a buzzword. Every author and every speaker on the subject of church
in the postmodern world knows it. People are looking for community,
and consequently churches must offer community. Every church I have
seen in the past 5 years is focusing on "being a community."
I work for, Christian
Associates International, plants fresh churches in major cities
across Europe. These churches characterize themselves by focusing
heavily on, you guessed it: community. We recently did research
in London to study the possibility of starting a church there. A
friend of mine, a rather postmodern fellow, lives in London, and
I had contacted him about this idea. He liked most of what I wrote,
but he responded most violently at the idea that a church must be
a community. He was absolutely disgusted at the idea. In his understanding,
"being a community" was the last thing churches should aim for.
Before I go
on to explain my friend's reaction, it might be helpful to review
some of the apologetic reasons church leaders and planters have
become so focused on community-building:
1. People are
lonely. The breakdown of the social fabric of society leads to isolation
2. The activities
we spend most of our time (on working, shopping, eating) say nothing
about who we are, and they offer no sense of belonging.
thinking comes with its own form of existentialism, which says that
people cannot find significance unless they belong to a "tribe."
Modern existentialism preached that life had no intrinsic value;
therefore, value had to be created by the individual. In postmodern
existentialism, people still believe that life has no discernable
value of its own, but value is given to life by the stories that
are shared by the different tribes and communities we belong to.
Stories that give meaning and value to life are commonly called
meta-narratives, and they are shared by communities and tribes.
When we are not part of any community, our lives are devoid of meaning
Let me give
you an example: I play volleyball for a club called the Red Stars
(the name is presumptuous, trust me!). When I cross the boundary
lines and step onto the court at the start of the game, everything
that is "me" ceases to be important. It no longer matters that I
am married and a father of three, or that I work as a missionary
in Europe. It matters not whether I struggle with alcohol or if
I am rich or poor. All that matters is that I do whatever it takes
to not let that ball hit the floor on my side of the net and try
the hardest I can to get that ball on the floor on the opposite
side of the net. We Red Stars have a "story" that gives us significance
and morals: We are a team, we have history, and we are trying our
best (doggone it!) to get to the top of the league (fat chance).
Back to my point.
People who are not part of a community cannot participate in a story
that gives meaning to life. People need community, because without
it, they are stripped of significance and morals. There is a spiritual,
moral and psychological nakedness to a person who does not belong
to any community.
4. There is
one more reason why church leaders believe they should focus on
community: It's one thing they feel the church should be good at
SICK OF CHURCH
So why was my
friend so angry at the idea that a church would present itself as
being a wonderful community? It's probably best to let my friend
explain himself: "It isn't that I think these things aren't good
and desirable, but I feel that they're the last thing that the church
in England needs to aim for. This is the only thing that churches
in England have talked about for years." That is the heart of the
problem for my friend: We talk about community, but we do not offer
point is that we are making a mistake when we focus on community
and present community as something we are. In his mind (and I happen
to agree with him), we are putting the cart before the horse. Community
is not something to aim for; it is something that happens as a byproduct.
Says he: "I always felt that friendship, community and personal
development are the kinds of things that never happen when you aim
for them to happen, like aiming for happiness. They are the byproducts
of risk and struggle."
I'm afraid that
my friend is pointing out a rather silly mistake we all have made.
We thought that we could hang out a shingle and sell ourselves as
communities, when in fact we had no idea how to be communities.
Community, says my friend, is what you have on the other side of
crises, when you have weathered the storms together. Before that,
all you have is "a nice togetherness."
My friend presents
a different vision of community. It is one that instantly shows
me how cheap my own vision of community has been. I thought I could
organize small groups and the occasional potluck supper or game
in the park and I'd have community. I was wrong, and no one was
attracted to it. My friend, on the other hand, presents a vision
of friends who stand by each other through thick and thin, finding
on the other side that they have something more precious than gold.
Says my friend: "It's funny how soldiers who have fought together
in wars have unbreakable friendship and community."
Here's the point,
and I am spelling it out very clearly because it's incredibly important
that we get this: You cannot organize community. You only get it
by weathering the storms, going through the fire, standing tall
when all fall away, coming to your friend's defense when no one
else will, and being the last ones left when the fight is over.
That is a community
that is appealing!