Community groups . . . community centers . . . building community . . . promoting community . . . community life . . . community churches . . . faith communities . . . the Christian community . . .
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 so prevalent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In its stead many have been drawn to a community-oriented Christianity that more accurately reflects the koinonia emphasis of the New Testament and the early church—the corporate disciplines of worship, fellowship, and ministry.
But what does true Christian community look like?
True vs. False 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 meshed together in some kind of church program—a Bible study, a Sunday school class, a small group, a ministry team. We grudgingly do our duties but keep our guards up. 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 and love.
But then consider a different model of community: comfort, familiarity, friends whose names we know and whose faces we’re actually happy to see. People with whom we spend time outside the church, people we’d actually want to invite for dinner. That kind of community usually means developing warm relationships with those our own age or stage of life.
The first kind of community repels us . . . the second attracts us. Common sense tells us that the uncomfortable and awkward community can’t possibly result in a healthy church, right? And surely spiritual growth is more likely to occur in a community of comfort rather than conflict.
Or is it?
An Uncomfortable Truth
Let me suggest something that might startle you: The more comfortable you feel in your Christian community, the less authentic your experience of community. In 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul wrote, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Sometimes we read a passage like that and fail to think through its practical implications. Jews and Greeks didn’t get along in the ancient world. They came from completely different religious and cultural backgrounds, lived in separate communities, and 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 became 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. Like mixing oil and water. Church growth experts opt for affinity groups. Common sense tells us not to even try this kind of mixing. 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 the desire to fellowship only with people who make us comfortable?
Confusion. Discomfort. Frustration. Uneasiness. Conflict. These are both the ingredients and the effects of true community. These conditions 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.
An Ancient Example
In a moving description of authentic Christian community, the third-century church father Dionysius of Alexandria described the self-sacrificial work of Christians in the face of a disastrous plague:
The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves, having transferred to themselves their death. And the popular saying which always seems a mere expression of courtesy, they then made real in action, taking their departure as the others’ “offscouring."
When I read this description of true community in the ancient church, I wonder whether similar conditions today would mark us as Christians or heathens. Would we stick around only until the risk became too great—or until we had expended our last energies taking care of our own? Having observed the way so many Christians utterly disregard their brothers and sisters today, I think I know the answer.
It doesn’t need to be this way. We can begin living in true community today by starting right where we are. 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 better 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, persevering through conflict, and dealing with difficulties. 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 (John 13:35).
Don’t try to get out from under the sometimes excruciating conflict and discomfort that comes through true community. Don’t try to seek only those who share your opinions, your lifestyles, or 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.
Adapted from Michael J. Svigel, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 230–34.
Dionysius of Alexandria, Letter to the Alexandrians (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 7.22 [NPNF, 2.1:307]).