As a believer for the last 25 years, I’ve noticed a common theme…. a common thrust among Christ followers. We desire to experience real relationships among each other, and an authentic expression of the Body of Christ within our midst. In short, people are searching for community.
For some, that desire has led them to the mega-church… the thought being that in a gathering of literally thousands of people, real friendships and community would be experienced at some point. Yet they never found it there.
Others have sought out a smaller and therefore “more personal” church environment, thinking that this was the key to experiencing real friendships and a more authentic expression of the Body of Christ. Yet they’ve walked away unfulfilled.
Still others have left institutional Christianity altogether and have started “house churches” with the expectation that this model would ultimately bring forth vibrant community. But when their experiences fail to meet their expectations, discouragement sets in as it becomes apparent that community is still lacking.
But our drive for community beckons us on, so we look for it elsewhere, perhaps through starting or joining another type of group that isn’t as formal or structured, or perhaps by trying to gather only “the right type of people” in our sphere who can hopefully give birth to an authentic expression of “Christ corporate” and community. Things may seem promising for awhile, just like in times past. But when the excitement fades and it becomes apparent that it cannot be sustained, we once again face the stark reality that “community” has eluded us once again.
Someone once defined “insanity” as doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting a different result than the one you’ve always experienced. I think that’s a pretty good description of out incessant pursuit to find or form the “right group” in order to experience real friendships, community and an authentic expression of the Body of Christ. I believe there are some real answers to this dilemma; they are not complicated. But it will require a death to some “sacred cows” we hold dear. So I present to you some thoughts which are at least a starting-point.
OUR THIRST FOR NUMBERS MUST DIE
Western values define success by numbers. The bigger the crowd, the more successful the experience. Numbers determine worth & value. The Church, for the most part, has adopted these values and the proof of this is found not only in our philosophy and methodology pertaining to church growth, but also in what we think passes for an authentic expression of the Body of Christ. We want to experience this apparently elusive “corporate man” and therefore busy ourselves in trying to grow our gatherings. We may invite 40 or 50 to a gathering, expecting 20 or 30 to come…. but when only 3 or 4 show up, we become discouraged because we can’t seem to find enough people who share in our desire for community and an authentic expression of the Body of Christ.
Yet does this portray a kingdom value?
Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Friends, if we’re not content with, “Where two or three are gathered, there I am in their midst,” then all our lofty talk about desiring to to see an authentic expression of the Body of Christ amounts to nothing more than a bunch of hot air. So yes, we must die to the whole “numbers game,” and must see kingdom value in the “two or three” just as much as any other number.
THE “MEETING MENTALITY” MUST END
This runs very deep; most of us have been trained and ingrained in the idea that “life” springs forth from organized meetings. We may say we know better, but a close examination of our attitude, walk and talk would prove the emptiness of our claim that we’re past this.
A larger mega-church, smaller community church, house church, meetup group or any other organized gathering, regardless of how formal or informal, does not inherently have the power to magically produce community in anyone’s life, regardless of how often one attends. Only lives relationally engaged with one another in real life and given to each other in love and service will produce that. Unfortunately, most of us are more committed to a group meeting than to one another in the arena of life. Thus the reason why when we do gather together as a group, the environment often lacks the fragrance of Christ.
FORGET ABOUT THE “BOOK OF ACTS” COMMUNITY MODEL
For many years, I’ve joined others in expressing the desire to experience community as in the Book of Acts, where believers gathered together daily to pray, eat together, serve one another and generally “do life” together. But is this a worthy goal? Is it even a realistic goal? Should “community” be our goal at all (more on this to follow)?
Back in Jesus’ day, believers lived in a community based, agricultural society. Most were farmers, much (if not all) of life revolved around the home, and people lived in very close proximity to one another, making it fairly common for believers to be in daily, personal contact. Yet we live in a western, industrialized society, most are not farmers, and life does not revolve around the home in the same way it did back in biblical times. Furthermore, the increasing globalization of today’s society results in many being hundreds if not thousands of miles away from home for varying stretches of time.
To expect “community” in our culture to mirror what we see as “community” in their culture is unrealistic, and it’s time that we were honest about this. If you’re expecting Christian community to be a living reflection from the Book of Acts, you’re going to be waiting for a very long time. Unless the economy collapses (which is possible), or unless you find a group of people to live off a farm with you.
OUR VERY GOAL OF “TRYING TO ATTAIN COMMUNITY” MUST END
Neither the Apostle Paul or any other disciples ever called a meeting to discuss how they might create community, cultivate community or experience community. But genuinely loving one another as Christ loved them naturally resulted in a community dynamic that was attractive to those in their sphere; a strong testimony to the reality of Christ among them.
My point is simply this: In their day, they had the horse before the cart. They were engaged with one another in real life… genuinely investing in one another in time, love and service. Therefore, when they did happen to gather together, there was an unmistakeable sense of community because COMMUNITY ALREADY EXISTED. But in our day, we have the cart before the horse. We want community, but apart from the sacrifice of time, love and service to each other. Oh, we’ll come to meetings, but to take the time to invest in someone’s life outside the scheduled meeting is too much to ask. No wonder why so many of us aren’t experiencing community.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
Community is not a goal to attain, but the natural fruit of lives given to each other in time, love and service. You may be the king of church attendance. You may be meticulously faithful to your small group weekly gathering for Bible study, prayer or whatever. But outside of the meeting, how relationally engaged are we with others in the arena of real life? When’s the last time we’ve invited someone over for dinner or out for coffee…. with no other agenda than to be a friend? When we come across someone that’s struggling, when’s the last time we asked, “Is there anything going on in your life right now that you need help with?” When different needs of people become known to us during our normal, routine every-day lives, are we sensitive to the Spirit’s prompting to relationally engage with these people and serve them? I believe that if we’re sensitive to the Spirit’s voice, we’ll find that He is prompting us in such matters more than we may realize.
I’ll end this post by quoting a portion of the book, Finding Church: What If There Really Is Something More by Wayne Jacobsen. Wayne was a pastor within the institutional church for 20 years… always having a heart for community, but never truly experiencing it within the organized structures and systems that have become synonymous with “church” in our culture today. Ultimately , he walked away not from Jesus, and not from other believers and people, but from the system of institutional Christianity. Ultimately, he experienced and is continuing to experience what his heart always longed for….. in the most unexpected way and in the most unlikely places. Wayne explains:
“By simply following what Jesus put on my heart and loving people around me, I found myself living squarely in the middle of the church life I had been hungering for all those years. I didn’t even realize it at first, because it didn’t fit into one of the sanctioned boxes I thought to be essential to identify as a church. There were no services, no buildings, no committee meetings, no designated leaders, no permanence, and no name in which to stake our identity. Those who knew Jesus best around me had no desire to create institutions or set themselves up as leaders, preferring to care for others in need and helping them to follow Him.
I ended up with vibrant connections to other people who were also learning to live the life of Jesus. We were having conversations that stimulated us to live more deeply, and gatherings that were rich and encouraging. We even collaborated on tasks Jesus seemed to nudge us toward with great joy and fruitfulness. We didn’t see the need to create formal attachments or press ourselves into weekly meetings.
That’s when my view of church shifted. I had been looking for her in structures and organizations, but they always seemed to gravitate away from the substance I was looking for. I began to see it in a growing network of people who are being transformed by the love of God. They are warm, engaging, kind, generous, and passionate. They allow people to be honest even about their doubts, struggles and failures. They free people from shame, not exploit it for their own ends, and they will encourage you away from the bondage of religious obligation that has little impact on how you live your life with Jesus. I’d been living in the church most of my life without recognizing her because I was so busy trying to create a version of my own….”
The Church was never meant to be a place, a structure, an organization. Biblically speaking, the Church is a people. We are the Body of Christ, and may our love for one another grow more and more.
Grace to all.