What does it mean to live in community?

This was a question that someone asked me who hadn’t been to church in a while, because for some, the church can sometimes seem hurtful.

As I’m wont with expressions that seem trendy, I said, “That expression seems trendy, and it isn’t in the Bible. So let’s just talk about what it means to love each other.”

Then today I was reading in Philippians.

“If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (2:1-2 ESV)

 Well, if we want to talk about living in community, I thought, this is what it’s going to look like.

I guess the main problem that I have with the trendy concept of “living in community” is that the one thing that’s emphasized about it is also extra-Biblical. That’s “transparency.” We’re supposed to be “transparent” with a group of people that we may or may not know well, a group that can have some significant turnover over the course of months.

Transparency, as I understand it, is subtly different from being guileless or non-hypocritical. To be guileless and non-hypocritical, we only have to live in truth and walk in truth. But to be transparent, we’re supposed to talk about our struggles.

I don’t have any problem with talking about my struggles with the right person or people. But besides the fact that any given church group may not be the best group of people with whom to discuss our struggles, the understood definition of “struggles” seems to be “sins that I’m battling.”

If, on the other hand, the struggles are nightmares, flashbacks, or other symptoms of PTSD because of what someone else did to me, then the community who wants us to be transparent all too often doesn’t have a slot to fit those problem in. If I try to explain the reason for my struggles without incriminating someone else (because I’m not ready to do that, or because I fear the backlash, or a host of other reasons)—and especially if I do name another person who in one way or another did something to cause my struggles— then I’m in danger of being disbelieved, dismissed, or even accused. Belittled and ignored and even blamed.

There are few things more soul-crushing after the initial trauma than receiving this kind of treatment by the people of my very own church who have assured me that they want to “live in community.”

But Philippians says something about the community of love. First, there’s a Foundation, and it isn’t transparency.

* We have great encouragement in Christ. You may have heard, “Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” I ask you, if you’re in Christ, why are you still a beggar? Aren’t you feasting on His riches? Hasn’t He promised that you’ll be a river gushing out for others to drink? Some of us must know that deep fountain of encouragement, so that others can drink and be satisfied and then themselves become a river for others to drink. Does anyone want to be one of the disciples of John 6, passing out the bread and watching it multiply? I do.

* We have the “coming alongside to strengthen” (comfort) of His Holy Spirit. How important it is for us to know—even begin to know (as I believe I’m doing)—this Holy Spirit power! What does this mean in our lives? Shouldn’t it be making a difference in capacity to love—and to receive difficult stories?

* We have deep, genuine, soul-connecting fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit, and deep, genuine, soul-connecting fellowship with other lovers of God through the unity of this same Spirit. That’s the foundation for the tenderness and compassion that will “fulfill” Paul’s joy. We can meet together to be able to talk together about the love of God and the joy of God in Christ. If there’s “transparency” here, it’s showing Christ in us, the hope of glory.

If these three things are the case, then, THEN we can have available to us all the tenderness and compassion that Christ can bring to a heart. Encouragement, love, fellowship, empathy, kindness—these are all heart things, all evidence of the transformed lives that transformed ones will display.

Then when churches come together in our small groups, we’ll come together in Love. We’ll listen with compassion. If a person chooses not to share, and you find out it’s because he or she believes it’s not “safe,” we won’t just dismiss it with frustration, but seek ways to provide a safe atmosphere. We always want the Truth to win out, and we won’t refuse to listen just because the story is uncomfortable.

This is how we can live in Love. And, if you like, this is how we can live in Community.

“I already have joy,” said Paul. “Hearing about your oneness in Love will just put it over the top.”

 

5 thoughts on “What does it mean to live in community?

  1. The church (here referred to as “community”) is a living organism created by God. As aptly stated, in order to be connected to one another, we must first be connected to God and then proceed to”do” church God’s way. Great article!

  2. For quite a few years now, I have been in a church that emphasizes being in a home group, and through that group living in “community.” I have had growing concerns that I have not been able to articulate. As you begin your article, I totally track with what you are saying. You put words to my vague feelings that something is not entirely “right” with all of this.

    Our church’s model of small groups is in keeping with what you describe: sharing your struggles/sins with the entire group, and there being a gently, but definite, backlash if you choose to not be immediately and completely “transparent.”

    My concerns have mirrored yours. It does not seem to be wise or beneficial to immediately begin sharing your deepest, darkest sins & struggles with a group of people who (to quote you), “we may or may not know well, a group that can have some significant turnover over the course of months.”

    So, as I said, I was completely and enthusiastically tracking with what you were saying.

    You say that we need to have a 3-part foundation. Great points. I’m with you.

    I’m afraid I lost you after that. You said “When churches come together in our small groups, we’ll come together in Love.” I guess you mean once our small groups begin implementing the 3-part foundation? Can you expand on this? Do you have ideas on how to develop/implement this foundation in the context of a small group, “we may or may not know well, a group that can have some significant turnover over the course of months.” ?

    This is a great article. I love your perspective. I am looking forward to hearing more.

    • Hi Wondering~ I apologize for taking a while to get back to you. The question that you asked was answered (or supposed to be answered) in the previous paragraph: “If these three things are the case, then, THEN we can have available to us all the tenderness and compassion that Christ can bring to a heart. Encouragement, love, fellowship, empathy, kindness—-these are all heart things, all evidence of the transformed lives that transformed ones will display.”

      Too often the Christian life is reduced to a formula of sorts, because a formula is easier to implement than the “walking in the Spirit” of Romans 8 (and other places), having that living, breathing Christ in you, the Hope of glory. (In this case, part of the formula is “let’s all be transparent.”) The way the true foundation is developed and implemented in a small group is not so much by focusing on the needs of the individuals to expose themselves, but on our corporate need for a movement of the Spirit in our midst.

      For us to take seriously our desperate need for a spiritual understanding of the heart of the Word of God and to pray and pray and pray some more–together–that He will work in us and enlighten our clouded vision and expand our love in Christ, according to the way Paul prayed in Ephesians 3–this would be, in my mind, an ideal small group. The opening of ourselves to each other to expose our sins might then take place, in the group or outside of the group context, but the Spirit-led group will help provide a foundation of Love and Truth in Christ in which this kind of honesty can flourish, as God leads, but allow it to happen in God’s time.

  3. Great thoughts, Rebecca. It is so cool to watch the Holy Spirit enlighten the Word to a believer and then give that believer the words to convey their insight. I agree with you that being transparent with all of our struggles in a possibly-transient small group is not wise. It is, however, the perfect atmosphere for false teachers to control large numbers of people. Those systems are bound to implode, like we are seeing with Sovereign Grace Ministries right now.
    Wondering, I think the only way for us to individually “live in community” with the 3-part foundation Rebecca has described above is not in a small group appointed by our church or even one we choose in our church, but in the informal support group God brings into our lives. Members that may not even know each other, but they become “your people”. We can certainly, through the power of the Holy Spirit, have a loving, giving spirit in our church home, but I think this is a different level of intimacy and support than someone needs who is in crisis mode or on a long road of recovery. This is just my opinion. I think we have to be very careful with our inmost thoughts and pain, unless God tells us to do otherwise.

    • It’s good to hear from you, Sally, and thank you for your thoughts. Yes, I’ve heard of the extreme cases where the transparency that people have executed in confidence has later been used to threaten them, but even in a group where everyone is well-meaning, there are still so many potential problems.

      I think small groups can be hugely beneficial, but for Christ-centered study of the Word and for fervent prayer together. In that context, we can discuss how the Word is applying to us right where we are now, and we can express our deep needs in our prayer requests. But the focus will be off of us, ideally, and on the risen, ascended, seated Christ.

I welcome your thoughts