The idea of community is cool these days. Everywhere you turn Christians, especially twenty-something Christians, are talking about Christian community. Most of this should be welcomed by us all. Some of it, for sure, is ill-informed. But all of it is a major correction to the loss of community that we experienced over the past thirty-plus years. As the children of the younger baby-boomers reached their twenties they came of age in a context where they had known dysfunctional family and broken homes. They had also known church as a business more than a caring family, if they knew the church at all. It is thus to be expected that community would be a deep hunger for these younger adults. But this explanation is still far too simple to my mind.
It would be helpful to define the word community before we go much further. It comes from the Latin communitas and means fellowship/community. The Latin communis means common. A community, as most of us use this term in religious contexts, is thus a smaller social unit within a larger one. It is based upon a friendly association rooted in something believed or held in common. It can take many forms but this is the basic idea. We may attend a church service, to illustrate my point, and never participate in a community.
One does not have to read the New Testament for long to realize that this idea of community is closely associated with the church we see in the Scriptures. It seems that most of the earliest Christian churches were small communities of baptized people who shared a covenant meal, at least weekly, and thereby committed themselves to Christ and one another in common life. From this community, or family, they reached into the lives of their neighbors with the love of Christ and drew in new people who were incorporated and taught to be disciples; e.g. learners and followers of Christ. After a period of catechesis these new converts became full participants in the whole life of the church.
Since the 1960s community, especially that type which was rooted in smaller churches situated in small towns or in ethnic groups that formed churches within our larger cities, has broken up. The reasons for this are too numerous to elaborate here. Along with this development came the break-up of families, fostered by no-fault divorce (one of the worst legal changes in our lifetime). By this change homes were changed in massive ways. The neighborhood church, and the ethnic community, became a thing of the past. Churches began to look and feel like places that you drove to in a car in order to attend a service and then drive back home. Mega-churches became the rage in the 1980s and 90s, something impossible without the automobile, and the result is now apparent. (Mega-churches have actually done a great deal of good and have often tried to restore community in ways that address this problem seriously while many smaller churches have simply accepted death by generational decline!)
Now we come to the twenty-first century and the Internet revolution. The twenty-something generation has dropped out of church in massive numbers. Some data says that 4% of them attend church. Whatever the precise number the decline is huge. Unless this is reversed thousands more churches will close in the next twenty years. I personally know dozens of churches that have closed in the last decade. While new churches do open each week the number of older churches closing is vastly larger.
Those younger Christians who sense a deep call to follow Christ know (instinctively) that the church is important. The problem is that they are not quite sure why. What they hunger for is authentic relationships with people that really matter to them, thus the emphasis on community has undergone a major reawakening. This is, in most cases, a very good sign. But where will this take us in the decades ahead?
The questions abound. Will this emphasis on community be the next “evangelical fad” or will it become something more mature and Christocentric? Will it lead to missional Christianity, a kind of faith and practice in which the community of disciples sees itself as the missio Dei? Or will this recovery of emphasis on community lead us to a place where burned-out fundamentalists and mega-church converts will simply seek solace in house-church groups or small cells where the end is themselves and their nurtured pain and opposition? What is needed is community joined with ancient-future faith and deeper Christ-centered worship. I think the jury is truly out on all these questions.
One of the biggest questions of all relates to the Internet itself? What role will this revolution have in the mission of the church, particularly in terms of community? Many in my generation think this revolution is not that important. They are wrong, very wrong. They are as wrong as the nay-sayers were who lived at the time of the first printing press over five hundred years ago. You do not have to agree with every thing being written about emergence of a new global culture to realize that a “great emergence” is taking place. None of us will live to see the real impact that this will have upon the next five hundred years of human history but it will change things massively. Of this I have absolutely no doubt. Curse the emergence all you want, it will not go away. And the impact of this on the church will be great, first in the West and then all over the world as globalization and the Internet spread the change. Some are already suggesting that 9/11 will someday be seen much the way October 31, 1517 is seen by religious historians. I will not live to find out but this could well be true.
One of the fastest growing realities on the Internet is social networks; e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc. Like it or not this is how people are communicating and this is altering education, business and politics. It will also alter the church and how we come to understand the faith and put it into practice, especially in terms of community. I am deeply committed to these social networks. I learn new things about them every day. I believe they are important precisely because I have seen the value they have for the kingdom of God and for mission. I have also seen how powerful they are in allowing me to create friendships of various types. I have resolved that I will do everything that I can to build wider and deeper relationships, spread my vision of missional-ecumenism as widely as possible. and thereby call the church to renewal for the remainder of my life.
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Yes, talking about Christian community is all the rage now. When a topic becomes hot in the evangelical world, it seems to take on a life of its own. It may become a distraction that diverts our eyes from God. In this case, however, I think it’s a much needed correction to the hyper-individualized, personal-therapeutic gospel that we have been pushing for too long.
It has often been said that “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship.” I used to agree with that statement, but now I don’t. Christianity is actually a complex set of interrelationships between God and God (within the Trinity), God and people (we have relationships with each member of the Trinity), and people with people. In that last category, there are many different kinds of relationships that we need to pay attention to: between husband and wife, among members of a family, among members of a local church, among believers from different churches, among Christians across boundaries of race, culture and generations, and among Christians and non-believers. All of these are very important, and if we emphasize certain ones to the detriment of the rest, the results are not good. We have to figure out how to foster all kinds of relationships in ways that are truly mediated by Christ, keeping him at the center. This is a great challenge.
The Internet has created new ways to experience Christian community (this blog is a great example). But it has also damaged community by encouraging people to spend great amounts of time by themselves, wasting many hours in all kinds of self-gratification. Some branches are fruitful, others are not. It’s time to start pruning.
I’m looking forward to Part Two.