Right from Genesis chapter 2, when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone,” the Bible makes it clear that we were made for community. Reflecting back on a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting ‘lockdowns’ and ‘distancing measures’, many of us have learned that a lack of community brings upon us a kind of stress and anxiety which we long to escape. Intuitively, we know that we were made for community.
We also know we are made for community because we are made in the image of God. God himself— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— shares community within himself, as he has and as he will, for all eternity. At the heart of the universe is a loving community which Jesus prays we will ultimately join: “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn 17:21)
The Bible provides us with a rich resource of wisdom and commentary on a wide range of relationships – husbands and wives, parents and children, close friends, not so close friends, governments, and even enemies. It doesn’t fill in all the details, but it does paint a picture of what our lives can look like when the love of God is accepted and then reciprocated – back to God, and into each other.
The Bible also doesn’t shy away from what can result when there is a refusal to accept or reciprocate that love. It gives us plenty of examples of what not to do, which is why some of the scripture makes for sad and often difficult reading. It never tries to paint a glossy, overly simplistic picture of our natural ability to do relationships well. Instead, the challenges – infidelity, family dysfunction, competition and conflict between friends and leaders – are included all in the messy detail.
And yet, fortunately, community is not limited to our social prowess or our ability to make our relationships work. The story of the gospel is that Jesus came and formed community with us. The Message puts it well in John 1: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” He lived among us and he modelled true community to us.
Love. Patience. Kindness. Faithfulness. All of these are necessary for healthy community; and they are fruits (working evidence) of the Spirit. But that doesn’t mean they are easy. Community can be hard: people are often unlovely. They hold us up. They let us down. They act in ways that are unpredictable and less than Christlike. Worse than that, they provoke us to act in ways that are unpredictable and less than Christlike! That’s humbling, even humiliating, at times.
Community is one of the greatest blessings and challenges of the gospel. If we are to grow, it will be together. It is not individuals, but rather the church united, that is called to incarnate Christ to the world. Our culture militates against this by insisting that we find our true humanness as consumers and celebrities and autonomous individuals. In the face of this, Jesus endorses our need for each other. More than that, he endorses Christian community as his Spirit-empowered agent in the world.
During this month of April, each week, we are going to give disciplined thought to living in Christian community.
Week One Exercise: Connecting
There’s a good chance you have hundreds of friends on Facebook or in your phone ‘Contacts’. But how many of these people do you really know? And how many really know you? It’s ironic that as communication gets easier, it can often become less meaningful. Studies of adults in western cultures during the past half century have recorded a significant drop in the average number of close confidantes we each have— from five in the 1950s, to two in the 2000s.
This week, we want to practice the art of connecting well with people. This will involve taking initiative; it will involve thoughtful conversation, careful listening, and a degree of vulnerability. Here are some suggestions to begin connecting:
- Write [even hand write!] a letter to a friend or loved one.
- Arrange a time to call a friend just to talk.
- Consider who among your contacts would most appreciate some encouragement– and then do it!
- If you are traveling this month, go out of your way to visit someone.
- Write a ‘thank you’ card to someone who would least expect it.
Week Two Exercise: Conversing
Conversing is essential to knowing and being known. It is the gradual sharing of ourselves with others. But is conversation a dying art? When we get together, we typically divide our time between interacting with each other and multiple forms of media or electronic devices. We watch movies but do not talk about them. We listen to music but do not share our responses to it. We plan social gatherings, but end up in night clubs or bars where conversation is mitigated by the noise or activity surrounding us.
In conversation, the most powerful communication happens through non-verbal means such as body language and tone of voice. Active and responsive listening is crucial. Take some time to consider you non-verbal communication skill levels.
Some ideas for fostering conversation this month:
- Host a dessert and coffee evening for a handful of friends, giving thought ahead of time to a series of conversation starters and topics.
- Have a movie night, but start early and discuss the movie afterwards.
- Plan an evening where each person brings along a favourite piece of music. Take time to listen together to each person’s chosen piece of music and discuss what makes it special.
- Read the Bible with friends and talk about what you have read.
- Practice asking good questions of others, and invite others to ask questions of you.
Week Three Exercise: Committing
As we have suggested elsewhere in this program this month, community takes time. It means we will have to turn up to be with one another— even when it’s inconvenient. Of course, we will practice social distancing, but relationship requires interaction!
Our culture values spontaneity and flexibility but this can sometimes mean we become lazy in planning our social interactions. Reserving time in advance to be together honours our relationship partner— planning prioritises that relationship over whatever alternatives may arise. There is an ‘opportunity cost’ to enjoying committed relationships. It means that sometimes, in order to grow a deeper committed relationship, you will have to say no to more exciting offers.
This month, take a blank piece of paper and ask yourself: Where are my most important relational and community connections? Make a list on one half of the paper. On the other half, list the places you are spending most of your time.
Reflect: How compatible are the two halves of your paper? Do you have some hard calls to make in order to see yourself develop some committed, costly relationships? How many meaningful relationships do you have capacity for? Which will you prioritise?
Week Four: Including
We all love that feeling of belonging to a community. Strangely, in churches, our enjoyment of belonging can seem like a barrier to those who feel on the outside. When our social needs are met we have no need to look further— so we don’t. This week, set aside some time— either alone or with your ‘tribe’— to consider who might feel excluded from your group. Although you have not intentionally sought to overlook them, they feel unable to ‘break in’ to your group because it seems so tight.
Jesus went out of his way to include the socially outcast or spiritually discredited. Mark’s gospel records: “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Mark 2:15-16) Are there any ‘tax collectors’ at your church? How might you include them in your community?