This post will launch us into a 14-part series entitled The Practice of Christian Community. I am not sure if I am an expert on the subject, but I do have a few decades of practicing community as a discipline. I am an introvert and tend to prefer to be alone, but I am also a Christian. I found it impossible to be a Christian alone.
I fell into a community (maybe "brotherhood" is a more accurate word) during my four years as an undergrad in college. I met a handful of guys who became my family. I discovered a new kind of love. People told us that those sorts of deep daily friendships only existed as part of the college experience, but we refused to believe them. Many of us moved to Las Vegas together to see what might emerge from intentionally committing to our community. A church emerged...flawed, but beautiful. Since then we have gone our separate ways. I spend a few days every year regretting that we didn't find a way to stay together, but a strong case could be made that it was the leading of God that scattered us.
Since I have no context for the Christian faith apart from daily communal life together, I did my best throw myself into new communities along the way. There were certainly isolated years of relative solitude - just our family huddled together with one or true trusted friends. But the majority of my Christian experience has centered around an intentional grouping of Jesus-followers with whom I live life together.
This, to me, is church. I have stated this many times on this blog and elsewhere. I am compelled to state it over and over - maybe as much for my sake as for yours. If this isn't church, I have little hope for what we commonly call "church." If this is church, I am still very much a believer.
I am also a pastor at a larger "church" which contains small groups. If all power were granted to me from on high, I would call our small groups "churches" and our larger organization a para-church that exists to plant churches and unite them for greater missional impact. (More on that in a later post.) I will do my best to not get hung up on semantics...though I believe strongly that it would benefit American Evangelicals tremendously to get hung up on semantics now and again. We have hi-jacked most Biblical words and concepts and given them meanings that are more like shadows of their intended truths. "Church" is certainly one of these hi-jacked words.
Let's talk about community from the perspective of someone in my current context - part of a larger church. (I use "larger" here not to mean a mega-church, but to mean any group of people where a stranger could come in anonymously - maybe 50 or more?) Generally, someone will come first to a weekend church service - hopefully with a friend, but often alone. If your larger church is like mine, they will likely hear someone tell them to "get into a small group." We tell them that, "that is where life change happens." And, "all the good stuff is there - learning, friendship, etc."
This is true. But we as church leaders must be careful of the temptation to overstate the benefits of "group life." We should also tell them that life in community is very hard. It takes a long time to trust and be trusted. Plus, we should remind them that people are super weird. Anyone I have ever really taken the time to get to know is dramatically broken or selfish or irrational. Most of us develop coping skills to hide our dysfunctions. The better we are at "coping" the longer we can retain the illusion of normalcy. However, normalcy is a myth. We are all broken. If you spend enough time with anyone on the planet you will eventually want to stop spending time with them. And that is where community happens...in the realization of our utter hopelessness to genuinely like each other.
There is only one way community can work. God has to step in. He will have to rule the community. Everyone will have to surrender their individual agendas to him. So, Christian community is really God's working laboratory for life in the Kingdom. To enter the practice of Christian community is to die to yourself. This may seem unfair to the core. Community is where you should go to be loved, right? Yes, but Jesus turned the notion of love on its head at the cross. He modeled love for us and explained it before he endured it:
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. (Jesus in John 15, NIV)
Christian community is nothing short of an invitation to obey Jesus's call to die. In laying down our lives (our agendas, desires, opinions, preferences, money, etc.) we exist, no longer for ourselves, but for God and our friends. Of course, Jesus knows that if we all love each other this deeply, we will find more than we need for a joyous and fulfilling life. To be fully loved by others who are dying to their own agenda is an amazing and humbling place to be. I have been there before.
Here's how it works, though. Jesus died for us to show us the way of live. Now you must die for your friends. You must lead the death march. It never works out so that everyone chooses to die on the same day. Someone has to lead the way. If you choose to devote yourself to the practice of Christian community, it means giving yourself up first so that others will follow. Or maybe they won't. Regardless, you have obeyed Jesus' command. And he promises to be your friend...even when others won't.
One of the most common things I hear people say about their small group is that they "don't get much out of it." I can be less diplomatic here than I tend to be face to face: if you say that, you probably have the wrong mindset to start with. It isn't about you - what you are feeling or learning. It's about God. And that's the topic of our next post.