"Community" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a unified body of individuals." Dictionary.com defines "community" as "a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage." These seem pretty formal, but they define church well. In his book "Life Together," German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined "community" as any gathering of believers, whether a family, a church, or a group of people living together. Basically, the shared identity is that each person knows Christ and is trying to live the Christian life. This is how I will define community here.
Here are three components that comprise a healthy community of believers.
A healthy community loves
In the church that I attended while growing up, there seemed a real sense of community. People were friendly to one another, groups got together after church in each others' homes or in local restaurants, we had potlucks regularly, there was a huge youth group in which I was involved, and our pastor and his wife were very loving people.
Now that I'm grown up, I realize that this is a rare experience.
Realization slowly came when my fellowship of believers shifted from Sunday school and church to my dorm room and cafeteria buddies in college. I attended church on Sunday mornings and that was it. When my husband and I married and entered Bible College, we thought that our church had good community until we realized that many people didn't like to befriend Bible college students because they were transient. But we did have a small community in our neighborhood where several students lived.
When we graduated and entered the ministry, we led a church that was still very much attached to its former pastor and did not really welcome us. In our second church, two people tried to have my husband removed as pastor because of the way he handled a situation involving the offspring of one of the pillars of the church.
In my adult church experience, I have dealt with many negative situations. But there have also been positive situations in which community was alive in the church:
- There was the time when one of our parishioners got up early and taught me how to can pickles from the cucumbers that I had grown in my garden.
- Another parishioner had let us use a sizable plot on their land for a garden. Still, another parishioner taught me how to make bread and another gave me designer clothing when I lost a bunch of weight.
- There was the time when board members stood up for my husband to keep him from getting voted out
- Our parishioners have kept my children when I've been sick. One family kept my three kids for two months when my first husband Gordon was sick.
- Our second church allowed us to stay in the parsonage and made sure that all our needs were met when Gordon was ill with pancreatic cancer.
- The greater church denomination (Christians from all over the world) donated to a fund that allowed me to put a down payment on a house after Gordon died.
Love. Real love is awfully hard to resist. When the people of God love one another, despite all our foibles and opinions, when we realize that each one is a work in progress and love each other regardless, the church will be really attractive. People will be drawn to Christ because of our love for one another.
Healthy communities are bound by faith
Yet, although love promotes experiences in the faith community. Bonhoeffer reminds us that it is not these experiences that keep Christians together. He wrote:
There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting and blissful experience of genuine Christian community at least once in her or his life. But in this world such experiences remain nothing but a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim to such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of gaining such experiences. It is not the experience of Christian community, but firm and certain faith within Christian community that holds us together. We hold fast in faith to God's greatest gift, that God has acted for us all and wants to act for us all. This makes us joyful and happy, but it also makes us ready to forget all such experiences if at times God does not grant them. We are bound together by faith, not by experience.
For Bonhoeffer, the good experiences of community came from God. But there are times, apparently, when God does not grant those good experiences. When this happens, we are supposed to fall back on our faith. Faith in Jesus Christ is what truly binds us together as Christians. Love is an outpouring of faith, as James describes in his New Testament book. When love is not readily apparent, or perhaps not present, we act in faith as individuals by remaining in community.
This does not mean, however, that we stay in abusive situations. There are times when leaving a community is the best thing to do for your spiritual life or your family, but more times than not, simply "riding it out" is the answer. Bad times do pass. It just takes more time to do so in some situations than in others. This is also when love can shine. The community should recognize it when people are not happy and hear them out. A healthy community will not sweep unhappiness under the rug, pretending that all is just perfect.
Healthy communities allow growth
Growth is essential to any person. Just like a child must be allowed room to explore the world and ask questions, so should a growing Christian be able to do the same. I once taught a Sunday school class that was full of young Christians, and also people who were not convinced that Christianity was their way. Our group had wild discussions. I literally never knew what was going to happen from week to week. I would prepare a discussion from a book all of us were reading and then it went from there. We talked about everything - sex, homosexuality, finances, children, the church, Jesus, love creation, evolution. You name it, we discussed it in one way or another.
Apparently, our class was "out of hand" because there was gossip within the larger church "community" that our discussions and readings were not biblical. That was incorrect; our discussions always centered around the Bible; they were just unorthodox. I wanted to do this because I believed that the people in my class needed room to grow. They needed to ask those questions and they also needed someone to listen. This happened and we were very healthy for a while. Then, it fell apart. I'm not sure what happened but I hope that those people will have gained something from the group. I hope it helped improve their spiritual lives in some way.
In the same way, we need to allow the members of our communities room for growth. We need to let our children ask us questions (no matter how embarrassing or how "off" they may be). We need to let people in the church express themselves. We need to love people for who they are rather than promote an idea of who we think people should be. We need to conduct reasonable discussions and step away from name calling and stereotyping. Unless we do this how will people know that we love each other?
That's all for today. Tomorrow I would like to discuss that a which a community is not. That will not be easy for me so shoot up a prayer if you think about it.
Grace and peace,