Unfortunately, our churches aren’t helping. The trend in the western church for most of the last forty years has been to focus on growth, and for many churches that means drawing more people from farther away. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have decided that the “church on every corner” phenomenon was a bad thing, and certainly it suggested some negatives: denominationalism that screams “divided” to the outside world, half-empty parking lots that cry “lifeless.” The churches that were growing were very often the ones that adapted their methods – but not their message – to the changing culture. They sought to be relevant, to meet real needs in people’s lives, to operate at a level of excellence that others didn’t. And so they grew. And as they grew, they needed bigger facilities, more parking, more property. So they moved. And when they moved: away from the neighborhoods where they’d grown up and out to the suburbs where there was more room. And because they were growing, more people heard about them and wanted to try them; because they were meeting needs and doing things well, people were willing to drive farther to go to church. So then the same people who were driving to work five days a week were driving again on Sunday (or Saturday nights) to go to church. And maybe they were driving there on Wednesday nights for youth group or band practice. And the next thing you know is that no one knows the people around them at church. So the church starts a small groups ministry to get people connected to each other. But before too long, people are driving across town to their small group on Tuesdays and you realize that now everyone knows a few other people…whom they only see on Sundays and Tuesdays. And so….
The Greek word that we translate as church – ekklesia – suggests community; it is a gathering, an assembly. The same word was used for a variety of gatherings, both civic and religious.
Unfortunately, our churches don’t do a great job of helping:
True community is risky. It’s scary. It’s threatening. It makes us share our deepest passions and pains, our joys and sorrows. We have to learn to live with one another and let’s face it: most of us have a hard enough time living with the one person in life we chose (our spouse) and the ones we brought into this world (our children). They are challenge enough; are we really ready and willing to make a commitment to people outside our family? A commitment to listen to them when we’re tired and bored? A commitment to enter into their lives and invite them into our own? A commitment to love them when we don’t even really like them? A commitment to pick them up…again…when they’ve tripped…again…because of their own stupid decisions?
Paul urged the believers in Rome to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices”…and then took another thousands words to talk about what it looks like to live in community: exercising spiritual gifts, practicing love, rejoicing and mourning together, submitting to authorities, accepting the weak…. I am convinced that Paul’s calls to sacrifice and transformation “by the renewing of your mind” can only be lived out and realized in the context of community.
What will it take to foster this type of community? A church – not in the institutional sense, but in the body sense – that openly and unabashedly accepts that we are all broken people; a church whose leaders are themselves being transformed, who freely yet without glamour admit their own brokenness; a church that proclaims that healing is available only through the name of Jesus Christ, yet never suggests that either healing or salvation will be simple.