Sometimes when I’m helping people find a small group, I feel like I’m taking down their Starbucks order. Instead of a grande iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk, they want their community to be available at this particular day and time, to consist of this particular demographic, and have this particular focus or component as part of the group’s meetings.
What Do You Mean by Community?
On one hand, I totally get it. Working with our church’s Singles 20s/30s Ministry, I regularly meet young professionals who move to Birmingham not knowing anyone and who are looking for godly friends or like-minded people to hang out with on the weekends, people who get what it’s like to be this age and at this life-stage. I also know several young married couples who didn’t grow up with godly parents, and they want to be in groups with mentors, that is, older married couples who can provide a model and advice on how to be a godly spouse and parent.
Based on questions I get about small groups, people are looking for everything from a book club to a “missional community” to a surrogate family, and each person’s idea and expectations of community are different. And sometimes, I encounter people who don’t know what they want. They’re still working their way through the Starbucks menu of churches or groups, trying to figure out what they like, so they date the church or float from small group to small group, waiting for something to jump out at them and be “it.” It’s like a bride who doesn’t know what sort of wedding dress she wants, so she keeps trying on dresses, hoping for the magical moment when she puts on a dress and just “knows” that it’s “the one.”
Community in the Church
While there is a place for homogenous communities when it comes to friends and to small groups (same gender, same life stage, same age range, etc.), the church is heterogeneous. It’s not Starbucks or that perfect wedding dress. The reality is, you can’t order a community—any collection of sinners—to your exact liking and dimensions. In a letter to Mary Van Deusen in 1950, C. S. Lewis wrote,
For the Church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities but the Body of Christ in which all members however different (and He rejoices in their differences and by no means wishes to iron them out) must share the common life, complementing and helping and receiving one another precisely by their differences.
As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 12:12, we are members of one another. We are all different parts of the same body, and because we are different, we are able to complement and help each other. When we are all doing our part and contributing to the body, we enable the body to grow (Eph 4:16). So, what does it look like for a community of Christians to actually do this?
Why Should We Care?
At the beginning of each school year, I take time in my small group to cast or recast vision of the group’s purpose. Why are we gathering together? What is our purpose? What is our goal? How is what we do in and through our group contributing to that goal and purpose? By doing this, I’m providing clarity about our community, and by choosing to remain in our group, the group members are committing to each other and to this vision.
Big picture: the Great Commandment and the Great Commission provide direction—the focus of community—for us as believers.
The Great Commandment: “’Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’” And he said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt 22:36–39)
The Great Commission: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matt 28:18–20)
The Day-to-Day of Community
The Bible also specifies how Christians are supposed to interact with each other. On a practical level, the one-another statements in Scripture teach us how to be this community that loves the Lord, loves our neighbors, and makes disciples. These “one anothers” are how the big picture plays out on a daily basis:
- Accept one another (Rom 15:7)
- Admonish one another (Col 3:16)
- Devotion to one another (Rom 12:10)
- Honesty with one another (Col 3:9)
- Kindness and compassion to one another (Eph 4:32)
- Be of the same mind with one another (Rom 12:16)
- Bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2)
- Bear with one another (Eph 4:2)
- Build up one another (1 Thess 5:11)
- Care for one another (1 Cor 12:25)
- Comfort one another (1 Thess 4:18)
- Confess sins to one another (Jas 5:16)
- Encourage one another (1 Thess 5:11)
- Exhort one another (Heb 3:13)
- Fellowship with one another (1 Jn 1:7)
- Forgive one another (Eph 4:32)
- Greet one another (2 Cor 13:12)
- Honor one another above yourselves (Rom 12:10)
- Instruct one another (Rom 15:14)
- Love one another (Jn 13:34; Rom 13:8)
- Offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet 4:9)
- Pray for one another (Jas 5:16)
- Pursue peace and build up one another (Rom 14:19)
- Serve one another (Gal 5:13)
- Spur on one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24)
- Submit to one another (Eph 5:21)
Obeying the one anothers is how we foster biblical community. It is the New Testament model for what it looks like to be the church, and only “when each part is working properly” does the “body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:16). Each part––each Christ-follower–– must contribute. As we strive to obey God’s commands, we must also keep in mind that community (in and of itself) is not the ultimate goal for Christians, but it does occur when we as believers come alongside each other to glorify God and to make disciples (a.k.a. the Great Commandment and the Great Commission).
A Gift from God
God designed His people to gather faithfully and to connect meaningfully in the context of the local church. This community is a good gift from God, but it is also one that we each cultivate by our commitment and contributions. While it probably won’t look like your preferred Starbucks order or that ideal wedding dress, God intends for His people to care for one another and help each other mature spiritually and, in doing these things, to stand as a compelling example of community to an unsaved world.