Is it possible?
I spend a lot of time banging the drum for community. I also spend a lot of time critiquing (or bashing depending on your point of view) the traditional church.
I am a big boy and it doesn't take a seer to realize that the percentage of Christians in traditional churches is overwhelming. Is it 100%? Of course not but is it 95%? 90%? Quite possibly (note, I am not saying that 95% of people in traditional churches are Christians but that perhaps 95% of all Christians, at least in America, gather in traditional churches)
So how can believers who gather in traditional churches experience real community?
While recognizing that the traditional model of the gathering of the church is far and away the most common, I also recognize that this very common cultural icon makes it difficult to enjoy real, intimate, dare I say Biblical community. I count where we gather as a family in this camp even though we don’t have some of the traditional barriers to community. Creating community is more than eliminating some of the trappings of traditional Christianity but instead involves a conscious and intentional decision to cultivate the reality of what God has created among us.
First and foremost I understand that we cannot create community. The community of God’s people as an adoptive surrogate family, what Joseph Hellerman calls familification, is created by God and cannot be forced. I do believe that there are ways we can help foster community so that our relational reality matches our positional reality. In other words, while God creates the surrogate family through regeneration, there are certainly ways we can hamper community and conversely ways we can encourage community. I am not going to rehash the ways we diminish community, although that is an important topic because if we are aware of ways we hamper community and try to avoid them, community will more naturally occur. I am also operating under a precarious assumption of orthodoxy. I say precarious because it is certainly the case that there are lots of people who talk about community and fellowship while holding heterodox beliefs. Any community that does not have at the center a right understanding of who Jesus Christ is and what His work accomplished is many things but Christian community is not one of them.
Creating real community in a traditional church setting is something that has to go beyond Sunday morning “worship services” and organizing a couple of small group Bible studies. That might be a result of community but it will not foster community. It is a “chicken and egg” question that requires an understanding that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, not unified nor divided by doctrinal statements but unified with one another in Christ.
Here are some ideas I have come up with
a) Unity in Christ precedes community and supersedes doctrinal distinctives. Instead of starting with the things that divide us and working our way down until we get to common ground, our unity in Christ must be our starting point. We cannot have Biblical community if we demand doctrinal homogeneity as the entry fee. I am not suggesting that we expand the circle to include people who are rank heretics or who are in unrepentant sin but disagreements over most of what we quibble about, while interesting and important, ought not be dividers that curtail unity. How much community have we lost over the years, how many wonderful relationships have we missed out on because someone had a different view of the end-times?
b) Rethinking the purpose of the gathering. Rather than a primarily evangelistic effort where people thought to be unbelievers are invited to hear a sermon, the primary purpose of the gathering of the church is…the gathering of the church. That doesn’t mean that we bar unbelievers but it does mean that we shouldn’t lose sight that the focus of the church gathering is God’s people gathered together in community. The witness of Christian community can and should be a springboard to proclaiming the Gospel.
c) This will require Christians who are equipped and excited to share their faith with others. That is a dramatic change in mindset, from “evangelizing by inviting” to sharing your faith with someone directly. Too many Christians are unwilling to share their faith because they have not been equipped to do so even after a lifetime in the church and because they don’t see it as something they can or should do.
d) Community in a traditional church setting means spending time together outside of Sunday morning and Wednesday evening (and budget meetings don’t count!). We have trained Christians to not expect or seek fellowship outside of the scheduled meeting times and given the nature of those meetings it is nearly impossible to see community form within the restrictive boundaries of traditional church life. There is simply no substitute for time and if someone thinks that spending even more time with the church is inconvenient, they need to check their priorities because something is out of whack.
e) Spend time in edification that explores the Biblical meaning of the church as family and community. I am talking about in-depth studies of the language Luke uses in Acts, that Paul uses in his epistles and most of all the way Christ speaks about His people. Teaching that reinforces the traditional view of the church as hierarchical, church officer driven and focused on finances, programs and secondary doctrines is not going to help people see the need for and the potential of Christian community.
These are some ideas I had and it is a pretty limited list. For those who read this and are in a more traditional church setting, what (if anything) are you doing as the church or do you think you should be doing as the church to remove impediments to community and help create an environment where community can flourish? Or do you think there is not a problem, that the traditional model of the church provides a Biblical expression of community? I am interested in hearing your ideas.