God never intended for any of us to live the Christian life alone.
At the mere mention of the word community, people often eye you as if you had dropped in from another world, smile tolerantly, and hope you change the subject. Good, sensible, Christian people. They fear that you're going to tell them they have to sell all they own, move to a farm, wear bib overalls, and raise peanuts. Or that they have to abandon their fertilized lawns and move to the inner city. Because they misunderstand the idea of community, many Christians don't want to think about it at all.
To avoid thinking about community simply because we misunderstand it will deprive us of one of God’s greatest gifts. The idea of community is, in a sense, from another world, a world very unlike our own. But it is neither from the world of communes in Vermont nor from the placid world of cookies and tea Christians share before they rush back to their isolated lives. Community is from the world as God wants it to be. It is the gift of a rich and challenging life together, one that we need and can receive with joy.
Christian community is simply sharing a common life in Christ. It moves us beyond the self-interested isolation of private lives and beyond the superficial social contacts that pass for "Christian fellowship." The biblical ideal of community challenges us instead to commit ourselves to life together as the people of God.
We know all too well that maturity takes time. We know less well that it also takes our sisters and brothers in Christ. It’s a process that is revealed in the "each other" language of the New Testament: Love one another, forgive each other, regard each other more highly than yourselves. Teach and correct each other, encourage each other, pray for each other, and bear each other’s burdens. Be friends with one another, kind, compassionate, and generous in hospitality. Serve one another and submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. This list just scratches the surface, but it is enough to remind us that we need the community of faith to grow up in Christ.
Christian community is the place of our continuing conversion. Its goal is that, individually and together, we should become mature, no longer knocked around by clever religious hucksters, but able to stand tall and straight, embodying the very "fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:11-16).
One of the most important ways the community helps us is by embodying Christ’s continuing presence on earth. When my brothers and sisters love and accept me, I feel Christ’s love, too. When I confess my sin and they forgive me, I know that God forgives me, too. When they pray for my brokenness, I know that they are sharing in the healing work of Jesus. In our dog-eat-dog, enemies-with their teeth-bared world, when we feel the crush of hostility and of our own failures, to have our Christian community surround us with compassion and encouragement lightens our loads, strengthens us, and gives us the courage to keep on trying.
The community also furthers our continuing conversion by being a place where we teach each other and hold ourselves accountable to each other. When I hear what God is teaching others, it teaches me, too. When I submit to the guidance and scrutiny of my brothers and sisters, it forces me to grow and to be accountable to the commitments I make.
Ignoring this powerful element is one of the main reasons many small groups never really experience Christian community. They prefer to remain superficial. Inadvertently, perhaps, they enter into a pact of mediocrity in which they tacitly agree to let all the members "mind their own business" and not to hold people accountable either to each other or to the teachings of Christ. It’s a great loss, for when we refuse accountability to the community, we not only fail to grow, but we put ourselves in grave danger.
I tend to overfill my calendar with activities, projects, and meetings, a flaw that, for me, has spiritual roots. When I began work on my first book, I took the idea to a group of trusted Christian friends who knew about my weakness.
We had a wonderful and terrible meeting. After listening to me for a while, they said they thought God wanted me to write the book. They also asked to see my appointment calendar. It took only moments for them to see that I couldn't write the book and do everything I had already scheduled, so they insisted that I should cancel several speaking engagements and resign from some committees.
I took their counsel, although giving up some of those plans made me heartsick. I also sent each of them a schedule of my "writing days" as a further step toward accountability. It is clear now (though I knew it then) that they were right. If I had failed to submit to their wisdom under God, that book would still be merely a few notes in a manila folder.
Such accountability doesn't need to have overtones of checking up and scolding. It works, instead, to encourage us and help us in our growth and commitments. We may ask for guidance about how to handle a difficult relationship on the job or about how to put together a family budget that reflects our commitments about lifestyle and giving. And we'll be glad, usually, to have people ask how it’s going. The community gives us a place to air our growth and our struggles, our successes and failures. It simply gives us a way of guiding each other ever more fully in the ways of Christ.
The community helps us grow, too, as it becomes a workshop for prayer and worship. Both by instruction and by example, the New Testament teaches us to pray and to pray for one another (Eph. 6:18, Jas. 5:16). We are called as well to a life of worship and praise. Yet, frankly, our experiences of prayer and worship in the church often shunt us toward merely watching others pray and take active roles in worship. As helpful as those experiences may be, being spectators simply isn't enough. We need a lab. We ourselves need to pray for each other. Each of us needs to be prayed for personally. And the small community is precisely the place where we can experiment and learn the life of prayer.
When I am not involved in a Christian community, it is the times of prayer and worship that I miss the most. Many of us are never really prayed for beyond a brief mention in one of those quick-and-dirty list prayers. I once privately offered a simple prayer of blessing for a friend who had been in public ministry for many years. I was overwhelmed when he said to me afterward, "No one has ever prayed for me like that before."
We dare not neglect each other like that! Similarly, as we learn the ways of worship in the small community, we not only deepen our own lives but also enrich the life of public worship. In my experience, community is at its best when it becomes a workshop for prayer and worship.
The community is also where we learn to strip away our self-interest in order to serve others. It is here that we learn to share what God has given us, whether it be goods or spiritual gifts. It is also here that we learn to be served, though we are sometimes prideful and reluctant like Peter, who balked at Jesus washing his feet (Jn. 13:2-10). Sometimes we are the washers and sometimes the washees, but in many ordinary ways we can learn what submission and service mean.
One community I know gave time and money so a mother worn down by the demands of young children could take a spiritual retreat. Others have found practical ways to swap mowers and ladders and child care; some have explored group buying to help each other grow in stewardship. I have seen people abandon a special outing to bail out a friend’s leaky basement and give time freely to help remodel a bathroom or repair a car. In whatever ways, community means watching over one another for good, knowing that as we serve, all of us are growing stronger in Christ.
The value of Christian community reaches even further than bringing the Body of Christ to strength and maturity. Such communities, by their character and their action, witness to the power and presence of God in the world. They are models of what God wants for all of humankind. Jesus' disciples are to be the light of the world (Mt. 5:13-16), shining like bright stars (Phil. 2:15), reflecting the brightness [the glory] of God (2 Cor. 3:18). Often the Hebrews' experiences of deliverance were sent, God said, so that they and the nations "will know that I am the Lord." In a similar way, the unity and mutual love that distinguish Jesus' disciples will demonstrate that Jesus was, in fact, sent by the Father (Jn. 17:23).
Too often, unfortunately, this beacon of witness has fallen far short in candlepower, especially where Christians have accomodated darkness rather than penetrating it. But though the Church in general may fail and though we may be embarrassed by the antics of some Christians in the public eye, Christian communities everywhere can radiate the good news of God’s loving intentions for all of creation. In these clusters of Christians, people should be able to see what they hope for but hardly expect: people serving rather than using each other. People of widely different social statuses and professions honoring each other rather than putting each other down (Gal. 3:28). People who tell each other (and everyone else) the truth, rather than lying out of convenience or cussedness (Eph. 4:25, Col. 3:9). They can see a people who are no longer captive to the spirit of the times. They will see love and acceptance, compassion and kindness, commodities that are in short supply in any age. And where they see this, the stark contrast of these communities compared with the world around them is itself a very compelling witness.
But such communities go further still. They not only demonstrate God’s love; they also mediate it. They carry "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18) to those around them, bringing God’s compassion and healing power into a broken world.
That work goes forward visibly in many ways. One Christian community spends enormous energy trying to meet the plight of the homeless. Another works to rehabilitate homes of the poor and the elderly. Yet another quietly yet actively pursues a ministry of prayer and healing. And still others focus directly on evangelism, on feeding the hungry, on getting justice for the oppressed, and on much more. Each community with its particular mission is a guerrilla unit establishing a beachhead for God’s peaceable Kingdom in a hostile world. And from those outposts God’s love flows freely.
Some Christians feel that they must follow the call to community in rigorous, perhaps even radical, ways. We can thank God for the example of our brothers and sisters in communities such as Koinonia in Americus, Georgia, and Sojourners and the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. They help teach us principles that God wants for the whole Christian fellowship.
At the same time, we need to know that the Bible doesn't require—or even give special blessing to—certain forms of community. Structure is not the point; relationships are. We can live together as God wants us to in a great variety of ways—ways that strengthen rather than disrupt our vocations, our families, and the other commitments we have already made under God’s guidance. The good news is that community is a gift God offers to pour love out on us all.
Even though forms may not matter much, size does. For community to be specific and personal enough to reach its potential, we need groups small enough for everyone to be directly involved.
The practice of the earliest Christians suggests a small scale. They often met in each other’s homes for meals and teaching, for worship and prayer (Acts 2:44-46, Acts 12:12-17). And it is clear that when Paul advised the Corinthians that "everyone" should be ready with a psalm, some instruction, or a revelation, he expected the meeting to be small enough for everyone to participate (1 Cor. 14:26).
Certainly that doesn't mean that we have to abandon our large congregations end public buildings. It suggests, instead, that we are more likely to find community’s richest benefits in smaller groups—Sunday school classes, Bible study groups, mission groups, worship and prayer groups, and others.
The lived reality of community—in whatever form it takes—holds great promise both for the Christian fellowship itself and for the world at large. For Christians it provides a place where together we can change and grow strong in following Jesus. For the world the life of the Christian community broadcasts the good news and mediates God’s love to those who so desperately seek it.
The practice of Christian community, quite simply, makes the gospel a lived reality. It embodies a specific, personal way of life together in Christ. It strengthens us to live the life to which we am called; it conveys God’s life and power to the world at large. And it is necessary.
When we imagine that we, as Christians and humans, can live in total independence and self-sufficiency, we are deluding ourselves. God, from the beginning, never intended that we should go through the world "alone." We simply cannot experience fully the power and delight of life with God without also being drawn into life together with our sisters and brothers in Christ. Without experiencing such life together, we will not discover how wonderful the news about Jesus really is.
Community is not to be feared, but welcomed. The risks don't go beyond those it takes to follow Jesus. The reward is to enter into life as God intended it to be lived from the beginning. How can we balk at an offer like that?