another as we use them to communicate. Building community requires that people spend time together. That’s one of the reasons we have small groups (C-Groups) at the church I pastor. Whether its small groups, or other venues, we must spend time together to be able to develop community. The ministry that Ephesians 4 outlines requires us to be present with one another. It assumes that we build one another up in one another’s presence. Believe me, I’m acutely aware of what a challenge that is given our busy schedules. But unless we find ways to be together with one another, we have little hope of building real community.
3. Christian community requires mutual love.
I’m guessing you read that, and said to yourself something like, “Well, duh!” But since we’re being real here, let’s be honest about love, too. Let me give one example. When people leave a church, they rarely think about leaving the people. They think about leaving something they disagree with at that church. They think about leaving a pastor they don’t like. They think about leaving some major problem they’ve observed. But they think very little about the people they leave behind. Why is that? Sure, it’s complicated. Maybe they don’t love the people they’re leaving. It’s easy to leave them. Perhaps the people haven’t loved them. It’s also easy to leave in that case. Or maybe they have loved each other, and the people leaving have simply overlooked how important love is to their church experience.
We often say that the church isn’t a building. Well, the church isn’t a set of problems, either. It isn’t the pastor. It isn’t the church’s reputation for success. It isn’t that little issue with which you disagree. To be sure, the church universal will reflect the Triunity of God. There’s plenty of room for unity in diversity. Yet it remains that the local church is a body of people who are called to love one another. We’re also called to love people outside the church together. If we’re going to ever build real Christian community, we have to embrace our calling to love people. That love should take expression in a variety of practical ways that I can’t go into in this post. Any path to real Christian community I can envision will require seeing the church as people to love, in precedence over seeing it as a set of problems that need to be solved (there will always be plenty of those in any church this side of glory).
4. Christian community requires mutual deference.
Technically this fourth principle is a corollary to the previous one. But it’s important enough in my mind to single out. Philippians 2:3 exhorts, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” The passage makes it clear that Christians are capable of doing that. Not that we’re competent in ourselves, apart from Jesus. We can do it because we are united to Christ. We’re united to the very One who has done it par excellence. He made himself nothing. He humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. That’s the One to whom we’re united by the Holy Spirit.
The word “community” itself suggests the need for mutual deference. To form community all interested parties must consider others more significant than ourselves. If we’re pursuing only our own interests, then we have no shared interest. If we have no overarching interest by which we would subjugate our own interests, then we have no real basis for community. It requires that all of us set aside our own desires (sometimes even ones that aren’t selfish) to pursue our shared interests. In short, community requires counting others more significant than ourselves. As offensive as that may be, as impossible as it may seem, there cannot be any community apart from such mutual deference. We build Christian community only as we look out not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others.
5. Christian community requires settling disputes.
There is one prominent class of reasons for leaving a church that falls outside of those I mentioned in the third principle. Many people leave their existing church because of conflict. It may be with some leader or leaders. But in my experience it doesn’t have to be. Often people leave a church because of a major conflict with a fellow member. Conflict is as inevitable in the church as it is marriage. While there are a few morbid souls who actually seem to enjoy conflict, most of us don’t. The tricky thing about the kind of intimacy we look forward to in community is that it provides all the more opportunity for relational hurt. The people we’re closest to are the ones who can hurt us most.
However, I often tell engaged couples that in marriage we need to work at seeing conflict as an opportunity for the relationship to grow. The same is true in the church. Conflict usually presents an opportunity both to know and be known to a greater depth. That’s part of the reason, I think, that we dislike it so much. Often what people learn about us in such circumstances isn’t pleasant. Nor is what we learn about other people. But its reality. And when we love, forgive, and accept one another in spite of the sin, it does advance relationship. Here again, it’s beyond the scope of this post to go into the hows of resolving conflict. I would direct you to Peacemaker Ministries. I have personally benefited tremendously from their work, and the resources available through their website.
What would you add? Is there anything that needs refining, or that you would dispute with altogether? I would really love to hear your thoughts on this topic. The post is just the start of a discussion.