end, means, or by-product?

November 4, 2004 | 6 Comments

There is a lot of talk these days about Biblical community and how everyone needs to experience it. There is even a lot of talk in secular circles regarding the lack of community, especially in the United States. Are these one and the same? Is Biblical community really supposed to be as important as we make it out to be as something that ‘Christians’ experience and participate in? Let me explore this a bit with you…

In Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (Maybe this will be my last entry about this book…but then again, maybe not.) he has a chapter near the end devoted to what a local congregation should be. In this chapter he describes the six characteristics that a local congregation should have:
○ It will be a community of praise.
○ It will be a community of truth.
○ It will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood.
○ It will be a community where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of the priesthood in the world.
○ It will be a community of mutual responsibility.
○ It will be a community of hope.

Unlike so much of our thinking about the church today, he does not describe authentic community as one of the goals or characteristics of the church. Of course he sees community as important, because he uses the word in each characteristic. But how is it supposed to fit in? Is authentic Biblical community an end, a means, or a by-product of a local church congregation?

End – It almost seems that we have made the idea of community the ideal for the perfect church experience for every Christian. If you don’t have the perfect community that we say is defined in Acts, then you are missing out. With this reasoning, churches often place small groups at the pinnacle of what they offer in hopes that every person will find genuine, authentic, Biblical community. Is this a result of the fact that our culture knows that it is missing community, and so the church has elevated it to this high position in order to compensate? There are two dangers in this: 1) If we have elevated community to this position to respond to the needs of the culture, then we are missing out on what God has truly designed the church to be. 2) If we turn community into the central experience of any congregation, we can quickly just become self-serving consumer Christians.

Means – Maybe we should think of community as a means. Rather than place community at the pinnacle, we could think of it as a tool we use to accomplish God’s purpose for the local congregation. This makes some sense, because we can still incorporate the community that those around us desire as we push towards the true goals of why God has left us here. They will see this community and desire to join us in our quest. I think this is a better way to look at it, but it is still missing something. This still can sometimes lead to us creating a community that feels forced and unnatural.

By-product – It is in our best interest to view community as a by-product of what will happen when the church is true to it’s mission, and I think it explains why he uses the phrase “a community of” for each characterisitic. Community is not a goal or a means, but it is weaved throughout each of the above statements. It will simply happen as a group of people strive alongside each other to show God’s Kingdom to this world.

In this same chapter, Newbigin gives what perhaps might be my favorite definition of the local congregation: “it is God’s embassy in a specific place.” Perfect. We are here to represent God’s kingdom in a foreign outpost. As we work alongside each other, we will naturally be drawn to each other through the unity of our purpose. We will come to lean hard on these relationships because they bring us familiarity in a foreign land, but those relationships can never be the purpose of our embassy existing.

  • Before I even finished reading your post I immediately began thinking of all the mission trips (short and long) that I been a participant in. In each one, I developed an incredibly strong tie with both the nationals and the team that I was working with. This was a much deeper community than any small group (except for one back in high school), community group, etc. that I have ever tried to create artificially or become a part of.

    My experiences go hand-in-hand with the by-product concept. Only when we (as a smaller body of the larger Church) allowed ourselves to be used instead of served did we experience true community.

  • Gary

    I have to get a copy of that book… Newbigin is the man.

  • Mark

    John, this is rich stuff, love the thinking. This past Saturday a neighbor invited me to a costume party she was doing for Halloween. Then she warned me that it would probably be made up of a lot of people from AA, which she has been a part of for some time. Getting into her house I thought I might have to stop, drop and roll due to all the Marlboro fans out front. Inside there were probably 50 people hanging out. All of different races, ages and economic levels.
    One guy was unashamedly talking with me about his relapse and new length of sobriety. After being there for about an hour one middle aged lady was running around trying to get people to eat these carmel apples. When she got to me she said, “You’re not one of us.” “What do you mean,” I replied. “You’re a normy!” Not being familiar with AA lingo I said, “I don’t understand.” She said, “Your best friend isn’t Budwieser is it?” “No it’s not,” I answered. Then she went on to tell me that normies don’t know how to have fun, but she could help me with that.”

    Shortly after that someone brought out a cake with a lit candle on it. Everyone sang happy birthday to a guy who was celebrating 26 years of sobriety. Then everyone cheered and hugged him.

    I left that night learning and experiencing something about true community. While not being in life community with those there, I saw it. People needing, loving and supporting eachother from all terfs. I thought to myself, in an honest heart, what if the church truly reflected that?

  • david

    honest with self
    then honest with God
    then honest with community as a by product

    I’ve thought for a bit now that the world mimics community naturally because of our hard-wire seeking of it because of our image… just like a rock concert really unites people for a moment as a anti-worship service resembling the real thing (by anti i mean opposite of not opposed to)… we need some kind of acceptance and unity don’t we? and we get close sometimes, really accepting and loving (maybe cuddling) in all manners of groups… but worship that is the glimpse of the kingdom is passionate, and right, and creative, and moral and Spirited all together at once, right… community comes most naturally after being unified under Jesus’ sacrifice and empowerment, for me it has come most heavily or been felt most deeply as a by product of times of authentic honest communal worship… this is when i ‘felt’ the least alone and most honest and loving… worship beats any old settlers of katan game or cuddle party any day.

  • Dean

    Sure worship beats a settlers of katan game and (close as it might be) worship beats a cuddle party, but what if you played settlers of katan WHILE HAVING a cuddle party?

  • david

    where WOULD you put the robber…