The community gospel part 2

In my previous post, I mentioned a powerful and dangerous combination:

A need in the world

+ an implication of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This formula is like dynamite. Used properly, it has the power to move mountains. But unless it is handled with care, there is the potential for grave and even life-threatening danger.

The concept of ‘community’ is one example of the great power and also the great danger of this combination.

The need for human community is great in our world (or at least it’s perceived to be in the West). The fragmentation of families, the sense of dislocation and alienation in cities, the loneliness of city living, and the fact that so many elderly people die in their homes without being discovered for weeks—these are just some of the issues that touch the lives of so many of us. There is a great need felt by many people to connect, reach out, be included, belong and be part of a community (a village, a home, a network, a mini-micro-blogosphere, a ‘scene’).

Human community is also a necessary implication of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God himself is one God who is Father, Son and Spirit—three persons in perfect ‘community’. The Son himself, by coming into the world, giving up his life in love for us, dying for our sins, rising to the Father’s side, and pouring out his Spirit, brings us human beings into relationship with this God who himself exists in loving relationship (e.g. John 17:20-24). Because we participate through the gospel in the life of God, we ourselves must live in community with one another, following the way of Jesus Christ (e.g. John 15:9-17, 1 John 4:16-21, Phil 2:1-11). So community, fellowship, church (in the true biblical sense) is not just an optional extra to the Christian life; it is a necessary implication of the gospel itself. When we fail to pay due attention to the importance of encouraging and fostering community amongst our Christian brothers and sisters, we have failed to follow through on a fundamental implication of the gospel itself. I have to admit I have failed a number of times in this regard, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

‘Community’ is both a need in the world and an implication of the gospel. This is a powerful combination.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that churches who seek to focus on the fact that they are indeed a ‘community’ (as opposed to, say, an institution, or a building) will often enjoy great success. People who are seeking community may well find it at these churches—especially if the churches make consistent efforts to be outward-looking. How many conversion stories have you heard where a welcoming Christian community was a key element in a person coming to faith in Christ? You yourself may have such a testimony! Isn’t it a fantastic thing? Indeed, the ‘community’ idea is so powerful that many churches are choosing to name their churches after it: witness how many churches are abandoning their old names (with their references to long-dead Christian saints) in favour of the formula ‘X community church’.

But such positive power is also very dangerous. The danger is that we can be so swept away with the transformative power of human community that ‘community’ (especially as it is understood and longed-for by the world) actually becomes our gospel. If so, then little by little, if we are not careful, we may stop speaking about personal sin, personal judgement, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith in Christ, bodily resurrection, and so on, and prefer instead to concentrate more and more on concepts like togetherness, care, fellowship, welcoming, reaching out, transforming the community around us, and even love. The reason it’s so tempting to focus on these latter concepts is that they will always meet with warm approval, especially in a world that craves community. None of these latter concepts are wrong in themselves, of course. (How could anyone ever criticize ‘love’?!) But unless they are spoken and lived out in the context of the clear, biblical gospel message, they lose the meaning given to them by God himself, and instead become invested with the world’s ideas and ideals. In short, if we focus on the centrality of our ‘gospel community’, we are in danger of losing the gospel and ending up with a ‘community gospel’. And when this happens, people will be converted to the community, but not to Christ. This is where lives can be destroyed.

Of course, the fact that this danger exists isn’t a reason for us all to abandon our communities and run into the desert like hermits! Like dynamite, Christian community can and should be a powerful force for God’s glory. But we must guard against the danger of a ‘community gospel’—by constantly coming back and reminding each other of the gospel; by rooting ourselves deeply in God’s word as he himself has spoken it to us; by continually evaluating our actions, our speech and our fellowship in the light of that true gospel; and so on. Let’s keep making sure that the gospel defines our community, rather than our community defining our gospel.

4 thoughts on “The community gospel part 2

  1. Yes, of course there is the danger of turning something good into an idol. It’s the case with everything that’s not God.

    However, if we are speaking about what is ‘dangerous’, it’s interesting to note that the NT warnings seem to point in the other direction, ie the warning not to neglect community as opposed to the warning not to have it displace the gospel. Does this emphasis reflect what is perhaps the bigger danger?

    Linked to this, your own post finds easy Biblical references re the importance of community, but then flies solo as you drive your main point home. I think your point still has legs, but could perhaps find a stronger argument with ref to passages emphasising that gospel communities are created as people respond to the word preached.

  2. Hi Marty,

    You make a good point about my lack of biblical references as the article comes to a conclusion. Thanks for picking me up there.

    I think some helpful Bible passages would be the ones that emphasise the gospel / God’s word as the foundational constitutive element of our communities. For example, Hebrews 10:23-25; Colossians 3:17; Philippians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 14. The places in the Bible that urge us not to neglect community are often the very places that emphasise that God’s word must remain at the centre of our communities.

    NB I haven’t just chosen to write about the “community” idea as a random example of something good that could be turned into an idol. I’ve chosen this particular one because I can see many places where ideas of “human” community are actually replacing ideas of true gospel community, and therefore I think it’s very important right now to talk about this particular example.

  3. So in the 19th Century an implication of the gospel was a focus on “Morality”, possibly as a result of the social decay after the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment; in the 20th Century the focus was on “Science” – especially medical science – hence the “Missionary Doctor” who brought healing and the gospel; and in the 21st Century it’s “Community” amongst our fragmented families and fragmented society. It’s the same gospel, but the implications have been different in different times in history. Good not to get caught up in our times and our implications (good as they are) and confuse this with the actual gospel. I wonder if anyone knows what the particular focus on the gospel’s implication/s was before the 19th Century?

  4. Here I sit,
    Feeling the need to part of a mini micro blogosphere, a ‘scene’.

    I am a unity.
    I am in Christ.
    Christ is in me.
    We have a unity in common.
    We are a community.

    You are a unity.
    You are in Christ.

    In Christ we share a common unity.
    Making ours a Christian community.
    To have our unity in anything other than Christ would not be Christian community.
    Still a unity.
    Still nice.
    Just not Christian.

    cue music
    music swells
    We’re one
    But we are not the same

    Fade to black.

    Unity in Christ language viv-a-vis unity in the gospel language Lionel?
    I really should get back to studying.

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