Community is one of God’s greatest gifts; it is the gift of a rich and challenging life together. Christian community means sharing a common life in Christ. It moves us beyond the self interested isolation of the private lives and superficial social contacts that pass for “Christian fellowship.” Instead, the biblical ideal of community challenges us to commit ourselves to a life together as people of God.
We know that maturity takes time, but it also takes the support of our sisters and brothers in Christ. It is a process that is revealed in the “each other” language of the New Testament: Love each other, forgive each other, teach and correct each other, encourage each other, pray for each other, serve each other, and submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. This list reminds us that we need the community of faith to grow up in Christ.
A WAY TO SEE CHRIST IN OTHERS
One of the most important ways the community helps us is by embodying Christ’s continuing presence on earth. When my brothers and sisters love and accept me, I feel Christ’s love, too. When I confess my sin and they forgive me, I know that God forgives me, too. When they pray for my brokenness, I know they are sharing in the healing work of Jesus. When we feel the crush of hostility and of our own failures, our Christian community surrounds us with compassion and encouragement. They lighten our loads, strengthen us, and give us the courage to keep on trying.
A SOURCE OF ACCOUNTABILITY AND GUIDANCE
The community is also a place where we teach each other and hold ourselves accountable to each other. When I hear what God is teaching others, I learn, too. When I submit to the guidance of my brothers and sisters, I am forced to grow and be accountable.
Such accountability does not need to have overtones of checking up and scolding; instead, it works to encourage and help us in our growth and commitments. We may ask for guidance about how to handle a difficult relationship or about how to have meaningful family worship. The community gives us a place to air our struggles, successes, and failures and guides us more fully in the ways of Christ.
A PLACE TO PRAY AND WORSHIP
The community helps us grow, too, as it becomes a place for prayer and worship. We are called to live lives of prayer, worship, and praise. The human tendency is to be a spectator instead of an active participant, but being spectators in the Christian life is not enough.
We need to pray for each other and be prayed for personally (Eph. 6:18; James 5:16). Many of us are never really prayed for beyond a brief mention in quick-list prayers. I once privately offered a simple prayer of blessing for a friend who had been in public ministry for many years. I was touched when he said to me afterward, “No one has ever prayed for me like that before.”
Similarly, as we learn the ways of worship in our Christian community, we not only deepen our own lives but enrich our experience of public worship. Community is at its best when it becomes a training center, teaching us more about prayer and worship.
A PLACE TO SERVE
The community is also where we learn to strip away selfinterest in order to serve others. It is here that we learn to share what God has given us, whether it be goods or spiritual gifts. It is also here that we learn to be served, though we are sometimes prideful and reluctant like Peter, who balked at Jesus washing his feet (John 13:2-10). Sometimes we are the washers and sometimes we are the ones being washed, but, in many ordinary ways, we can learn what submission and service mean.
One community I know gave time and money so a mother worn down by the demands of young children could take a spiritual retreat. Others have found practical ways to swap mowers, ladders, and childcare; I have seen people abandon a special outing to fix a friend’s leaky basement. Community means watching over one another for good, knowing that as we serve, all of us are growing stronger in Christ.
A WITNESS TO THE WORLD
Christian communities, by their character and action, witness to the power and presence of God in the world. They are models of what God wants for humankind. Jesus’ disciples are to be the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16), shining like bright stars (Phil. 2:15), reflecting the brightness and the glory of God (2 Cor. 3:18). The unity and mutual love that distinguished Jesus’ disciples demonstrates that Jesus was, in fact, sent by the Father to be the Savior of the world (John 17:23).
Christian communities everywhere can radiate the good news of God’s loving intentions for all creation. People from the outside will look at these clusters of Christians and see them serving and honoring each other. They will see love and acceptance, compassion and kindness. They will see the stark contrast of these communities compared with the world around them, and this will be a very compelling witness.
AMBASSADORS OF GOD’S LOVE
These communities not only demonstrate God’s love, they also mediate it and carry “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18) to those around them. This brings God’s compassion and healing power into a broken world. They do this by being intentionally focused on spreading the good news of the hope and grace of Jesus Christ. Each community, with its particular mission, is a rescue unit, establishing a beachhead for God’s peaceable kingdom in a hostile world. From those outposts, God’s love flows freely.
A CALL TO COMMUNITY
God never intended that we should go through life alone. We simply cannot experience fully the power and delight of life with God without also being drawn into life together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Without experiencing such life together, we will not discover how wonderful the news about Jesus really is. The reward of living in community is to enter into life as God intended it to be lived.
S. Joseph Kidder is a professor of church growth and leadership at the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.