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.