Definition, please

For the last decade or so I have been in a lot of conversations about “community,” particularly in the context of Christian life and discipleship. I have followed people like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the Psalters as personal rabbis of a sort, who teach me that community is about sharing life, money, and a responsibility to our neighbors. I’ve listened to church staff folk talk about “creating community” through cookouts and picnics and coffee bars. I’ve personally longed for deeper connection with housemates and friends, feeling as though this mystical bond of “community” was somehow eluding me.

If, for the sake of conversation, we start with the broadest definition of the word, we end up with any group of people of any size who in any way are distinct from the larger group in which they exist. This can be geographical, cultural, even preferential. We talk about the homosexual community, the minority community, the business community, the poor (community) – in many ways we never leave the middle school mentality that drives us to ensure that every person is individually labeled and categorized. Jesus calls us to be “in the world but not of it,” a statement of focus and perspective and the beauty of renewed nature that in Christendom we all too often translate into an excuse to create a subculture lacking in any “in-ness” at all in relation to the world. I don’t think this kind of separation, this distinction born of a certain contrariness to the world, is what most people have in mind when I talk with them about community.

I’ve grown a little weary of all the excuses I hear, and give, when it comes to building community within the Church. We are all too busy. We are all spiritually dry. We all feel overwhelmed and one traffic jam away from a full-throttle panic attack. We all need filled up. We all feel drained. Our to-do lists are too long, our sleeping hours are too short, and our lives are going by too quickly. Even close friends are “lucky” to spend an hour a week in real conversation.

I have to wonder, in light of all of these seeming limitations, what it means for the Spirit to dwell inside of me. I often think it means He expands my capacity to hear God, to discern right choices, to love other people. Wait, do I mean that last one? Do I really believe that the Spirit in me might be able to increase my ability to love? If so, what does it mean if my efforts to love people well, to build community, cost me more than it seems right to give? Could it mean that my efforts toward God are lacking? It’s easier to believe I need to withdraw from people, when maybe the only reason I feel that way is that I’m not drawing close to Him.

At its best, community is defined as a group of people leading a common life according to an agreed-upon “rule.” That rule can be as specific as Benedict’s, as modern as the 12 Marks of the New Monasticism, or as general as the Apostle’s Creed. In my church body we’ve chosen the latter as our only public statement of faith. We come together every week because we believe in generous orthodoxy, conversation, journey, and incarnational spirituality that is good for us, our neighbors, and the larger Peoria area. In this way we fulfill the first, more generic definition of community. But what would it take for us to embody the best of community, living a common life together? Some are already making strides toward this, tearing down literal fences as well as those that are unseen.

Others aren’t sure how to. They desire connection, exchange, to hear and be heard. My hope for them is that they find it. My prayer is that their expectation is fair. And my responsibility? Of that I’m not sure. I just know I see so many beautiful faces, so many spirits that remind me of Jesus in a totally unique way. I want them to be grafted into community in a way that is meaningful and powerful and life-changing for them as well as the church.

If you find yourself in the midst of meaningful community, pray to the God of Heaven and of us all and ask how to expand that circle to include others you see around you who have yet to find their way in. If you are still looking, still feeling isolated or lost in the crowd, press into Him and don’t give up. Be brave. Create community with others who can’t find it. Host a dinner (even if Avantis does the cooking). Invite people over for a movie. Pick up a book and ask other people to read it with you. Rake someone’s yard together. Attend hokey community events together and discover the joy of being a joiner 🙂 Ask an acquaintance you trust to meet to pray together. Ask someone you admire for coffee, and then ask them how they came to be admirable.

I’ve been tempted at times to give up on the search for community that is as romantic and hard and costly and rewarding as I’ve read and heard about from people living in extreme community. Honestly, I don’t know that I will ever have the chance to live that way. But there are people around me, people who love Jesus and want to follow Him and whose hearts mirror my own. That is more than many can boast, and is more than enough with which to build.


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