In March 2017, PBS NewsHour interviewed Casper ter Kuile, an irreligious researcher from Harvard Divinity School about how Millennials are interested in spiritual matters, but not in traditional religious community settings. Casper says that Millennials are disregarding traditional religious congregations because they “don’t appeal to him,” and that he’s not alone—a high percentage of Millennials are doing the same. Casper says that he has found “countless examples” of Millennials finding new ways to create community that fulfill the same functions a religious community has, but without the religion. Some examples he lists are CrossFit, Afro Flow Yoga, and simply sharing a meal together. He says, “You may dismiss these communities as simple entertainment, but we’re convinced that this is the new face of religious life in America.”
Casper’s right. His equation of a local church and CrossFit or yoga is unfortunate and inaccurate from our evangelical perspective, but in the eyes of many Millennials, finding community in a Sunday morning “Afro Flow Yoga” class is not really all that different from finding community in a local evangelical church—in fact, from their perspective, it’s better because their yoga friends don’t judge people like they believe a local evangelical church or other religious community would.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COMMUNITY AND GOSPEL-CENTERED COMMUNITY
For many Millennials, community alone, even if that community is built upon the superficial foundations of workouts or meals, is what provides the transcendent experience their souls so desperately seek.
For many Millennials, the community is the end in itself. The feeling of “belonging to something greater” is simply derived from hanging out with more than one person. “Greater” is almost used as a quantitative term, not a qualitative one. Even at it’s best, non-Christian Millennial community does community service work that might be “something greater” but is ultimately temporary.
For Christians, community is not the end itself. The feeling of “belonging to something greater” is actually derived from belonging to something greater, something better, something eternal. Unfortunately, what irreligious Millennials do not understand is that communities built around yoga mats or dinner tables cannot parallel Christian communities because, while they may look similar, their foundations are different—their reasons for meeting are different.
The foundation for an irreligious Millennial community is the shared interests in food or workout regimen. The foundation of an evangelical Millennial community is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this community simply works itself out around dinner tables or church buildings. Millennials have their problems, and it’s fair to call them out on those. But when it comes to how they want to do church, Millennials’ preferences align with much of what we see in the New Testament. Just two examples are Acts 2 and Galatians 6. In both chapters, the local church functions more like a loving family than a rigid institution. Acts 2 shows us what it looks like when a church is drawn to repentance and generous giving so that the church might be unified in its pursuit of Jesus. Galatians 6 encourages Christians to bear one another’s burdens and to persist in doing good for the benefit of those who are in the faith.
So what does gospel-centered community look like? Gospel-centered community is built on the gospel (duh), but the gospel is a complex reality that has multiple facets and countless implications.
2 FOUNDATIONS OF GOSPEL-CENTERED COMMUNITY
First, gospel-centered community is built on sacrifice. The heart of the gospel is sacrifice. The good news is that Christ gave himself up for the sins of the world. Jesus Christ lived the perfect life we can’t live and died the horrible death we should have died so that, by his sacrifice, we can live with God forever. What does this sacrifice look in our church community, though? Does it mean we should be giving our lives for people? Possibly, but obviously that’s not very common.
Gospel-centered community requires us to sacrifice our time, our money, our emotions, our homes, our hobbies, and a host of other things we might rather keep to ourselves.
Gospel-centered community looks like sacrificing your time on a Saturday to help someone in your small group move, taking up money to help pay for a car for a single mother in the church, or hosting a missionary on furlough for a couple of months. All of this sounds uncomfortable, and that’s because gospel-centered community does not make comfort a high priority. Gospel-centered community, being built on the gospel, is characterized by the sacrificial love that members of the community have for one another, not by the toleration of selfishly maintaining personal comfort.
Gospel-centered community is not natural for many of us because our sinful hearts prevent us from wanting to care about others more than ourselves. We must rely on the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit to empower us to maintain the selfless, sacrificial love for others that gospel-centered community requires. This is no easy feat, and it requires much prayer.
Second, gospel-centered community is built on unconditional love. Next to sacrifice, nothing is more central to the gospel than love. Really, they are quite related. The unconditional love of God is what ultimately led him to sacrifice his Son to pay for the sins of the world. This love is unconditional because it is not based upon who we are or what we do. In the same way, as we think about gospel-centered community and what it might look like in our churches, gospel-centered community does not love conditionally. Our love for those in our church or in our small group must not be based upon what others can do for us. Our love for those in our church or small group must be based upon what Christ has done for us and for them. This sort of unconditional love means we cannot be content with each other discovering our “own truth” or doing whatever we think may be right. This sort of unconditional love requires us to spur one another on to holiness (Hebrews 10:24). We must love one another so deeply that we grieve when we see a brother or sister in Christ run astray the gospel.
It’s pretty clear how we show this love to others: we love people no matter who they are or how they might be different from us. Furthermore, unconditional love must withstand disputes and fights within the church community. The church is made up of a bunch of sinners, and the sin that involuntarily oozes out of our mouths and our hands will inevitably burn others like a sort of radioactive acid. When such filth and pain accompanies Christian community, the temptation is to bail on the local church. We must not do this.
Christ died on the cross for the people spitting at him and the people praying for him. We ought to love our community enough to endure the sins of the community. Christ loved us enough to save us from our sin by dying on a cross constructed in sin. We ought to love each other enough to forgive and love as he has.
If we are to benefit from the sacrificial love of gospel-centered community, we must also love sacrificially for the sake of our community. This can be burdensome. Sacrificial love is rarely easy—after all, it is sacrificial. But, by the grace of God, sacrificial love brings joy in its wake. Loving others as Christ has loved us is a worshipful, God-glorifying experience.
Chris Martin was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He earned his undergraduate degree in Biblical Literature from Taylor University in 2013 and his Master of Divinity degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2017. He started blogging when he was in the eighth grade and he continues to write online through various outlets today. He works at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, TN and lives outside Nashville with his wife, Susie, and their dog, Rizzo.