Broken families, broken relationships, and an epidemic of loneliness has created a ravenous hunger for community in this generation. But our flesh can seek our idea of community more than we seek Jesus. Our souls, it seems, are ready to settle for a sit-com style of friendship instead of striving for the spirit-led family of God purchased and created by his Son’s death and resurrection.
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the difference between spiritual community, true biblical unity, and emotional community. He identifies the common sin of loving the idea of community that we have invented in our minds more than we really love the community.
Those who want more than what Christ has established between us do not want Christian community. They are looking for some extraordinary experiences of community that were denied them elsewhere. . . . Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial…Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.
6 Misunderstandings About Community
Our desire and attempts at filling our need for community has clouded our understanding of community itself. As I help folks start and grow gospel-centered communities in Portland, I have come to notice a consistent stream of misunderstandings and false expectations. Though we desire it, we have forgotten what it means to be the people of God in daily life. Here are the top six misunderstandings I have encountered as we have started communities throughout inner Portland.
1. Community Is Not “Everyone is My Best Friend”
If you have one intimate friend (usually a spouse) you are blessed. Many people come into a church or small group with the expectation that everyone will be their best friend. Those unrealistic expectations are selfish and harmful to community. Come into community with one goal—to serve.
2. Community is Not A Spiritual/Morality Club
You don’t pay membership dues to get into community. Jesus has already done that. It isn’t a group of generally moral people trying to do good for others. No, community is a made of people who were dead in their sin, but who God raised to new life with Christ. The good we do is with humility and an understanding of grace.
3. Community is Not A Book Club
Scripture is vital to Christian community. We devour the words of God and look to understand the character and actions of God in the Bible. But Christian community cannot be reduced to simply a reading and understanding of the Bible. Christian community practices and obeys Scripture. That happens in real life and in real time.
4. Community is Not A Meeting or Event.
You might find community present in a meeting or an organization but those things can never create it. Vibrant community happens when people invest in one another outside of formal gatherings. It is not a time, building, or place; it is a people, family, and movement. Don’t settle for a two hour meeting in a living room as “community.” Allow that meeting to spill over into daily life. Share meals, call one another, bless each other, and try to make disciples.
5. Community is Not Easy
In Matthew 10, as Jesus sent his disciples out to do his works, he didn’t say: “Now be nice to each other and you’ll see the sick healed and demons flee and hearts transformed.” He said “Don’t go alone; be careful! I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves, expect to be imprisoned, expect persecution, expect to stand before politicians and princes, expect to be rejected by brothers and fathers, expect strife, but stand firm to the end because my Father will give you everything you need!” (personal paraphrase). Paul, Peter, and James all say we should expect it to be hard. Paul tells us that we will be tempted to blame each other but to remember, you’re fighting sin not each other (Eph 6).
If we want unity it won’t feel like unity most of the time. Often we will feel like we’re barely hanging on to each other. Real unity, real community comes at a great price. We surrender our “rights” for the sake of Christ and one another. We come together on a journey of dying to ourselves and living to Christ, and that is hard. Furthermore real community requires forgiveness, and reconciliation in a society that prefers to quit and ditch relationships as soon as we begin to hurt each other. In gospel-centered community, we rely on God’s grace, mercy, and love for us to confront the hurts and sin in each others’ lives. We forgive because God forgives. We reconcile because he made us agents of reconciliation. We love those in our community, because we are adopted brothers and sisters in Christ.
6. Community is Not “Everyone Gets Along”
If you ask most Christians what unity is their first response has to do with everyone getting along and just “loving each other.” But Jesus doesn’t root our unity in some feel-good idea of everyone getting along and being sweet to each other. Jesus roots our unity in himself, his Spirit and what God has done in all us. Our unity comes from our common Rescuer and Lord.
The Bible assumes we’ll have lots of conflict, so the Scriptures constantly remind us about the basis of our unity and gives us practical tools like repentance and forgiveness, for walking it out. Paul didn’t sit around and ask the Holy Spirit, “What esoteric thing do you want me to write about today?” Instead, Paul wrote to churches to respond to the things they were going through and frequently wrote about practical ways for these churches to keep pursuing unity. Many of Paul’s letters address very specific things attempting to divide the church. Every one of Jesus’ messages to the churches in Revelation deals with something trying to divide them.
You show me a family that doesn’t fight and I’ll show you a family that is just coexisting or is under the rule of a tyrant. Healthy relationships are hard and there’s always conflict. We’re sinful, selfish human beings living in a sin-filled world. Our only hope in these conflicts is the gospel of grace.
7 Elements for Gospel-Centered Community
Gospel-centered communities are groups of people that love to include Jesus in everything they do. It never feels forced, but a meal with friends often drifts towards conversation about the person and life of Jesus. If community can be characterized by anything, it will be characterized by who Jesus is and what he has done for us. His life, work, and character is woven into the language and practice of every authentic expression of community. The good news of Jesus is what makes the community, builds it, and motivates it.
There are many signs that a community is built on the foundation of the gospel. As we labored to start multiple communities in Portland, the healthy and thriving ones always have these characteristics and qualities. These are not seven easy steps or a how-to. In fact, the how-to is to make the gospel central and to pray in dependance for God to do his work. These are the consistent elements I see expressed when communities are established in the gospel. They are also the seven elements that war against our own selfish desires for independence.
1. Generous Hospitality.
In Matthew 25 Jesus describes his spirit of hospitality, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” Authentic community involves lots of food! It involves taking the time and space to incorporate others in your life. This is often found at the kitchen table and this is nothing new. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was often on his way to a meal, coming from a meal, or at a meal. Authentic communities are regularly sharing meals with one another and those outside the community. Their generous hospitality is noticeable from the outside and others desire it.
2. Influence Earned by Serving
You know you have found gospel-centered community when you find selfless giving and constant blessing toward each other and those outside the church. Jesus told us the world will know us by our “love for one another.” It’s true. When Jesus is the center, community is characterized by humble service to Jesus as Lord and King.
3. Accountable and Repentant
Community will bring everything into the light. By that I mean, we are honest with who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going. It means the community will not let us live a lie or false identity. The Scriptures, truth of the gospel, and the Holy Spirit will convict us of sin and unbelief in gracious and merciful ways. In repentance, communities return to the gospel and are reminded of their identity in Christ.
4. Led by qualified leaders.
Christian community has leadership. The leaders carry the tremendous weight of caring for the believers, and equipping the body for service and mission. You will know you are in the community when the leaders are the servants among the community who are training and releasing everyone else into the world. They will be characterized by humility, hospitality, faithfulness, self-control, prayer, and belief in the gospel.
5. On Mission
Any expression of gospel-centered community will be on mission seeking the good of their neighborhood, nation, and globe. Make no mistake about it, the mission is making disciples. Jesus-centered community proclaims the hope and truth of the gospel to the lost and broken. The presence of Jesus Christ is the most attractive thing to the human heart—and the presence of Jesus is found in its most potent form in a group of people that love him and love each other well. This is what Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Community grows and multiplies. Gospel-centered communities send their best people out into new areas of mission and service. However, life is added to community, not subtracted. It has been like this from the very beginning. The command was to spread and be witnesses of Jesus from “Jerusalem to Samaria to Judea to the ends of the earth.” And it did. In a world without Twitter, YouTube, satellites, or pamphlets churches sprung up in houses and temples in three continents in only a few years. Your Jesus-centered community has the same potential and calling.
6. Active in Culture
Christian community will be in the public square where goods and ideas are exchanged. Their activity will be defined by love, grace, and truth. They will have jobs, create art, and seek the good of their city through social justice. They will do these things, not from a point of power and greed, but from a point of service and empowerment by the Spirit.
It will be made up of rich and poor, men and women, young and old, black and white, immigrant and native, married and single. You will welcome everyone and you won’t be made up of “people like me” and “at my stage of life.” Instead you embrace those who are different from you. There will be no way to describe you other than to say, “Christian Community.” Christianity is unlike any other religion, even in its inception it was completely diverse. Up to that point in history religion was connected to race, status, and origin. In fact, your outside differences will tell the story of God’s work to create you into a people.
Story of Community
I met Mark (name changed) at a poker game. It was a mishmash of people and he was obviously nervous to be around so many new folks. He was an introvert like me and we connected. He was going to law school and was the smartest guy in the room. The next time we hung out, he was eating dinner at my house. Our missional community was getting together for a meal and sharing stories of what God had done in our lives. He had just heard the gospel from the guy who hosted the poker game and he was beginning to make sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The next day we shoveled fertilizer together at the elementary school as part of a neighborhood wide clean-up project. He wanted to know how to pray to Jesus. Mark was part of our community and began spending lots of life with us. I baptized him a year ago. As we spend time together and grew in understanding of the gospel, he shared that he came to our city as a refugee, not as a student. He was running from home and the destructive life he had there. As he read the parable of the prodigal son, he couldn’t help but identify with him. “I messed so much stuff up,” he would say. At the age of twelve, he gave his life to drugs. It truly stole his life. No friends, no community, and ultimately his family gave up on him. Yet, at 26, Mark was a new man in Jesus. His words to our church before he was baptized, “Before Christ I was headed no where, I didn’t have any friends and did a bunch of bad stuff. Now I have a community and a life to live.” Three months later, he took an internship at an Indian reservation in another state seven hours away. He took a stack of books and planned to finish reading the Bible (he read two thirds of it in his first months following Jesus). We prayed for him and talked as often as we could and were planning on having several of the guys in the community taking a weekend trip to hang out with him.
At 11:00 pm on the fourth of July, we got a phone call from Mark. He was in trouble and we left immediately. It was the longest seven hour drive of our lives as we tried to piece together the short and chaotic phone calls we had with Mark in the early hours of the morning. We couldn’t figure out if he was in real danger or hallucinating. There was a stretch of four hours when we heard nothing from him. As we pulled into the town we found him surrounded by three police cars in a diner parking lot. He had spent the night outside running from terrifying and accusative hallucinations. He was barefoot and his pajamas were torn to pieces. His hands and feet were scarred and bleeding. But he was alive and he recognized us. The police allowed us to take him into our care. We cleaned him up, packed his bags, cleaned up his apartment, and brought him home. The coming days and weeks were hard, but he had a community around him who gave him a place to stay, took him to the hospital, fed him, and spoke the truth of resurrection to him. We paid his debts for him and cared for his heart. Mark’s words when he was baptized were true, “Before Christ I was headed no where, I didn’t have any friends and did a bunch of bad stuff. Now I have a community and a life to live.”
Love for the Church
If you are a leader, I pray you will be known for you love of the community of God and that you will excel at pointing to God’s love for it. Don’t allow cultural expectations and the idolatry of community to take your eyes of the gospel. Keep the gospel primary and never stray from it. Pursue community that is unashamedly centered on Jesus.
Brad Watson serves as a pastor of Bread & Wine Communities in Portland, Oregon. He is a board member of GCDiscipleship.com and co-author of Raised? and Called Together. His greatest passion is to encourage and equip leaders for the mission of making disciples. Twitter: @BradAWatson