If you are a Christian in the West today, you would likely agree that western evangelicalism has a culture of its own. That is not value judgment. It is simply an observation. As in any other culture, there are trends that sometimes take it by storm or at least catch the interest of the masses. One of those trends in today’s evangelical world is the emphasis on what we call “Community.” It is actually part of the vision for the church where I serve as a pastor: “Gospel-Community-Mission.” As easy as it is to insert the word into the lingo of your church, understanding exactly what community means or identifying what it looks like in a local church setting is another matter. It’s not easy to do because the church at-large lacks a universal definition for community. There is no litmus test to determine if you have it nor is there a map to show you where to look for it. Is it getting to know one another in small groups or is it one-on-one discipleship? Do you breed it in affinity groups like men’s or singles and will that ever spread to the entire congregation?
It is all a little fuzzy. However, even with the fuzzy definitions that we have to work with, most of us understand what is being sought through our pursuit of community. It goes by many names: hipster churches might refer to it as “doing life together,” more typical churches would call it “fellowship,” and the academic among us might go for the Greek transliteration “koinonia,” which means something like “communion.” Whatever your term of choice, it is ultimately a desire for connectedness that is deep and meaningful; so much so that it marks the followers of Jesus as unique in this world. Jesus said in John 13:35 that “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” People who are loved by a supernaturally loving God should themselves be epitomized by and enjoy a visible, tangible, attractive love for one another. Should they not?
While we may all agree that the church of Jesus Christ should produce groups of believers that are characterized by a real sense of community, the means to cultivate that dynamic can be elusive. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any workbook or DVD set that can actually achieve the type of Gospel community the church needs. I only know one method for breaking down relational walls, peeling off the masks we all wear, and destroying the myriad other things that serve as roadblocks to community: that is the preaching of and belief in the gospel of grace.
Having said that, when I look at the landscape of the church and see what others are doing to cultivate community, at times, I am left wanting. While our church eats together every Sunday after worship, we do not have midweek services and have yet to begin small groups. We only meet once per week and, with bi-vocational pastors, work on systems and strategies to implement the vision of the church is slow-going. This has really challenged my belief in and dependence on the gospel.
This church has been a gospel experiment from the beginning. All our chips are on grace and we’ve spun the wheel. From the first planting team meeting through the sermon preached last Sunday, we have made the gospel of grace the sole focal point of our ministry. We have tried to be faithful to perpetually proclaim the truth of our hopeless state apart from Christ and His glorious rescue. So when it comes to building a community, where else could we / should we turn, but to that same gospel. And to my amazed joy, the gospel alone has proven able to do more to build true community than any program we could have devised.
New church attenders, who have not been in church for years, have said, “This is the first time we can remember not feeling judged in church.” Now that is not a product of “judge not” sermons or a stance that is “soft on sin.” Rather, it has come as God’s people have begun to understand the reality of their sin and the rescue available in the gospel. This—and this alone—is releasing people from the need to be what they know they are not. Though, much to our dismay, the systems and ministries that we typically associate with “community” have yet to be birthed, yet we have seen that the Gospel has gone ahead of us. As the body of Christ has begun to rest in what Jesus has done for them, the fear of rejection has begun to subside. Slowly but surely we are beginning to let down our guards and are feeling free to admit our daily sins and struggles and graciously accept one another with the acceptance we have received. It have to say, it is not tidy. We really are a heaping hot mess, but true community is beginning to take shape.
I also wish I could say, “I knew this was going to happen” and that “I never doubted that the gospel alone could do what I so desperately wanted for our church;” but I can’t. There have been seasons of doubt and temptations to look to other things. However, even for a doubting leader, there is hope in the gospel; because “To whom shall I go? You alone have the words of eternal life.” Together, our church has discovered that our sin runs deeper than we had ever imagined, but that the lavish grace of our Savior runs deeper still. After having tasted that grace we are more than willing to serve it up to each other. This is community, and it’s not nearly as elusive as we thought it was. It is simply the fruit of the grace of God at work in the lives the people of God as they believe and preach the gospel to one another (Col 1:6).