While the word community occurs only once in the New Testament NIV (83 times in the Old Testament) and not at all in the King James, the idea of community as a critical aspect of the New Testament Church seems rather obvious. The unity and cooperation that the Lord Jesus Christ desired would seem be expressed or practiced in a community. Perhaps the closest New Testament word is κοινωνία (koinonia or fellowship); the word implies people who choose to share because they have something in common, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Is community important? I believe it is absolutely necessary to gain the full benefit of being part of the Church of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I believe it is a matter of obedience; when we fail to live in community, we are ignoring Jesus’ commands and, by extension, failing to love him (i.e. “If you love me, keep my commands”). Without community, we will not be one, having neither the unity nor the degree of cooperation we are supposed to have; looking at Church history, it seems obvious that the Church as failed in this area enormously. Lacking community, we will not enjoy real fellowship; the current habit of Sunday attendance in largely passive activity falls far short of the degree of fellowship God intends. Analogies like the “Body of Christ,” the “temple of God” (This refers to the Church, not individuals as has often been taught), and “vine and branches” all demand connection with and among believers or more than a theoretical kind, while others, such as “family of God,” “chosen people,” “holy nation,” or even “flock,” involve a degree of cohesion and active involvement, in other words, community.
The problem is modern life, especially in the United States. We live lives of virtual anonymity and separateness, divided from each other in countless ways, and living less as organic and more as mechanical creatures. Modern technology is aggravating these tendencies, none less than the computer and Internet that allow more and more of human activity to be carried out by individuals alone in a room. Already, decades ago, young people rallied against the impersonal nature of life in which the individual was little more than a number; subsequent generations seem to have accepted this state with little complaint. Life goes on with cells phones and texting, Facebook and MySpace friends, and disconnected people living lives of “quiet desperation.” How ironic yet apropos is Thoreau’s quote over 150 years ago, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” How appropriate it is to the divided believers of this millennium who truly sing so little and so rarely in full chorus.
Modern life divides in so many ways. Relationships fail at astounding rates, and dysfunctional families disintegrate leaving individuals to doubt the possibility of love other than sex. Attitudes press to polarize us with hate over issues ranging from riches to religion. In a nation characterized by rugged individualism, we’ve lost the treasures of family and friendship that accompanied those stalwart souls. Life is characteristically lacking in trust, loyalty, or even an attempt at commitment. Life has become superficial, based on image rather than substance, transient in the extreme and offering little of true permanence. In the Church, this has come to mean that membership and formality have replaced genuine, substantive fellowship with the attendant loss of authentic personality, genuine character, and godly integrity. Attempts to restore the latter often fail because, in my opinion, they are difficult, verging on impossible outside a community of committed believers working together to achieve our spiritual goals.
Obviously, we no longer live in ancient times. Even the relatively closer 20th century is gone, and the Ozzie and Harriet/Ward and June Cleaver family and community have disappeared, to the extent they ever existed. We cannot create community based on old models that worked in a world that has vanished, never to return. At the same time, some aspects of life need to be restored; the absolutes of Biblical living apply to any age and work in any culture, most likely changing that culture, even as Christianity changed the world into which it was born. To do so, believers must make an honest assessment of their spiritual growth. It is human nature to hang on to the familiar, prefer to keep the ordinary things of the surrounding culture, and resist change. This manifests itself in congregations as a refusal to permit the replacement of traditions, even after those traditions no longer have conscious meaning for most people. At the same time, younger folk demand change often without a clear sense of direction, of where they want the changes to take them; they seek change for change’s sake. True community offers the possibility of meaningful, productive, obedient change by the “iron sharpening iron” process of interpersonal interaction, undivided by either denomination or generation.
In our culture of increasingly separated, fragmented lives, community more than ever must involve connection, spending time together, and probably living in proximity to each other. Too many congregations build large buildings and draw people from across large urban areas, so that members actually live miles apart, prohibiting relationship-building except at weekly gatherings, gatherings that by their very nature often discourage interpersonal involvement. In such circumstances, believers miss much of the little benefit in being part of the Body.
I expect many to say that living near each other is impossible. It would be a good time to ask how people choose where to live. The trend in modern American cities has been to move up and out, thinking that the suburbs represent the advantages of prosperity while fleeing the “blight” of urban neighborhoods. The deterioration of urban neighborhoods has been a direct result of this flight of higher income families to the outlying areas, leaving often lower income folk to deal with the other urban problems. Is buying a bigger house in a supposedly better neighborhood God’s plan for his people? Does he want believers to get larger salaries and greater incomes in order that they may spend more money on themselves? Is the idea of safety and prosperity the only measure that people should use in deciding where to live?
Furthermore, many who move into suburban neighborhoods are looking for communities where there is less sense of neighborhood and where people often do not know or even speak to their neighbors. Even in places like upscale apartment complexes, where people live closer to their neighbors, the intent is not to know or relate to them. Is this a Christian value? Are those who have been commanded to share the gospel wherever they go best able to do so where they remain strangers among strangers?
It is unclear how the mortgage crisis and economic uncertainty will effect community in our culture, but it seems clear that, among believers, some sort of proximate community is the best opportunity for mutual support as well as effective outreach, with the hope of Christ the very remedy that people struggling with unemployment, housing change, and financial insecurity need. Thus, the arguments for working to create communities, i.e. neighborhoods, of believers are stronger than ever even in this modern age.
At the same time, this highly technological, communication-oriented era offers new ways to create and maintain “community.” Social-networking sites like Facebook, in particular, offer positive potential even as some warn of their dangers. While it is true that Internet “friendships” that substitute shallow, impersonal, and superficial interaction may discourage real flesh and blood relationships, using the same tools to support real relationships offer some corrective to our distant living arrangements. As computer and Internet capabilities increase, they present the opportunity to communicate in a virtual environment in ways as open and intimate as in the real world. Such should serve not as a substitute but as a supplement to more direct, flesh and blood interaction. In fact, such resources might easily replace many of the “programs” for which people currently meet, allowing for those times to be more devoted to fellowship, small groups, and social activities. It is necessary for a thousand people to sit in one large room to hear a speaker, when an unlimited number might listen to the same speaker via the Internet?
Both discipling and counseling have the potential to use modern communication resources effectively, as long as privacy and security considerations are provided. In these cases, actual live audio-visual conversation using mikes and webcams is clearly preferable, again as a supplement not a substitute for face to face involvement.
We live in a time of an aging generation of baby-boomers moving into their senior years, which suggests another aspect of community to consider. While the Church should be working to restore the health of the nuclear family, especially among believers, it should also consider ways in which we might better serve and minister to the elderly. Nursing homes, not even Christian nursing homes, are the best approach. I doubt anyone really wants to end his or her life in a sterile, hospital-like environment. At the end of life, as much as any stage of life, most people would prefer to be surrounded by a loving community of people, and not just a bunch of other sick, old folks. Most of us would prefer to live in a home and family environment of peers, children, grandchildren, and even pets. A true community of believers offers so much more to the aging segment of the Church than the present situation of both spouses working, a few relatives trying to provide some degree of encouragement and support, and then the inevitable nursing home for all but the few, fortunate enough either to die young or have an ideal family situation.
I find it ironic that congregations have so easily given up the idea of the neighborhood church. It suggests a reluctance among Christians to be too close to each other, beyond their desire to live “the good life” here on earth. We are too prone to gossip, and therefore we dare not trust each other. None of this represents the Lord’s vision for his people, and all of it discredits his name. Unbelievers often respected the early Church, even as they persecuted it, but unbelievers today find little to respect. Our failure to be a community is not a trivial matter; it ultimately is a failure to be God’s people. The very word “Christian,” whether“little Christ” or “Christ’s slave,” implies that people should find more than the very little of Christ in many of us today.
I am no utopian. I know that every person is a sinner, that people will often disappoint us, and that the ideas I advocate are not simple or easy. Yet, Jesus challenges us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, the difficulty of the goal does not give us an excuse not to pursue the goal he has given us. That goal is community, fellowship, unity, and harmony.
I can imagine such exciting things developing out of genuine community. Idealist people in the past sought to create utopian communities, but most of them did so denying the reality of sin. With a full acknowledgement of human sinfulness but with equivalent faith in the grace of God and the presence of his spirit, I believe Christians may create communities able to achieve great things. In such communities, people may discover the blessings of love and fellowship, mutual encouragement and the benefits of supportive relationships. Community can provide believers a place to identified and express individual gifts and to learn and grow without the necessity of schools that seek to destroy faith and advance humanist ideas. Given the challenges of the current economy as well as the threats from an antagonistic culture, a community might provide a refuge from external threats. Communities of believers might find alternative ways of providing medical care, develop their own sources of food, keep their cars running, or buy and renovate houses to grow the community.
In other words, genuine community is so much more than “going to church.” The 21st century may offer unique challenges to creating community, but I prefer to regard those challenges as a unique opportunity. Rather than see the present culture as a threat, I would rather see it as a God-given chance to discover God’s grace in new ways. In the process, we may overcome so many of the empty traditions that rob us and our children of dynamic faith and replace them with new traditions rich in meaning and purpose. I hope those who have read this article to the end will consider the possibility that community is worth the sacrifices it may take to achieve these aims. I know that the status quo is comfortable, and that inertia easily holds us in that comfortable place. Sadly, that seemingly comfortable place is a place of stagnation and decay; many accept the rot by engaging in mindless pastimes and sensual activities, but the smell of corruption lingers.
If you are a believer, you should know what Jesus has commanded. Is there any excuse not to strive to do what he asks? We can point the finger of blame to those we think have failed, but each of us has our own responsibility to face. Modern life offers so many alternatives and distractions; they are the siren voices of Satan wooing us away from the one who “loved us and gave his life for us.” We may serve him or serve ourselves, but we cannot serve him by serving ourselves. If you think I’m wrong about community, I would be happy to hear your thinking. Ultimately, I want only to do what our Lord desires, and it seems to me, without a doubt, that community is where the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be.