Creating Authentic Community
What comes to mind when you think of the word community? Is it a town, a club, a small group of friends or something else?
The Bible tells us the Church should be a place of community – authentic community. But what does that look like?
Today, I’d like to share with you a couple of my experiences of authentic community and what God has taught me about authentic community through these experiences.
Last July, I had the opportunity to attend Lifest in Oshkosh. For those of you not familiar with Lifest, it is 5 days of worship, Christian bands, speakers, and comedians along with games, activities, and lots of food. People from all over Wisconsin, young and old, of all shapes, colors and wardrobe styles come together to worship Jesus. Some have been Christians a long time, some are new Christians, and some people probably just showed up because a friend invited them. The music styles range from Big Band to Heavy Metal, but all of it is intended to bring glory to God. When the people are worshiping together, they worship with their whole bodies. There are not set rules about what you must do when. Instead, each individual is free to respond in their own way – some people sit, some stand, some raise their hands, and some jump around and dance…again, all for the glory of God.
Hundreds of people make this event happen…there are organizers, booking agents, coordinators, cleaning people, musicians, technicians, designers, and more…and none of them act like they are more important than the rest because they know that all are necessary – that they need each other.
There is no Church building, there are no official denominations, but together, those present are the Body of Christ – this is the Holy temple of God Rom talked about a few weeks ago. Incidentally, Lifest is also a great place to make new friends. Some of our daughters’ favorite new friends include Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, Christine’s favorite singer, Laura Story, and Angela’s “favorite boys,” as she calls them: the Newsboys, and her soon to be uncle, Bill.
The second experience I’d like to share is more personal. For almost 8 years now, Matt and I have been meeting every week with Dennis & Cindae Dignan. For the last several of those years their daughter, Krista, has joined us. When we first started getting together we were little more than acquaintances, but now we are close friends.
When we get together, we usually have a meal and talk about whatever’s been going on in our lives. We pray together and talk about how/where we’ve seen God at work, what we’ve been studying to learn more about God, and how we’ve been serving and/or witnessing to others. Sharing in this way helps us to get to know each other better, but it also helps each of us learn more than we ever could on our own. It encourages each of us in our personal walks with God.
Dennis, Cindae, and Krista are always there for me when I need them. They share their skills, gifts and talents with me. They are willing to try new things and learn new things together. They know me better than almost anyone else does and yet, they still want to be friends. Even when I’m emotional, irrational, and just plain unlovable, they love me anyway. I know that I can invite them to my house when it is a complete disaster and they won’t care about the mess. They love me for who I am and where I’m at – no matter what.
Does all this mean that we never disagree about anything? Absolutely not! We do, at times, disagree and we have had animated conversations. However the goal of those conversations is not to win an argument, but rather to understand each other and to discern what God wants us to learn from each other.
So, what can be learned about authentic Christian community in all of this?
First, authentic Christian community requires unity (Rom talked about that in more detail last week). We were created to be one body – the Body of Christ. Our love for God and God’s Spirit of love in us not only binds us together, but also must become our highest priority. We must put that love first, above all other things, and unity will follow.
Second, authentic Christian community contains diversity. God loves variety. He has created each individual person to be different and yet to be one with the rest of the Body of Christ. God has created individuals of different races, genders, personalities, learning styles, talents, spiritual gifts, passions, opinions, and more. It is often in our differences of opinion that we struggle the most with maintaining a loving attitude toward each other. However, we need each other with our differences. If we were all exactly the same, spiritual growth would be stunted and we would not be of much use to each other or to God.
Third, grace is essential. When we extend grace to another person, we allow that person to be themselves before God and others. This is a welcome relief to anyone who feels they must “fit the mold” of someone else’s ideal. When we respond with grace we give others the “benefit of the doubt” and assume the best about them in any given situation until proven otherwise. We are quick to forgive when we feel they’ve wronged us, and we accept others where they are at in their personal lives and their relationship to God. We are all on a journey to become more Christ-like and each person’s journey will be different. We must remember that it is by grace that we have been saved. We need to share that grace with our brothers and sisters in Christ as we learn and grow –together.
Forth, love is the glue that binds together the pieces of the Body of Christ. We must, as Rom says, “learn to love each other if it kills us.” I know this may sound a little harsh at first, but it’s really a win-win situation – we either end up with better relationships or we get to be with Jesus. Either way, we win!
God intended for us to love each other with a special kind of love–agape love. Agape love is a selfless love. It means wanting the best for each other, putting the needs of others before our own. Loving others in this way is not only freeing for those to whom that love is extended, but it is also irresistible to those who don’t have it. If we love each other this way, others will want to come and learn more about the Jesus who makes us act this way – they will want to be a part of the Body of Christ!
Finally, we will show our love for God and for each other by serving. Each of us can and should share our own uniqueness with each other – it’s what we were made to do. Our personalities, experiences, spiritual gifts, talents and all the rest of our differences are meant to be shared with each other in order to build up the Body of Christ. The ways in which each person serves will look different, but our goal should be the same: to use all of who we are to bring glory to God – together.
Now we do have a choice, we can choose to do our part to create authentic community God’s way or we can choose to do things on our own.
What might that look like? Well, in his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis gives a very unusual description of hell…Imagine a giant city filled with millions of houses, and most of the houses are empty. There are a few here and there with people in them, but no one has any neighbors. This is because every time someone tries to live near someone else, they begin to argue and soon one moves farther away. The city expands and becomes larger and larger so that the people can live farther and farther away from each other….all because each person is mean, nasty, and selfish, only thinking about themselves. (Kraeuter, p. 66-67)
This may seem a little far-fetched, but is it really? Left to our own devices, without God, it is our very nature to be selfish and to want our own way. However, God created us to crave authentic community and he intended the Church, the Body of Christ, to be the way for us to experience it.
Creating authentic community in this place and beyond will not be easy. It will require commitment. Commitment first to God, and second to each other. We will have to commit to stick together, to love each other and work together no matter what. However, I believe if we do commit, together, to allow God’s Spirit of love to work in and through us, we will experience authentic community like we’ve never experienced it before.
Kraeuter, Tom. The Missing Element of Worship: What’s Love God to Do with it? Lynnwood, WA: Emerald Books, 2007.