The Importance of Community
How should we view the importance of community as God’s people? Historically, Christians have believed that there are distinguishing characteristics of an “authentic” Church – often called marks. For some brothers and sisters, the key marks of the Church are found in the Nicene creed – “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Later Protestants added, in addition to the creeds, “the faithful preaching of the Word, faithful administration of the sacraments, and faithful exercise of discipline.”
These newer marks seem to move from a macro view of the body of Christ to a micro or more local expression of the body of Christ, let’s call them local communities of believers. Francis Schaeffer believed that the most important mark of the church is love, and without a doubt that needs to run through all. W. Robert Godfrey of the Ligoniers points out that “Each mark expresses an aspect of the Word’s life and power in the church. The true church submits to the Word of God.” (The Marks of the Church, Ligoniers) Importantly, I would add, that each local community of believers is formed by the Spirit into a “people” – a people who grow in fellowship (Greek: Koinonia) with each other.
Community is the manifestation of fellowship among the people of God – both the invisible belonging that happens through the Holy Spirit, and the active participation in growing relationships – the relationships of people who acknowledge Jesus’ Lordship in their lives and share a commitment to Jesus’ mission in the world through grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. Linda Peacore in her article “Church as Community” points out that: “What is first perceived as God’s gift is subsequently a human task or spiritual practices. We cannot create community out of our mere willing it, but we can nurture it once we are blessed with its presence.”
But it seems to me that, especially in cultures of Western European descent such as Canada, we need to re-emphasize ‘Community’ as a mark of the church, a practice that we undertake seriously. We especially need to consider contextualizing community in countries like Canada to recapture its important contribution to mission and making disciples.
Here are a few things I think we need to think about when we talk about Christian community in Canada:
1. The church in the West, including the Evangelical church, are not having great success at making disciples who make disciples. In Canada we know that Christianity is in decline. In 2020 Faith Today ran an article called “Not Christian Anymore”. It states, “The 1996 God and Society in North America poll found 12 per cent of Canadians were evangelical affiliates. A 2015 poll found 9 per cent. Today that seems to have dropped to 6 per cent.”
What’s more concerning is that very few churches in North America are making disciples that make disciples. Discipleship.org suggests that less than 5% of churches in the US are disciple-making churches. The stats in Canada are usually worse. If this is shocking and you don’t know exactly where to start to change, then a look at work by Philip Nation at Lifeway Research might be helpful. He developed a list of the traditional markers of discipleship that we should keep an eye on. The markers are bible engagement, obeying God and denying self, seeking God, building relationships, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, being unashamed.
So, what does that have to do with community? If, community grows out of our fellowship with Christ, then we could say that new disciples, people who hear and obey Jesus, should be the fruit of an authentic Christian community. I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
People may be attracted to a good worship service, but we need to ask if a Sunday morning is the best investment in community that we can make. Is there a better way to express our love for Jesus and one another in our weekly rhythms? Could an emphasis on Sunday morning (that we call ‘community’) be a contributing factor to the decline of the church in Canada?
2. If there are low numbers of people who are authentically following Jesus in our churches, then we can also expect that there would be a negative impact on the local Canadian church’s ability to engage in Jesus’ mission. What is the mission? In its broadest sense Jesus is at work redeeming and reconciling all creation to God through his people and the power of the Holy Spirit. Participation in the mission means first, that we believe that the Gospel is good news to us and all people. Second, that we believe that the Spirit that lives in us has given us real world power to overcome evil, in both its physical manifestation and spiritual. African missiologist Harvey Kwiyani said in his blog that all Africans know that if your god can’t do something that it is no god at all. The work of mission is a work that only the power of God can accomplish. Does our community believe that?
3. Our cultural context has changed from the age that the inherited institution of the church was birthed in. For instance, in the time span of 60 years (roughly two generations) we have moved from a predominantly Christian worldview in Canada to a secular worldview and a pluralistic society. This means that Christianity sits side by side many other religions and ideologies. In our present society no worldview is supposed to claim superiority over another. Truth is relative and every person needs to find their own way. Even with freedom of religion, our secular society makes it clear that religion is for the religious niche of your life, and not relevant for all of life. A Christian community is tangible evidence that Jesus is Lord over every area of life.
4. Community, to be true community, requires vulnerability and interdependence. This is hard to achieve when group sizes are scaled to support large physical and administrative structures. Sociological research points out that we struggle to make meaningful connections in larger groups and that negatively affects group cohesion. When you add into the mix our Western independence, the ability to stay on mission becomes more challenging. Jesus poured his life into twelve people and these twelve became the core of a movement. If we want movements of the Gospel, then we have to consider the size of the groups we call community.
5. Particularly in North America, we haven’t wrestled with the massive shift that increased access to transportation made on community. Most people in a local community of believers know someone who lives a significant distance away from the location where the community gathers. What does our mobility do to the practice of authentic community? Related to our mobility now is the issue of virtual participation. Mutual care and support are characteristics of community, but that’s hard to do long-distance.
6. As religion is pushed into the domain of personal belief in a secular culture, we have fewer and fewer universally unifying forces in our lives. Many have described our Canadian culture as fragmented, and fragmentation has an effect on people, which often manifests itself in feelings of isolation and loneliness. It’s not only Christians who are concerned about this issue. In 2012 and 2017 the Vancouver Foundation studied loneliness and social isolation. Since the pandemic the issue has become more acute. An Angus Reid report in 2020 says that “The Desolate, those who suffer from both loneliness and social isolation, has increased from 23 per cent of the population to 33 per cent.” (https://angusreid.org/isolation-and-loneliness-covid19/) Jesus said that the world would know that we are his disciples by our love (John 13:35). Love unites, connects, and heals.
Whether you are part of a local community of believers, or you are a Christian who is adrift, looking for a place to belong, the sad reality is that if you’ve experienced authentic Christian community that you are likely a minority, partly because of the messiness and cost of pursuing it.
You see, an authentic Christian community involves both a gathering (ekklesia) of those committed to following Jesus, and fellowship (koinonia) – a mutual self-giving to God and each other; it incorporates the values of the ‘one another’ statements in Scripture and has a sense of shared purpose regarding Jesus’ mission. In turn, mission helps us grow as disciples. Scott McKnight calls this Church.Life and describes it this way.
Life lived with others, regardless of who they are
Life shaped by the teachings of Jesus through his apostles
Life experienced by eating with one another
Life swarmed by prayer
Life carried away in awe of what God was doing
Life shared economically and materially
Life welcomed by outsiders
(Scott McKnight, One Life, p104)
At times I’ve experienced some of the characteristics of a Christian community, never all. In 2023, Christians need community more than ever. In 2023 the world needs Christian communities more than ever. I think it’s time that we look closely at our inherited church structures and ask if it’s really suited to birth authentic Christian community – the often-overlooked mark of an authentic church.
In the next article on community, we’ll look more closely at the behaviours and values that help to form community at a local level.