Community…who needs it?
It is a modern marvel of technology that within moments of my wife posting a picture of our two adorable little girls (yes… I am a little biased) on social media, friends from the other side of the globe comment on just how cute they are (ok … I’ll stop doting now). Social media and technology may have increased the speed and accessibility of connecting with others, but it has not necessarily deepened that connection. Erin Davis, author of Connected: Curing the Pandemic of Everyone Feeling Alone Together, argues that though we may be more connected than ever, we may also be lonelier than ever; though we may have many acquaintances on social media, few of them really know us deeply. Although technology can mediate connection, it does not automatically enhance that connection; in fact research indicates that the very presence of a smart phone in a conversation “can lessen the quality of an in-person conversation, lowering the amount of empathy that is exchanged between friends.”
My aim in this post is not to argue about the dangers of technology, but rather to argue for the importance of deep community and authentic relationships. This series of blogs is about the implications of making the Kingdom of God the lens through which our ministry practices are shaped. One of the implications that my colleague Grant Buchanan has already argued for is that we seek to live in God’s shalom, and also bring others to experience God’s shalom as they follow Jesus in the power and presence of the Spirit. Another direct implication of God’s kingdom having come — i.e. God’s exceedingly good rule being made available and accessible to all, beginning here and continuing on into eternity — is that those who surrender allegiance to Jesus are adopted into God’s family, and hence it changes, or should change, our commitment to one another.
In our highly individualised world where associations are aplenty and deep relationships are few, this mission needs to be stressed. So often, we focus so much on an individual’s walk with God that we lose sight of God’s mission to form a people. Though God’s rule can be, and should be, expressed in our individual lives, the biblical witness is that God’s desire is to rule among a people, not just over individuals. We see this in the older testament where God desired that Israel (God’s collective people) showcase to the nations surrounding them what a society living under his rule could look like — a life characterised by shalom with him, each other, and the land (Exod 19:3-6; Deut 4:5-8).
Perhaps the strongest scriptural argument for ministry to be communally shaped is Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17.
“Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name … so that they may be one as we are one … I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:11, 21)
A few hours before Jesus is arrested, he prays fervently for his followers, not for protection from the persecution that is bound to follow, but so that they would be able to achieve community. Moreover — and this is vital for us to see — the community that is experienced by Jesus’ followers with one another is a powerful witness to an unbelieving world that Jesus really is God’s son.
That is why the New Testament letters are full of encouragement regarding how God’s people are to live together in unity. In a society that was defined by sharp class distinctions surrounding issues of gender, ethnicity, wealth, origin, station in life, plus much more, the message of Jesus’ kingdom declared a break with that way of thinking:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28)
This teaching was quite counter-cultural (and is still so today). It was also quite hard to accept. Reading some of the letters in the newer testament highlights that their communities struggled with fragmentation and division just like we do. When they got it right, their witness was profound (Acts 2:42-47). When they got it wrong, it damaged their witness and their relationships (1 Corinthians is a case in point).
The challenge of course is that living in true community is really hard work. Really hard. It disrupts our schedules, it upturns our priorities, it reorients us to what is really important. True community is messy. It requires us to confront each other when offence occurs, to freely forgive when we are offended, to humbly ask for forgiveness when we offend. It requires us to sort through our opinions and live with an open-hearted generosity towards our brothers and sisters, and welcome them as we would our own family — which in Christ, they are.
Tim Foster writes that “Church is not somewhere I go, but the community to which I belong where the new social order [Foster’s term for the kingdom of God] is experienced and expressed.” As we commit to living in this hard, sometimes heart-breaking, messy thing called community, we also experience the joy of life as it was intended to be lived — life in deep community with God and with others. If God’s rule has actually come in the person of Jesus and can be experienced in the present, then our ministries should intentionally seek to create this type of community. In so doing, we continue to faithfully bear witness to the fact that God reigns, and he is active in the world today.