And if you listen closely over the roar of the single chord, you can hear the vibration of other piano strings. As sound waves from the original strings move out into space, other strings respond in kind. The original vibrating strings encourage the previously silent strings. Notes that weren’t originally played are now joining in with the beginnings of their own sounds.
There exists no chord that sounds alone‚ every chord sounds together. The original strings, a chord, needed to respond together in order for other strings to join in. In fact, the strings responding together had no other option. Individual notes come together to create a unique voice out of their union.
There is also no chord that only sounds to itself. A chord by its very nature resounds outward and can’t help but reverberate sound to the outside. It has to respond to itself, and must move into the silence of the outside world.
This musical analogy is instructive for our view of the church. Are we called to equip the saints or preach to the lost? Are we supposed to love Christians or love those who are not yet Christians? Should we primarily be focused on community or on mission? The harmonic vibration of a single chord can instruct for our ear for the community mission of discipleship. That’s where these larger theological ideas hit the noise and silence of real life.
At the end of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, the seemingly polar aims of mission and community are brought together. It’s really an amazing chapter in the Bible. Christ is praying to the Father on our behalf, and we can listen in. Let’s look closely at John 17:20-24. It is here Jesus teaches that we are individually sought out by him, called to his community, and this community is defined as harmonizing in his mission.
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. – John 17:20-24
Christ is praying for us as individuals. He is praying on behalf of the disciples (“these only”) and for believers today (“those who will believe in me through their word”). He says in v. 22 that the glory which comes from the Father is given to us.
In v. 24, Christ prays that we may be with him where he is. Christ calls us out from worshiping things that will never satisfy, gathering us into the Trinity where we find ourselves made whole.
In these verses, Christ himself is our resounding note. He is actually being recorded here petitioning the Father for us individually. The mission of God isn’t merely something designed for the unreached world. More than that, it is what comes to us: we are made the benefactors of his grand mission. Those who are reconciled to the Father through Jesus are the resounding piano strings, now having the freedom to sound in response to our Composer’s hands.
Now if this were the end of the story, we would have much to celebrate. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. For what purpose is he pursuing us? He pursues us to be part of His new community.
The Chord of the Gospel
The result of Christ’s pursuit is that we may all be one, just as God the Father was in Christ, and Christ in the Father, we can find life in the community of our Redeemer. Being pursued individually by Christ, Christians are called to be unified with each other, modeling the closeness found in the Trinity. This seems impossible, but isn’t it what our souls long for?
Our communities of faith here on earth, though not perfect, are designed to resound with the perfect chord of the Trinity. Because we’re made in the image of the relational God, we ourselves are relational beings. Verse 22 reiterates this when it speaks of the glory that God the Father has given Christ and that Christ has in turn given to us.
There is an intimacy that believers ought to have with each other, but even more than that, we are called to this type of union with God Himself. Those reconciled to God through Christ are found in the Trinity, creating a harmonious chord unified with themselves and with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Is this the end goal of our community? Even this by itself seems too good to be true, but Jesus isn’t quite finished. Though perfect union with each other and with the Trinity sounds like completion, Christ keeps on. Being called into His community means we are part of God’s mission in the world.
The purpose of our unity in v. 21 is “that the world may believe that you [the Father] have sent me [Christ].” And v. 23 teaches that one of the ends of this community is that the outside world will understand that the Father sent the Son and that the Father loves those who are found in Christ just as he loves Christ.
Being part of God’s community means we’re part of his mission. God’s community is one that is defined as participating in his mission. There is no other. And this isn’t some kind of shallow showing, either. Our communities of unity are supposed to illustrate deep Trinitarian truths: the Father sent the Son, and the Father loves us as much as He loves the Son. How can this happen if we don’t find ourselves in his community, if we are not also in this mission? Christ leads us away from our version of mission, how the world should work, and places us on the path of submission to the God who makes all things new.
In Christ’s high priestly prayer, he calls us out from our own idols, out from the façades of community that we’ve constructed, out from our own small diverging missions, and into the Trinitarian chorus where our satisfaction, relational needs, and purpose are found. This is the mission of God.
You might often hear, or have said yourself, that mission inhibits community. Or that community inhibits mission. Each camp has their reasons for digging in. But John 17 says that neither of these camps do either well. Our community is not just for us. Our community is not just for others.
Mission without community can create shallow relationships through individualism (not being saved to God’s community), or a trite moralism (you can do it yourself, you just need to be strong), and ultimately a weak faith because we need community to equip and mature us.
Community without mission creates a clique, like stumbling into a dinner with an inhospitable family. Focusing only on mission can create a shallow relationships through institutionalism (“we” have it right, “they” don’t). Strict, unbiblical lines are often drawn between who has it and who doesn’t. Community without mission can lead down the slippery slope to a trite moralism (God came to us because we did it…whatever “it” might be). And it ultimately creates a weak faith. We need mission to grow us.
Encouraging shallow individualism creates dehumanized factories and encouraging shallow institutionalism creates Christian ghettos. Neither offer the hope found in the gospel.
The majority of us are already involved in things that can incorporate believers and those yet to believe into our lives. What do you already like to do? What gifts or passions of yours are you already doing?
Do you enjoy playing basketball? Take a few Christian friends and join up in a local recreational team, or go out together for pick up games. Let people on your team and the opposing team see what Christian community can look like. You’ll find out soon enough that you will be challenged to grow as much, if not more, than other people will.
Who doesn’t enjoy eating? Invite Christian friends and unbelieving neighbors and give them a chance to see what hospitality and fellowship looks like. When our messy lives intertwine with those of our neighbors, we begin to understand what it means to rely on the Spirit.
Personally, I enjoy creating and talking about making stuff with other artists. I could limit myself to only working with or talking to other artists who are Christians. I could also limit myself to only talking to unbelievers about all things art related. Believe me, either would make things easier at times! But God calls me to more than that. He calls me to involved myself in him, in his community, and in his mission. It is through these ordinary ways of living that God often makes himself known.
Is mission incompatible with community or vice versa? Just as a chord sounds within and without, mission and community cannot be separated. And through Jesus’ teaching we find that they are not opposed to each other, but are integrally connected. We have our community because God has his mission. And now we get to be a part of that same mission that sought and seeks us out. Being “on mission” means being in community, and God’s community is one that is participating in his mission to make all things new.
Christ sought us out from our own nasty melodies and gave us a new song. He brought us into his community, the harmony found in his chord, and he conducts us in his mission, a symphony of life being played out over the world, celestial music.
God did this so that he may be glorified in all things. God’s mission is for his glory to resound over the entire world, with all its spaces and gaps where we don’t believe it can reverberate, with all its dark corridors of emptiness and vacant pits of discord. In all places to all people, God’s song of salvation is ringing to those who have ears to hear, to us and to the world.
For a more in-depth discussion of authentically living out mission and community, check out Jonathan Dodson’s Unbelievable Gospel.
For free articles on blending gospel-centered mission and community in the your everyday life, read: Winfield Bevin’s Living the Mission, Timothy Keller’s The Call to Discipleship, and Seth McBee’s A Story of Gospel Community.