Matthew Hamilton: Let’s be honest about church community.
What would your response be if I were to tell you that I enjoy my communion with the people whom I silently ride next to on my bus to work? Or that I enjoy the communal fellowship shared with my fellow moviegoers as we quietly and attentively watch the latest action-thriller at the cinema?
“Poor soul,” you might think. “He probably doesn’t have a friend in the world.”
Of course, a group of people who sit silently together, hardly even speak to one another, and avert nearly all of their attention away from each other don’t constitute a community! To think otherwise is to have an abysmally low view of what a community is.
But, if I were to ask you if your church is a community, you’d probably say “Yes.”
Then answer these questions within the context of your church service (or if you are a pastor then put yourself in your congregation’s shoes):
Are you usually sitting silently with the other members of your church?
How often do you speak with other churchgoers?
How much of your attention is directed at other churchgoers?
Do you see where I’m going with this?
In most churches today, the level of “community” is merely on par with what would be expected if we were all to go once a week to the cinema. That’s not community; that’s just a group of people who pass through each other’s lives on a weekly basis.
By any stretch of the rational imagination, there is no way that geographic proximity, shared interests, shared experiences, or even common goals can, on their own, construct a real Christian community.
A real Christian community requires much more than that.
There are a multitude of Biblical verses which give insight into what a Christian community looks like and what is expected of its members: “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need,” “Bear one another’s burdens,” “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another,” “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak,” etc…
Now suppose I were to ask you how often you confide in others to carry an emotional burden with you while you are at church? Or I might ask when was the last time someone in your church sold some of their property to help someone else? Or how often you have confessed your sins to someone or had someone confess their sins to you? Or have you ever rebuked a church member for idleness?
Your answers were a little bit underwhelming weren’t they?
Because of a systemic cultural failure, a cultural failure that transformed the church from being a family into a social club at the best of times, a pilgrimage of penance at the worst of times, and a country club on the average.
A family is how the New Testament Epistles describe the early church: they spent time together, ate together, got to know one another, learned from each other, were vulnerable and open to each other, argued together, rebuked each other, helped each other, and were willing to make sacrifices for each other.
That is a family. And that is the standard for a Christian community.
It was no accident of terminology that members of the early church referred to each other as “brother” and “sister.” It was a direct result of their practical application of the idea that they were all engrafted into God’s family. Now, we might still agree with that notion today, but that theology has been relegated to the academic and all but completely abandoned for practical application. Hence, our churches are no longer families; they are social clubs, pilgrimage sites, or country clubs.
The issue here is not theological; it’s cultural. There is much that can be said about the origins of this cultural issue, but it is probably sufficient for you simply to know that if a culture can be changed for the worse it can also be changed for the better.
The solution to the lack of community in your church is simple: build a family. Now that is easy to say, but because it is counter-cultural it won’t be easy to do. If you succeed in doing that, however, I think you’d be surprised at how fruitful your church will become.
Matthew Hamilton grew up as a missionary kid in far-flung corners of the globe. He has lived in or visited over 100 countries and has followed his parents’ footsteps by serving in Youth with a Mission (YWAM) for several years in Asia and the Pacific. Matthew has a Bachelors of Arts in History and Political Science from Taylor University.