It is in the shelter of each other that the people live. –Irish Proverb
It was during the run up to the last election that I finally made the decision to start a blog. I had been having many conversations with Christian friends about politics and the general state of the United States. Like many people, the level of hostility and discord was emotionally exhausting for me. I was dismayed by the way the issues where driving wedges between many people I knew and even more dismayed by the lack, at least from my perspective, of sound theological and Biblical thinking among many of the Christians I know regarding their political positions. Thus far this blog has been a personal journey for me attempting to dig deeper into these issues, one I hope has been beneficial to others. Where my exploration has led me to is the conviction that deep, Christ-centered communities are essential to healing the rifts in our society. These communities can serve as family for those whose biological families are broken; as a place of moral companionship and connection for the friendless; and the only place, in my view, where the world’s longing for a unity that encompasses our diversity can ever be truly achieved. While community is a theme I will return to, this will be the last post in the ‘Moral Loneliness’ series.
I want to wrap things up by expanding on a few points and adding some things that I left out of previous posts. I try to strike a balance between achieving a level of meaningful depth in my posts with the recognition that many people have expectations that a blog post should be relatively short. So to that end I try to limit the length of my posts so that they are not too unreasonably long, which usually means that not every idea makes the cut for the final post. For that reason this post may end up being a little bit of a hodge podge. For reference here are the other posts in the series:
Community as an End in Itself
It has occurred to me as I have been writing and researching this series that many of us need a shift in our thinking with respect to the importance of church community. Often our goals in life include getting the education required for a satisfying career, getting married, starting a family, and buying our own home. Church community may be viewed as a support network to achieve these goals, but it often ends up as a secondary concern. But what if our primary goal was to become embedded in a Christ-centered community? What if our education was viewed primarily as a way to develop our gifts and talents to strengthen that community? That it is more than just a means to just get a job? What if church community was one of the primary factors in our decisions on where we should live, or if we should accept a promotion which will require us to move? I know there are Christians who do see the church community as an end in itself, but many do not.
We can think of church as having both a horizontal and vertical component; with the horizontal involving our relationship with each other, and the vertical involving our relationship with God. We need both for a balanced, Biblical perspective on church community while recognizing that the vertical relationship with God animates the horizontal relationships with each other. There are dangers with drifting too far in either direction, whether that be the members of the spiritually shallow ‘social club’ or the Sunday morning attender who hears a sermon but never connects with other members of the community. Everyone is at a different point on this spectrum, but I would a hazard a guess that many people have too little of the horizontal perspective in their lives (which begs the question as to how strong the vertical relationship is).
Community Leads to New Cultural Institutions
As different people from different backgrounds are saved and enter the process of allowing God to forge them into a new community of people, one result of the relationships that develop will be a distinctly unique culture. As people’s minds and spirits are together renewed in the image of God; the new way of thinking and seeing life will inevitably result in a group of people who do not live like everyone else. If a group thinks and lives differently, the end result is often new ways of doing things. A good example of this is the invention of the hospital, which has been credited Basil, Bishop of Caesarea. While one man is given credit, the hospital’s origination was an natural outcome of the culture of compassion for the sick that was a hallmark of early Christianity. Because Christians viewed the sick with compassion instead of indifference, they responded in a way that ultimately lead to a culture changing institution, the hospital. A Christ -centered community culture that is creatively doing new things is critical to the future of the church, because people – especially younger people – want to see how religious belief matters in ‘real life’. This is the real test of a belief system- if we live according to certain values, how does it impact the world around us? What sort of culture is created if a group of people start to live according to certain set of beliefs?
We need to realize that it is this communal culture creation, not our personal stories, which is the most powerful testimony to the world around us. Let me give an example: suppose a man who is known for being having a bad temper and being generally self absorbed is saved and begins attending church. His neighbors may notice he seems a bit nicer, a little more thoughtful, and less likely to blow his top at the drop of a hat. He gives credit to God and describes a religious conversion when people notice the change. But will this be enough to convince his secular neighbors of the truth of Christianity? Perhaps, but probably not. But what if we imagine another scenario in which the man not only is nicer and less ill-tempered, but after his conversion he joins a ministry in his church. This ministry, in cooperation with local schools and other community organizations, is focused on meeting the needs of children who are growing up in homes with parents addicted to meth. Now the man’s neighbors are not just seeing a personal testimony, but a group of people working together in the name of Jesus to better the the entire community. I believe that this is a much more powerful testimony because now the man’s neighbors can start to imagine themselves being a part of this group of people, and will likely give more thought to their own views of the world. The communal aspect of witnessing has long been neglected, but it is essential to convincing people to abandon their beliefs and consider the claims of Christianity.
Fortunately, I currently have the opportunity to be involved in something of a similar nature. A few months ago, a man contacted my pastor inquiring if our church wanted to be involved in a prisoner re-entry ministry he leads that is starting operations in the county in which our church resides. The was himself a former prisoner who was saved in prison, and he realized upon release how much the deck is stacked against former inmates being able to fully re-enter society. Getting a job with a felony on your record, overcoming drug addiction, rebuilding relationships with family who may want nothing to do with you, are among the many obstacles facing prisoners upon release. Even something as simple as a getting a driver’s license can be a major challenge. If an ex-inmate is unsuccessful at re-entering society, reverting to crime and ending up behind bars again is the most likely outcome (referred to as recidivism). This ministry steps into this difficult situation by providing a faith-based recovery house where ex-inmates can live in a structured environment with access to the help they need. Assistance in getting a jog, addiction counseling, and relationship counseling are woven into a spiritually focused atmosphere. Bible studies and and emphasis on church involvement are key components of this ministry. And this is all done with in the context of community – Christian staff in the ministry partnering with local churches to help these men and women enter into a new cultural frame of mind, one centered on the reality of Jesus.
In the Shelter of Each Other
I have spent time on the concept of community because I see it as the soil from which all other spiritual life grows. Jesus did not teach isolated individuals, but 12 disciples who together lead the early church. Acts tells us that 3,000 people responded to Peters sermon, and then the very next verses tell us this:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”(Acts 2:42-47)
I am convinced that the last sentence- the Lord adding to their number daily- happened only because of the forging of spiritual community in the prior verses. They prayed together, learned together, and looked out for each others needs. When persecution came, they protected each other. The subsequent growth of Christianity around the world was rooted in the formation of the community that started here in Acts. We need to rediscover this community today and learn how to move from moral loneliness and isolation to moral companionship and deep community; for our own sake and for the sake of those whom God places in our path.