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The Un-American Church: Discipleship Community

Alan Wolfe, though not a Christian, is an astute social critic of “American Christianity.” In his insightful 2003 book The Transformation of American Religion, he notes that, far from being a socially transformative movement, “American Christianity” has far too often been the one transformed by American culture:

In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer. – Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion.

One of the areas where we see “Americanism” infecting Christianity is individualism. We Americans love to believe in the rugged individual who never needs anyone else. This notion has infiltrated American Christianity so that we primarily think of our faith in “personal” terms. We think of our “personal relationship” with Jesus and our private “spiritual walk”. We often attend Christian events with lots of other Christians, but we’re not necessarily involved in anyone’s life to the degree that the skeletons are not only out of the closet but in the living room. We can attend a worship service with thousands of other people, yet live out the bulk of our faith isolated–just us and our bibles.

We Exist for More

We forget that not even the Lone Ranger was alone and that individualism does not seem to match the expectation God gives his people in the scriptures. God shows us that love, demonstrated in and through sacrificial, gospel-fueled community is the center of missional discipleship. God expects his people to live and grow in community. Joseph Hellerman argues in his book When The Church Was A Family:

Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. People who remain connected with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding, and they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay also grow. People who leave do not grow.

It is a simple but profound biblical reality that we both grow and thrive together or we do not grow much at all.

We exist to reflect the image of God, who himself dwells eternally in community. This is why God can shockingly say: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God was not saying that he was not enough for Adam, but that Adam was created to exist not only in relationship with God (vertically) but also in relationship with others like him (horizontally). Adam was created for relationship and for community because God exists in community. Though God saves us as individuals, He saves us into community. Many of the admonitions of the New Testament seem to assume that community is the primary context in which the Christian life is to be lived. Consider Paul’s admonitions from Romans 12:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. – Romans 12:9-13

Continue reading just a few verses later:

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. – Romans 12:16-18

Reputation of the Un-American Church

Love is the summary of the Law–what God expects of us (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:28-34; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14, etc.). It is not, Jesus says, by our political affiliation, not by the movies we boycott, not by the “family-friendly” music we listen to, nor by the “faith-based soccer league” in which our children play that the world will know that we belong to him. It is our love for one another. That’s how people will know that we belong to Jesus (John 13:35). In other words, as we live in community we are also on display. Joyful, humble, self-sacrificial love for one another overflows toward and invites in friends, family, neighbors and cities. This love of the community on display shines like light in the darkness and as we spur one another on to maturity we also invite others to come along.

Jesus tells his followers that they are a “city on a hill”  that cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). Imagine traveling through the desert for days. You’re nearly out of water and your sunbaked skin is beginning to ache. You ran out of food this morning, now it’s already dark and the heat gives way to the biting chill of the night breeze. Then, you see lights, city lights, on a hill! Your step quickens as you begin to get closer and as excitement, anticipation and relief well-up inside you. You can’t wait to be there. Rest. Refreshment. Company.

I wonder if our neighborhoods think of our church families or even our individual families this way? The New Testament assumes that: Love, demonstrated in and through sacrificial, gospel-fueled community is the center of missional discipleship. By “missional discipleship,” I simply mean that “discipleship” is the entire trajectory of the Christian life, including coming to faith. It does not begin “at salvation,” nor does it end at some point of spiritual maturity. “Discipleship” should be understood in terms of “mission” because we exist to make, mature and multiply disciples. The very nature of “discipleship” is always striving to bring people closer to Jesus, no matter where they might be at on the spectrum. Discipleship is joining in the missio dei, the mission of God.

One of the reasons so much of modern church community is not missional discipleship is because, in practice, we require people to “believe” certain things before they can “belong” to our community. We use belief to exclude people from community. They, the outsiders, must cross these church-made cultural or doctrinal barriers to be part of us, the insiders. Sometimes this might be as well-intentioned as wanting someone to declare publicly their saving faith in Jesus, but oftentimes, it is over our unique approach to particular doctrines and practices. After all, isn’t the point of most church membership classes to make sure you believe like we do so you can really belong.  While we use belief to exclude people from community, Jesus did the opposite. He used community to bring people to belief. Remember, this is why the religious leaders were so upset with Jesus: he ate with sinners and tax collectors. It wasn’t just cleanliness issues of the Old Testament law, though that was certainly part of it. Jesus was opening God’s community, allowing people to belong, in order to bring them to faith in himself. I am not saying we should do away with theological distinctives. Instead, I am saying that we should use community to bring people to belief rather than use belief to exclude people from community.

As my own church family looks ahead to the coming year, we are looking for more ways to involve those who don’t yet believe in our community life. This requires intentionality and may force some people to re-examine their own boundaries. I am reminded of our experience with “Tim” (not his real name, just for his privacy). Tim is a phenomenal drummer who was dating a girl in our church family. We slowly began to involve him in community life by engaging him in something he loves; we asked if he would drum for our gathered worship. Initially, we just asked for once a month, then twice a month, and then he became our primary drummer. Though this made some people uncomfortable (how can we have a non-Christian lead our worship music?!), Tim seemed to enjoy drumming with the band and gradually began paying more attention during the teaching time. As he began to develop relationships, he and his girlfriend got plugged in to a missional community and he began asking lots of questions. We were able to baptize Tim as a follower of Jesus last year. We are now humbled to truly call Tim family, even as he’s been living in our community for several years.

Church discipline struggles in individual-centric church, too. Church discipline has so little sting in the life of an unrepentant sinners because the original bite of church discipline was the exclusion from community. You could no longer be with people who loved you like family. The people who loved you regardless of where you came from and who loved you so much that wouldn’t let you keep on sinning. However, so many of our churches have so little community that we’ve lost almost all the intended impact of church discipline. Individuality robs us of the treasures (both comfortable and uncomfortable) of community.

Joseph Hellerman argues: “Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community.” We need each other in order to be transformed. And it is as we learn to accept being wronged instead of insisting on our own rights (1 Corinthians 6:7), when we learn the humble confidence of considering others more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3), when we learn to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:1-5), and as we strive to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) in front of and with those who don’t yet believe that we live as a city on a hill, as we “shine like lights in the world” in the midst of a “crooked and twisted generation (Philippians 2:15). Love, demonstrated in and through sacrificial, gospel-fueled community is the center of missional discipleship.

Brent Thomas (MDiv) and his wife Kristi live in Glendale, AZ with four biological sons and one foster child. Brent pastored in KY and TX before moving back to AZ to plant Church of the Cross which exists to make, mature, and multiply disciples through gospel, community, and mission. He sometimes writes at Holiday At The Sea and hosts house shows with The Habañero Collective.

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