Have you seen any articles that have titles like this: “How to Create Authentic Community in Church”, “Designing Churches for Better Community”, “3 Ways We Can Be Better at Doing Life Together”?
‘Community’ has become a buzzword in Christian circles. You’ll hear it in church vision statements, in sermon applications and in Bible study covenants. There are plenty of articles about how pastors can facilitate this kind of community – for instance, encouraging churchgoers to ask each other about deeper questions than just “how are you”, such as sharing a struggle or life event.
This is all coming from a good place. After all, we know that community is essential to our Christian walk (Hebrews chapter 10, verses 24-25). We see it modelled in the early churches of the New Testament, where we see a group of people who operated through diversity (Galatians chapter 3, verse 28), by sharing things in kind (Acts chapter 2, verses 42-47) and by acts of love and faith (2 Thessalonians chapter1, verse 3).
But if we’re trying to ‘create’ authentic community, how authentic is it? And is building community meant to be our goal?
When I think of the best experiences I’ve had of community, I can think of plenty of examples in my life where community was created almost without me noticing. Things like camps, Bible study groups and beach mission are springing to mind, where we bonded because we went through a common journey and all the ordeals along the way. Basically, our community grew because we got together not to build community per se, but to do something else.
On the flip side, I’ve seen well-meaning people in the church grow frustrated that community isn’t working – that their church isn’t mixing together enough, growing annoyed at ‘that person’ who always leaves before the events start, or feeling as though we’re not being vulnerable together.
But real community tends not to happen when it’s our aim. Missiologist Michael Frost writes in his book Exiles:
“… I have come to realize that aiming for community is a bit like aiming for happiness. It’s not a goal in itself. We find happiness as an incidental by-product of pursuing love, justice, hospitality and generosity. When you aim at happiness, you are bound to miss it. Likewise with community. It’s not our goal. It emerges as a by-product of pursuing something else” (p 108)
The suggestion here is that community happens along the journey to something else, rather than being the focus.
So what does this mean for the church?
Community through a common goal
The anthropologist Victor Turner suggested that real community grows out of a shared mission or ordeal (he called this type of community ‘communitas’). This type of relationship is only experienced by stepping out on a common journey together – something outside the community.
By focusing on something beyond ourselves, our differences are less important because we’re focused on something beyond them. Michael Frost writes in Exiles of the early disciples:
“Men who otherwise would have nothing to do with each other are thrown together by their shared devotion to Jesus, and as they journey together, they develop a depth of relationship that literally turned the world upside down.”
A community that’s dependent on our relationships will probably turn into a clique. A community that’s centred on a mission for Christ is a community that anyone can be part of, whether they’ve just joined or have been part of it for years.
I wonder if this could be reflected in our churches? Maybe we should change the question from “Why isn’t community stronger in our church?” to “What can we do together to share what we believe?” This can be anything from local mission, running Bible study groups, supporting a non-profit cause, or starting a new church service.
We should be sure we’re not building community for its own sake. Sharing a mission is what builds community.
I’ve quoted from Michael Frost’s book Exiles, which you can find on Amazon for purchase.
Victor Turner writes about communitas here: https://books.google.com.au/books/about/From_ritual_to_theatre.html?id=zNoOAQAAMAAJ
I’m indebted to this article for giving me the inspiration for this topic: http://www.nzcms.org.nz/community-is-not-the-goal-issue-30/
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional and has a background in editing. She works as the Communications Coordinator at CMS Victoria, and lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed athttp://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html