“Community” is a fair translation of koinonia, the Greek word also translated as “fellowship,” “communion,” “sharing,” “contribution,” or “participation.”
“Church” translates ekklesia, which derives from the Greek root words for “called out,” but which really means “called together.” In each case where a group of people is called an ekklesia, they weren’t merely roused from their homes, they were called to be together for some purpose.
We have been so soaked in the individualism of modern Western culture that we feel threatened by the idea of our primary identity being that of the family we belong to—especially when the family in question is so large, stretching across space and time. The church isn’t simply a collection of isolated individuals, all following their own pathways of spiritual growth without much reference to one another.
In the American, evangelical tradition, we like to speak of our Christianity in radically individualistic terms. We have “a personal relationship” with Jesus. “Spiritual disciplines” are all about private Bible study, meditation, and prayer. I would just love to hear a sermon some day about the “discipline” of regularly being together with brothers and sisters! (And it very often does require considerable self-discipline to put up with people like me!)
But in a society defined by such ideals as “self-actualization” and the American sense of self-sufficiency, our members tend to have a radically individualistic, atomistic view of Christianity. I get saved. I pick a church that meets my felt needs. I find a place where I can grow. After all, my needs are the most important thing!
As a result, church leaders find themselves selling their programs based on what’s in it for the members. Give to the church because God will bless you. Come to class because you’ll gain so much from it. Be in worship because it’ll be exciting and beneficial to you!
It’s very likely true that our greatest need as a community is just to get our members to start thinking about others! How about: God saves us so that you’ll be part of a community. Find a church where you can serve most effectively. Strive to build up your brothers and sisters. Others’ needs are most important.
Don’t give away your money. Rather, share it so the community (which you are a part of, of course) can serve others. Come to class because you can encourage others and build them up. Be in worship so you can celebrate victories God has given to others and so you can serve those around you with a kind word, a hug, or an invitation to service.
Now, we all know this, but it’s not really taught consistently. Rather, sometimes we yield to the spirit of the age and sometimes we yield to the Spirit. We really need to pick just one, you know.
According to the early Christians, the church doesn’t exist in order to provide a place where people can pursue their private spiritual agendas and develop their own spiritual potential. Nor does it exist in order to provide a safe haven in which people can hide from the wicked world and ensure that they themselves arrive safely at an otherworldly destination. Private spiritual growth and ultimate salvation come rather as the by-products of the main, central, overarching purpose for which God has called and is calling us. This purpose is clearly stated in various places in the New Testament: that through the church God will announce to the wider world that he is indeed its wise, loving, and just creator; that through Jesus he has defeated the powers that corrupt and enslave it; and that by his Spirit he is at work to heal and renew it.
[I]t is as impossible, unnecessary, and undesirable to be a Christian all by yourself as it is to be a newborn baby all by yourself. The church is first and foremost a community, a collection of people who belong to one another because they belong to God, the God we know in and through Jesus.
Ah … this is just so true and so needed. We like to escape from the evils of the world. Life is hard. It wears us down and we want to come to the Sunday assembly to be encouraged, refreshed, re-energized — and this is good. But it’s self-indulgent, self-idolizing wickedness if all we do is serve ourselves.
The church exists, in other words, for what we sometimes call “mission”: to announce to the world that Jesus is its Lord. This is the “good news,” and when it’s announced it transforms people and societies. Mission, in its widest as well as its more focused senses, is what the church is there for. God intends to put the world to rights; he has dramatically launched this project through Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus are called, here and now, in the power of the Spirit, to be agents of that putting-to-rights purpose. The word “mission” comes from the Latin for “send”: “As the father sent me,” said Jesus after his resurrection, “so I am sending you” (John 20:21).
You see, as I’ve said before, we’ve forgotten the church’s true mission. We want to limit it so that we are merely a worshiping and studying society. Or only to evangelism. And these are part of it, but not all.
But the point here is that this mission is given to us as a community. We aren’t individually called to announce that Jesus is the world’s Lord. After all, who’d believe us if we can’t show the world a better society, a better way to live? How can we claim that Jesus can put the world to rights if the church isn’t right itself?
From the very beginning, in Jesus’s own teaching, it has been clear that people who are called to be agents of God’s healing love, putting the world to rights, are called also to be people whose own lives are put to rights by the same healing love. The messengers must model the message.
And here’s a very difficult teaching. We cannot tell people that Jesus will change and help them if we don’t act like changed and helped people ourselves. And this is such an incredible challenge that we need each other to help us do.
Worship, fellowship, and the work of reflecting God’s kingdom into the world flow into and out of one another. You can’t reflect God’s image without returning to worship to keep the reflection fresh and authentic. In the same way, worship sustains and nourishes fellowship; without it, fellowship quickly deteriorates into groups of the like-minded, which in turn quickly become exclusive cliques—the very opposite of what Jesus’s people should be aiming at.
The doctrine of community is essential for the church to be truly missional. We have to learn to live together so we can also work together. And, sadly, the modern church really struggles with this.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Gospels and the Epistles are just filled with lessons about how Jesus’ disciples should get along with each other. And yet we’d rather dispute and compete than cooperate, share, and love.
And so, a few conclusions–
* Preachers and elders and teachers need to expunge from their vocabularies appeals to their members’ self-centeredness. I grant that the Bible does sometimes speak in these terms, but such teachings are for the immature among us. Let’s try to push our people to maturity.
* Any teaching on spiritual disciplines or just how to live as a Christian must address our corporate existence as a part of a larger community. Indeed, I’d far rather have my members tightly integrated into the church’s community, working with others, than having regular quiet times. (Not that we have to choose.)
* But the community will be self-indulgent and self-seeking unless the leadership points it squarely in the direction of mission. The church cannot be just about itself. The body of Christ must live as Jesus lived.
* The community of Christ, however, is not limited to your congregation or your denomination. Rather, all churches in a given area should be in vigorous, loving, cooperative community with each other. The mission of Christ is too big for any one congregation. The needs of the city in which you live are too big for one church or one denomination.
* More churches should merge — even (especially!) across denominational lines. One of biggest problems facing the church is having so many tiny congregations (50% are smaller than 90 members) that the congregations must dedicate all their resources to maintaining their existence.
* The mission of Jesus is both the preaching of the gospel and the living of the gospel by striving to put the world to rights. The poor, the vulnerable, and abused are all special objects of God’s love and therefore of ours. Christians and congregations have to work in cooperation to accomplish this in any meaningful way.
* Surrender all temptation to compete with other churches in your town. If you struggle to have enough members or a large enough contribution, the solution is to consolidate (merge) with another church — or to get better at evangelism — never to help yourself by hurting fellow congregations. Competition is very American and very capitalistic. It’s very un-Christian because it’s a sin against the community of Christ.