Church-Based Community: A Contrarian View

What do garage door openers, electric lights, iPods, Bluetooth, and many western churches have in common? They all detract from true community. Hey, wait a minute! you protest. How do churches detract from community? That’s the very thing we’re working so hard to encourage and create!

Maybe that’s the point: true community shouldn’t need to be encouraged, much less created; it should just happen. That so many churches feel compelled to “create” community should signal the fact that it isn’t just happening. But why not? The American lifestyle undoubtedly presents a significant challenge to community. All of the inventions and technologies I mentioned above – and many more like them – have resulted in increased isolation from neighbors. We back out of our garage in the morning, drive alone on a freeway to go to work in a cubicle, maybe run to the drive-through for lunch, pull back into the garage in the evening, then sit down in front of our computer or TV after dinner, while the kids are in their rooms doing homework and listening to their iPods. It is entirely possible – and highly likely – that we can go through an entire day without once seeing our neighbors. Think about it: how many of the people on your street can you name? How many have you talked with in the past week? Do they have kids? Pets? Problems? (Let me confess here: most of what I know about my own neighbors is through my wife or my kids. I’m as guilty as you are, but God has used three months of unemployment to open my eyes to this.)

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:

I am still trying to figure out what will best enhance true community. Certainly geographic proximity is necessary; but there is something more, and I think it has to do with first recognizing and accepting our own brokenness, accepting the brokenness of others, and reaching out together to the only One who can truly mend us.

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.

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