Christ said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
An essential part of a Christian’s life, and therefore for the Church, is community. Authentic Community is community that seeks to resemble that of the early church described in Scripture. The fifth core value addressed in our study of core values for Providence Church is authentic community.
Six months ago, I read two books side-by-side that expressed the nature and need of community well: Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis; and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From these books I will attempt to define and describe authentic community.
Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community by Chester, Tim and Steve Timmis. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008.
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community by Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.
Chester and Timmis argue the importance of “gospel” and “community” in shaping the way we should “do church” (15). Their premise is that conservative evangelicals place their emphasis on the gospel, while others like the emergent church emphasize community. “We need Spirit-inspired imagination to reconfigure church and mission around the gospel word and the gospel community” (20).
To be an authentic gospel-community, the church must have leaders who rightly handle and apply God’s Word. “The gospel is a word; so the church must be word-centered” (32). Few Christians object to the need for being gospel-centered. “The problem is the gap between our rhetoric and the reality of our practice” (33).
Authentic community requires a church be about relationships that give Christlike shape to our lives. By looking at the doctrine of the Trinity, Chester and Timmis explain, “Divine personhood is defined in relational terms. The Father is the Father because he has a Son. God is persons-in-community. Human personhood, too, is defined in relational terms” (40). God intended for humanity, especially His church, to live in community. So many experience the demanding schedule of a church as a chore. “Church is not another ball for me to juggle, but that which defines who I am and gives Christlike shape to my life” (45).
Another helpful point of importance made by Chester and Timmis is the need for more emphasis on the day-to-day ordinary living with gospel intentionality. Projects, programs, and ministries are emphasized as necessities for faithful Christian living.
Some pastors even try to make Christians feel guilty for neglecting church sponsored programs or ministries for more ordinary-life events. This mentality poisons the understanding of the gospel in Christians’ lives. The gospel is of first importance, and Christian community is the natural expression of the gospel (97).
Chester and Timmis also rightly explain that the gospel is not limited to evangelism, but must also remain the central part of the Christian’s life (111-112). True discipleship requires gospel-centered relationships. The beauty of gospel and community is that when taken seriously, authentic relationships are formed that benefit everyone, and bond unlikely relationships, and prevent pharisaical and elitist social circles. Gospel-centered communities take effort, require grace, and lead to God-given unity.
This is nicely explained here, “G. K. Chesterton said, “The man who lives in a small community lives in a larger world…. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.” Community has been insightfully defined as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives! Responding to this, Philip Yancey says, “We often surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, thus forming a club or clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community” (113).
What about the children and youth? Chester and Timmis report that despite on-going investments by churches into youth and children ministries, “Young people walk out of the doors of churches in the UK each week, never to return, according to the 1998 English Church Attendance Survey” (181). Interestingly, the same is being determined by research in America.
They make the suggestion, “Integrating young people into the vibrant and diverse life of the gospel community is a key objective” (186). This will encourage and equip young people to be willing participants in the church community. This will also aid the evangelization of the young people. And this contributes to a healthy and balanced view of the community. Youth are not the church of tomorrow, they actually the church of today (186).
I also discovered some helpful thoughts from Life Together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a theologian, pastor, and an author. He is most notably known for his role as a central figure among Protestants against Nazism. The biblical insights shared in this book were written while he was under persecution, living in a communist country, and sharing life together with two dozen pastors in training. His central thesis was that believers have the privilege of living together among other Christians under the direction and precepts of God’s Word (17).
Bonhoeffer explained that at the crux of history, Jesus died on the Cross, utterly alone, deserted by his disciples, and surrounded by evildoers and mockers. “So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes” (17). By introducing the topic of community in this way, Bonhoeffer sets the proper context of what he believes the Bible teaches about community. “God’s people must dwell in far countries among the unbelievers, but it will be the seed of the Kingdom of God in all the world” (18). Authentic community is a counter-cultural community.
Furthermore, Bonhoeffer explains how through the gospel, God has always intended on gathering those he redeems (Zechariah 10:8, 9). Jesus Christ died on the cross, “that he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 11:52). “So,” Bonhoeffer explains, “between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians” (18). Through Christ, “Christians can live with one another in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one” (23-24).
As community relates to serving one another, Bonhoeffer explains that in biblical community, the week need the strong and the strong need the week (94). Some may be tempted to remove the weak, sometimes even unintentionally. However, “The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship” (94).
Authentic communities that are gospel-centered have all types of people in them, including the weak, all types of families, singles, and people you would not normally choose as friends. These communities are households of people who allow for gospel-centered relationship, and will be the aim of this new church.
In a world that is fragmented, broken, and left to isolation and individualism, the church operates as a counter-cultural community of togetherness comprised of great diversity but united in the gospel of Jesus Christ–our great common denominator. In Christ, we find our new identity and purpose, and through Christ, we love, serve, and give ourselves to one another and in doing so display to the world that we are indeed followers of Jesus Christ (John 13:34-35).