I've been chewing on a cultural buzzword lately. It seems like everyone is enamored with the concept of "community"... We all want it... But do we even know what it looks like?
It seems like our generation idealizes community. We were raised watching shows like Friends, Seinfeld, & The Office, etc. It seems that we view community as a group of dysfunctional people who have no boundaries and who live together. Or we view community as a social organization that meets & works together semi-regularly...wearing cool t-shirts, doing good deeds and playing fun games.
Most often, culture defines community. In western culture (US, Canada, Europe), we value individualism. From the time we are born, we are taught to say "I did it all by myself." Let's call this an "I-self" culture. We define community as a network of individuals who have something in common (a set of beliefs, a location, a hobby, etc) who get together regularly around this commonality. Within this cultural context, being part of community is a choice. At the same time, one can choose to disengage community pretty easily. Unfortunately, when community becomes a burden or encroaches upon our personal goals or values, we tend to take a step back.
However, eastern cultures (India, Middle East, Asia) view community as one's total identity. Individuals do not exist within community. Let's call this a "We-self" culture. Community is one's essence..one's livelihood, one's sense of being whole. An individual does not make a decision without the rest of the community weighing in on it... To make an independent decision within such a culture is to successfully tear one's self out of the community... In some extreme situations, this could lead to death... and most certainly leads to being ostracized and becoming an outcast... Here is a more specific understanding of this concept, suppose an individual within a "We-self" culture makes a decision to embrace a different religion. This is huge for someone to even get to this point... So, once this person makes the bold move to leave their entire sense of self and cling to something else... they are free falling...unless there is another community present to catch and envelope them :-)
Acts 2 describes a catalystic moment.
42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
Last I checked, Israel sits smack dab in the heart of the Middle East... Culturally, we're talking, "We-self" ... The nation of Israel embraced Judaism. You were either born a Jew, or you were not. So, when Jesus preached about denying self, taking up one's cross and following Him...He was speaking to the heart of the issue... To acknowledge Jesus as Messiah meant denial of an entire sense of self. He was saying.. Prepare to be rejected. Prepare to be ostracized...and cast out of your family. Quite possibly, prepare to die. Before Jesus went to be with the Father, He promised to send the Holy Spirit to empower His followers and to give them what they need to live for Him. He told them, "Go to Jerusalem and wait...the promise will come..." On the day of Pentecost (Acts 1), 120 people were huddled in a little room, desperately waiting for this promise... they probably didn't know what to expect... so when the Holy Spirit invaded the room... it had to be a little crazy. They were caught up in the moment and people in the streets thought they were drunk! Peter, a guy who was usually all passion and very little knowledge, steps up and starts waxing eloquently...sharing the gospel and inviting people to follow Jesus!! And BOOM 3,000 people (all from "We-self" communities) made a supernatural decision. What had been a weekend trip to Jerusalem, now became an indefinite stay with a bunch of strangers...
Imagine trying to pastor this community! So, this band of people who had just lost all sense of identity are doing life together...living around the teachings of Jesus... I'd say that is a little inconvenient. I could write a series of blogs about cultural dynamics of NT Church community (maybe I will, but lots of people have already done that). What I find most interesting about the NT Church is the role that community played in spreading the gospel of Christ...and establishing God's Kingdom. Community was the lifeline... I tend to think that the NT Church community gave new believers the courage to step out and follow Jesus (to the point of death). In my western, many-times-removed culture, I know this applies to me...but I have a difficult time wrapping my mind and heart around it...for application sake.
In the American Church, we want community... we talk about the New Testament church and make efforts to create our version of community. But seldom do we find it. Community is not an event. It is not a group on FB, nor the number of friends who post scriptures in your newsfeed... (Although, they're great tools). I think in our "I-self" culture, community is the cross that we bear. When Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, He says...deny your individual, "all-by-myself" mindset..reach out and receive what others offer..And/or "stop looking out for number one, BE PRESENT." When He says follow Him, He means...go throughout your day looking for what He's doing...and BE there.
Community is being present to the Holy Spirit and to each other... The study notes in the Spirit-Filled Life Bible define koinonia, the Greek word for community used in Acts, as follows...
"Sharing, unity, close association, partnership, participation, a society, a communion, a fellowship, contributory help,brotherhood.... the individual shares in common the intimate bond of fellowship with the rest of the Christian society.... it cements believers to the Lord Jesus and each other."
It CEMENTS us to each other? Um, my individual "I-self" nature does not like this!! Lately, I've been encountering the "messiness" of community... and each time, I am presented with a choice... Will you engage and be present...REALLY present? Or, will you unplug and come back when things are convenient? I cannot say that I have always made the best choice... but I'm learning that there's joy in choosing community... in partnering with the Holy Spirit. Community is not God, but it is a reflection of His heart...
On another note, how can we ask people to follow Jesus Christ without offering to be a safe place for them? We need to be willing to walk with them as they disengage their past identity and put on the identity of Jesus. We help by demonstrating the Love of Jesus in Community... right?
There are so many layers to unpack in this concept... I hate leaving something unresolved... but for now I will leave it... What do you think??