What is “community”? (part 1)

“Community.”  The word pops up regularly in Christian conversation.  Some declare that it’s what church “should really be all about,” and use some vaguely defined notion of community as a measuring stick for judging local congregations.  But what does it mean?  And do we all mean the same thing when we use the word?

Let me suggest a few observations / direction pointers to open the conversation.  First: We seem to gravitate toward the idea of “community,” in part, because we experience a certain amount of loneliness and isolation.  We may not think about it, but as Americans we live in a society of hyper-individualistic values.  Independence is usually prized over interdependence, and is most certainly prized over dependence.  But if, as many believe, God created us for interdependence, then such values will eventually clash with our more deeply rooted God-given nature.  We need each other.  Sometimes we know it.  But still, we may be reluctant to recognize the fact or change our habits.

Second: We try to solve the problem by coming together in groups, but too often, still relate to one another on the basis of the same individualistic values.  Groups often come together around some personal affinity; we like the same things, we have similar experiences, we share common interests.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But the real test comes when differences arise.  Sociologists point out that this is when people tend to leave their small groups to find others that seem more “compatible,” where there are people who seem “more like me.”  And people sometimes do the same with churches, moving on when things “don’t feel right.”

Third: The same social dynamic will likely characterize “Christian community” unless our minds are renewed (Rom 12:1-2) to understand ourselves as the body of Christ.  We enjoy the “fellowship” of a local body of believers.  But “fellowship” is more than just the third word in that phrase used so often to promote church events: “food, fun, and fellowship.”  Again, there’s nothing wrong with Christians enjoying one another’s company.  But to put it bluntly, God didn’t create the church to solve our problems of loneliness; he has called us to be a people who in our relationships together will demonstrate his character.  The good news is that when we do this, we discover what community really is.

Fourth: We must therefore study what God’s Word has to say about the nature and calling of the church, and study it in community.   “Community” is a stand-in for the biblical concept of koinonia; “communion” and “communication” are both closely related words.  That should tell us something.  We need to know what God’s will is for the church, and we need to study it in contexts in which both worship and real conversation can occur.

Finally: This isn’t a matter of trying harder to be what we think we should be, but discovering who we already are in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  It can be hard changing the habits of thought and behavior learned from living so long in an individualistic, self-oriented and consumption-driven culture–I can tell you from experience!  But we’re not scrabbling to reach some moral pinnacle that God demands of us for the sake of our salvation.  Rather, we’re discovering who God has already made us to be, for our good and for the good of God’s kingdom.  Love and compassion for our brothers and sisters is a gift of God, and God is delighted to give that gift.

Such brief thoughts as these can’t begin to do justice to such an important a subject; I’ll continue these reflections for a post or two.  Meanwhile, what would you add to the conversation?