In the 1979 film Being There, Peter Sellers’ character, Chance—a man who is not too bright—rises to power and prominence in Washington, D.C. by repeatedly being in the right place at the right time.
Despite his lack of conscious effort, everything goes brilliantly for him.
I suspect that many Christians (whether they are aware of it or not) think about community in the same way.
We assume that if we go to the right places at the right times—church and its attendant functions—then we will automatically be “in community.”
One could argue that membership in a church does indeed make you part of a community, no further discussion necessary.
But rather than accept this statement as a given, I would like to take a closer look at what the call to community actually means in practice with a few passages from scripture and Dustin Willis’ new book, Life in Community: Joining Together to Display the Gospel.
There are many key verses about community in the New Testament that are probably familiar to you.
- “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
- “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16a).
- “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9).
These and other verses show us the ideal Christian community, and we’ve heard them so many times we don’t think twice about them. However, a question remains.
Do our lives actually look like this?
Responses will vary, but one thing is certain: real community cannot arise from just going to church once a week. Willis writes:
Church attendance alone will never be enough. Another class on biblical theology will not solve the problem. Sharing a building for one hour each Sunday cannot forge community… It takes more.
While church functions – worship services, small groups, volunteer and service projects – are good in themselves, a group of Christians whose interactions are limited to such gatherings would be better characterized as an “association” than a “community” because there is not as much scope for deep personal connection, as Willis recognizes:
Often when I speak of community, I find that people believe they are already walking in healthy community. But as I ask them to dig deeper, I find that they have a set time and place (often on Sunday) when they meet together, but they are not by any means digging beyond the surface into the matters of the heart.
So what does true community look like? Willis recounts the story of Don, a man in his congregation who struggled with drug addiction, and how other men in the church helped Don:
Living out gospel-centered community is not convenient. These men had families and full-time jobs, yet they would call Don daily, share meals with him regularly, have him into their homes weekly, encourage him constantly, and lovingly confront him when necessary. This was not a Sunday activity that took place for an hour and ended with a prayer and a song. Community is more than a Sunday [emphasis added].
What do these concrete actions all have in common?
They are frequent, inconvenient, and take place outside of an official church setting.
The church’s business of worship, teaching, and service is well accommodated within official designated gatherings, but the richest depths of community will probably not be realized without the initiative of church-goers striving to become a congregation—in the plain, literal sense of a gathering of people—all of the time instead of just once a week. Willis says it well:
We will not accomplish this challenge in a church building for one hour on a Sunday morning. It requires far more than that. Biblical community happens “out there”—in the places where you and I do life every day.
I do not say these things as one who has avoided the problems of limited community.
Far from it, I have experienced loneliness even in the midst of “getting involved” through church attendance, helping out with worship, and joining a small group.
I write this in the hope that people will read Willis’ outstanding work on the subject, think about the state of their communities and, if need be, move to realize the deep fellowship that characterizes true Christian community.