In America today, community is largely gone. We often barely know our neighbors. We find work is the center of our social life, and yet work is an unnatural place to make friends. I mean, we’re supposed to be busy working — and work brings only certain kinds of people together. It’s just not an entirely satisfactory place to find true community.
Church has the ability to bring all sorts of people together, and it’s really supposed to. And yet we bring so much of the world with us into church that we divide our churches racially and by economic strata. Worse yet, we often fail to form true community in church because we are so eager to look righteous and happy. Church can be a very superficial place.
In theory, small groups should break these barriers down, and they do help. But I always rebel at one-size-fits-all programs designed to get us to act in ways that aren’t entirely scriptural. I mean, where in the Bible does is say get in a room and talk about your problems with a group of from 4 to 12 people? Not that it’s wrong. It’s just not what we’re called to, is it?
This is from Stanley Hauerwas and Pat WIllimon Resident Aliens (which you should immediately buy and read) —
Which leads me to say that we are not advocating community merely for the sake of community. The Christian claim is not that we as individuals should be based in a community because life is better lived together rather than alone. The Christian claim is that life is better lived in the church because the church, according to the story, just happens to be true. The church is the only community formed around the truth, which is Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Only on the basis of his story, which reveals to us who we are and what has happened in the world, is true community possible.
In a world like ours, it is tempting to seek community, any community, as good in itself. Liberal society has a way of making us strangers to one another as we go about detaching ourselves from long-term commitments, protecting our rights, thinking alone. Our society is a vast supermarket of desire in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us. …
When people are very detached, very devoid of purpose and a coherent world view, Christians must be very suspicious of talk about community. In a world like ours, people will be attracted to communities that promise them an easy way out of loneliness, togetherness based on common tastes, racial or ethnic traits, or mutual self-interest. …
Christian community, life in the colony, is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about disciplining our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives. In living out the story together, togetherness happens, but only as a by-product of the main project of trying to be faithful to Jesus. …
Through the teaching, support, sacrifice, worship, and commitment of the church, utterly ordinary people are enabled to do some extraordinary, even heroic acts, not on the basis of their own gifts or abilities, but rather by having community capable of sustaining Christian virtue. The church enables us to be better people than we could have been if left to our own devices. …
Therefore, we cannot say to the pregnant fifteen-year-old, “Abortion is a sin. It is your problem.” Rather, it is our problem. We ask ourselves what sort of church we would need to be to enable an ordinary person like her to be the sort of person Jesus calls her to be. More important, her presence in our community offers the church the wonderful opportunity to be the church, honestly to examine our own convictions and see whether or not we are living true to those convictions. …
Our ethics do involve individual transformation, not as a subjective, inner, personal experience, but rather as the work of a transformed people who have adopted us, supported us, disciplined us, and enabled us to be transformed.
Good stuff! I could go on quoting, but you need to go out and buy and read and include it in your small group or Sunday school curriculum.
“Discipline” in Hauerwas’s vocabulary is not Bible study and prayer but refraining from sin and doing right at whatever the cost. He finds the ability to have this discipline comes from the church as community because we help one another do it — and this leads to the deep, intimate fellowship that many crave.
If we cheapen our community by skipping to the end, bypassing the hard life lessons along the way, then we never really become the church. Rather, we have a social club or a counseling center with a cross hung on the wall.
To get there, we need to get away from Western individualism, stop demanding personal autonomy, and do a few peculiar things such as —
* Be honest with each other about our sinfulness and our sins. I don’t mean the abstract “I’m a sinner and so is everyone else.” Rather, it’s more, “I struggle with materialism and need help to escape.”
* Submit to authority — particularly the authority of Jesus to tell us how to live and the authority of the church to call us to account.
* Get over the idea of getting to do whatever I want and submit to doing what Jesus wants, no matter what.
* Accept that church isn’t for me — I’m saved for the church, that is, my mission as a Christian is to allow God to bless the world through me as part of his church, as part of the shared mission of the church. The church is not a mall of spiritual delights to choose from; rather, it’s a call to a task of cosmic proportions that, at times, won’t be much fun at all.
Now, of course, there is no greater joy than serving in God’s kingdom! It’s just that we have to grow up in Christ before we feel that way. And we grow up with the help of Christian brothers and sisters within the church and by doing.
Do first. Enjoy later. It’s like coffee. The first sip can be unpleasant, but in time, you love it. Eventually, you’ll wonder how you got through the day without it!