“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” - Psalm 133:1
A few weeks ago, we had our first Community Group of the fall semester, and like every good Christian group in America, it was a potluck dinner. As the night was winding down, I ended up in a side conversation with some other group members about the nature of true Christian community in contrast to just having friendships with other people who are Christians. Is there a difference?
If we are really honest, do we actually have true biblical community, or do we just want to be friends with people like us so we can conveniently call it “community” because we’re all Christians?
Later that night, still thinking about this conversation, I picked up a book off my shelf called “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonheoffer (10/10 would recommend). I initially read it several years ago in a small group setting, unpacking what it looks like to truly live in Christian community as Scripture defines it. I remember it changing my perspective in several areas including how I practically and prayerfully approach community and what the real purpose of it is.
As our Community Groups get started again this fall, I want to share a couple of overarching themes from the first chapter of the book, appropriately titled, “Community.” I hope it will help answer the questions I posed above.
1) Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ. We belong to one another ONLY through and in Jesus Christ. We are all dependent on Jesus alone for our righteousness, salvation, acceptance, identity, etc. We are not looking for these things in ourselves or from others. We have submitted ourselves individually to the Word of Christ. Now we have the charge, opportunity, and joy to bring that message of salvation into our Christian community and speak it over our brothers and sisters. We can also find God’s Word in the testimony of other Christians. Jesus’s person and redemptive work is the only reason this is possible.
2) Christian community is a gift. The physical presence of other Christians around us on this earth is 100% a gift of God’s grace. It is not guaranteed. It’s easy to forget this when we have the privilege of living life with other Christians the way we do in our church, but there are many Christians scattered throughout the world who do not have a visible Christian community; i.e. the sick, the imprisoned, or the missionaries in remote and hostile places of the world. We should remember this and have an attitude of thankfulness for the community God has given us, even if it is not exactly how we want it to look. Which brings up the next point…
3) Christian community is not an ideal but a divine reality. Bonheoffer says, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.” Christian community is not something that we have to work to make happen the way we think it should. It is a reality that is already true, created by God through the work of Jesus Christ, in which we get to participate. He is the driver of what our community looks like, not us.
4) Christian community is a spiritual, not an emotional, reality. It differs from all other types of community (and friendship). The single most important thing in a Christian community is the Holy Spirit at work, who puts Jesus into our hearts as Lord and Savior, and gives us the ability to freely love others without being clouded by our own desires. It is tempting to chase the emotional experience of deep connection with other people. This is actually a beautiful fruit and joy of genuine biblical community. But without submission to the Word of Christ and the Holy Spirit, we are merely creating a community based on our own desires, wants, and needs.
In summary, it is not wrong to want to have Christian friends who you can hang out with and who share similar interests, but there is so much more offered to us. There is richness, joy, beauty, and a sacred holiness to relationships with other Christians when we submit ourselves fully to the work of Christ and allow that to be our focus and common ground.
My challenge to all of us, myself included, is to go into our Community Groups this fall, firmly grounded in the work Jesus has already done for us through his redemptive work on the cross. I hope that we can shift our focus away from what we can get out of a Community Group or what we think it should look like. Remember that Christian community is already a reality that God created through Jesus Christ, not an ideal that we have to realize through our own efforts. I pray we would know that each one of us is bringing the image and body of Christ into the community in our own unique way. I pray we would be looking for how we can be an expression of Jesus to someone else. I want us to remember that this community is a fully gracious gift, not something we deserve or are owed. I pray this frees us to love the people around us in a radical, visible and contagious way.