Community has become a buzzword in twenty-first century evangelicalism. Today’s churches have reacted decisively against the unhealthy and unbiblical obsession with the personal preference, private spirituality, and individualistic Christianity of the twentieth century. In its stead, many have been drawn to a community-oriented Christianity that more accurately reflects the koinonia emphasis of the New Testament—the corporate disciplines and worship, fellowship of the saints, and ministry that involves the whole Body of Christ.
But what does true community look like?
Two Types of Community
Imagine this kind of community: an uncomfortable hodgepodge of people we barely know, or, what’s worse, maybe we know some of them far too well and wish we didn’t. They come from different backgrounds, different walks of life, different pay grades, different generations. They’re just plain different. But we’ve been artificially mashed together in some kind of church activity—a Bible study, a Sunday school class, a small group, a ministry team. We grudgingly do our duties but keep our guards up and our masks on. We just can’t wait until this excruciating, “forced” community is over so we can get back to the people we’re comfortable with, the people we know, the people we love.
But then there’s our preferred model of community: comfort . . . familiarity . . . friends whose names we know and whose faces we’re actually happy to see. People we spend time with outside the church, people we’d actually invite for dinner. That kind of community usually means developing warm relationships with those of our own age group, our own stage of life. We love that kind of community. It feels natural. It feels more Christian. Surely, this is the kind of community we should be striving for. Clearly, the uncomfortable and awkward community can’t possibly result in a healthy church. Obviously, spiritual growth is much more likely in a community of comfort and ease rather than personality conflict and politics.
Or is it?
Not long ago a student wandered into my office to chat. After a few minutes, the conversation moved to the pervasive politics and personality conflicts involved in Christian communities. Our brief exchange went something like this:
“It’s everywhere,” I said. “Every church or ministry deals with this.”
“But we’re Christians. It’s not supposed to be that way. Doesn’t it bother you?”
At that moment I grabbed a thick book from one end of my desk and tossed it in front of him. Pointing at the volume on the history of Christianity, I said, “This is how it’s always been. This is how it will always be.” Then I placed my Bible on top of the history book. “And if you look in here, it’s exactly the same. Until Christ returns, this is the best we can hope for. But God’s Spirit works out His perfect plan in spite of us.”
It’s normal for Christians to be disappointed in Christians. We can be downright mean to each other sometimes. And if we can avoid outright conflict, there will still be frustration, inconvenience, discomfort . . . all the necessary ingredients and effects of true community.
I suggest that the more comfortable you feel in your Christian community, the less authentic the community. In 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul writes, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Sometimes we read a passage like that and fail to think through its practical ramifications. Jews and Greeks didn’t get along in the ancient world. They came from completely different religious and cultural backgrounds, lived in separate communities, had different customs and languages. Slaves and free were from opposite social and economic communities. They didn’t mix well together. Division was the order of the day.
When these groups of men and women, slaves and masters, Jews and Greeks, were placed into one community, awkward discomfort—even outright conflict—ensued (read 1 Corinthians to see for yourself). That’s the natural result of mixing these diverse mini-communities into one meta-community. It was like mixing oil and water. Common sense tells us not to try. Church growth experts opt for affinity groups. Our emotions tell us to run in the other direction.
But shouldn’t Christian community transcend the natural? Shouldn’t it defy common sense? Shouldn’t it seek to overcome what “feels” good.
Confusion . . . discomfort . . . frustration . . . uneasiness . . . conflict. These are things of true community. These are the conditions that promote real spiritual growth. It’s easy to fake the fruit of the Spirit among people we pick as fellowship partners. It’s far more difficult to pretend love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control among those who irritate us. And putting our natural human inclinations to the test of real life gives God an opportunity to work among us in supernatural ways.
Living in True Community
Perhaps you’re feeling uncomfortable in your church, Bible study, Sunday school class, or fellowship group. Maybe it’s just a lingering sense that you’d fit in somewhere else. You’re probably right! But fitting in isn’t the goal of Christian community. The Spirit of God has been sent to create unity out of diversity, peace out of conflict, and healing out of wounded hearts. The greatest spiritual growth will come from overcoming differences, and the greatest testimony of God’s supernatural work in a Christian community will be the love and unity that results from taking the long, hard road of true community.
Don’t try to get out from under the sometimes excruciating conflict that comes through true community. Don’t try to seek out only those who share your opinions, your lifestyles, your careers. Rather, living in true community means caring for and fellowshipping with those who share nothing with us but the common bond of Christ. It may take time. It will certainly take faith, hope, and love. But the end result will be authentic relationships with real people based not on worldly reason or on fleeting feelings, but on the unifying work of the Spirit of God.