This is the introduction to a series of posts entitled “Church as Community.” Collectively, these posts will explore the various implications of the biblical truth that the local church is, by definition, a community to which believers belong.
“Community” is a buzz word in many Christian circles these days, not least of which is the young missional crowd. Everyone is trying to find out how the church can hone in on what community is and how it can be cultivated in the context of the local church. I think this is, so far as it goes, a good thing. However, I would like to think some about the proper category for an idea like “community” (henceforth without quotation marks) in a local church. There are, I think, at least a few misunderstandings. In this post, I’ll explore some of these misconceptions, and in later posts I’ll try to provide some constructive suggestions for how a church can think about community.
First, some churches think about community in terms of a ministry of the church. When we talk about community as a ministry, we often look to passages like Acts 2:42-47, or Acts 4:32-37. These passages depict the church gathering together, meeting one another’s needs, and worshiping together regularly. These are all great things for a church to do, but therein lies the problem. If we view community as a ministry, then it becomes something that the church “does.” It can be turned on and turned off as need arises and abates. Community mainly happens on Sundays and Wednesdays. If we’re really edgy, we might even get some community going at an in-home small group on a Tuesday or Thursday (but don’t go longer than an hour and a half!). Our view of community is often betrayed by how we talk about it. You might view community as a ministry of the church if you use community with action words. We “do” community, “make” community, and “pursue” community. These are good, but does that tell the whole story?
Other churches think about community as a distinctive of the church. You see this in language such as “having community” or “living in community.” These churches may recognize that people do not get a sense of belonging in their jobs or through their kids’ soccer teams, so they believe that cultivating such an atmosphere will meet a need. It’s a place where you can get to know people, go over to someone’s house, and babysit one another’s kids. Certainly this is a good thing. We need more churches that recognize this and actually do it. But I wonder if community is not deeper than this. Is being marked by community a means to an end, making the church a collective therapy session where isolated people can meet other isolated people and thus avoid loneliness? And this might be a little picky, but is it possible to have a church not marked by community? Shouldn’t all churches display this sense of community? (If so, can it really be called a “distinctive”?) What is a church that doesn’t have community?
Still other churches view community as a context. In this sense, you are a community church if you are composed primarily of people who live or work in the same area. Your kids go to school together, do boy scouts together, and play on the same baseball team. The alternative is churches that pull from various parts of the city—a commuter church, if you will. To me, this seems like the weakest understanding of community, because it is merely a consequence of circumstance. There is nothing convictional about it. It just happens.
I’ll go ahead and play my cards. I’m going to argue that community is not simply a ministry of the church, nor is it just a distinctive of a church, nor is it a product of context in a church. Instead, community is in the very identity of the church. A church is, by definition, a community. Community is not something we do; it is who we are. And it is this fact that affects how we serve, minister, live, and grow together. I’ll try to develop this more in my next post.