end, means, or by-product?

November 4, 2004

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.

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