In fact, the first New Testament mark of a church observed by outsiders is that “they loved one another.” This love expresses itself in koinonia—community.
When present, loving community the thing most cherished by church members, and envied by those not yet members. When absent, it is the thing most lamented. Loving community may have existential priority over the other eight aspects of healthy churches.
Community is the thing humans most long for, and which is increasingly difficult for us to sustain. Americans in general, and Baptists in particular have difficulty with practicing community. There is already a strong stream of individualism in American life. When that merges with incomplete views of certain Baptist distinctives (soul competency and priesthood of believers) the result can be a pernicious individualism that cannot sustain community.
At least two things complicate our search for community in our present context. First is the bewildering range of diversity we see around us. Second is our resistance to submitting personal desires to a common good.
Diversity is challenging because it raises the question of “Who are we?” This is manifested in questions of boundaries: Who is “in” and who is “out?” The simplistic suggestion that there be no boundaries betrays an ignorance of the nature of living communities. The real issue is: What kind of boundary will be in place, and how will it be maintained?
The very idea of “common good” has fallen on hard times. I had an extended on-line discussion on an early electronic bulletin board about “common good.” My adversary decried the very notion. He was convinced that “common good” was created by some conspiracy to control others, and espoused the radical individualism increasingly characteristic of American politics.
But our search for community will not be easily assuaged. In our frustration we embrace a variety of “false communities.” They may be superficial, and maintained by a lifeless institutionalism and politeness. They may be marked by sectarianism and balkanization. But none will satisfy.
Five years ago John McKnight wrote The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits. It is not a theological treatise, but notes that “relationships formed by consent and manifested as care are the center of community.” The reciprocity of consent and care is the warp and woof of community.
He argued that in a variety of settings Americans have abdicated “care” to faceless institutions, and thereby created a “care-less society.” The double entendre is real. We have become a collection of individuals which is both reckless and negligent.
Care is important because community, by its very nature, is not homogeneous. Please indulge my biological bent. Thirty years ago biologists talked about “ecological communities.” It was observed that such communities were extremely complex. In fact, the potential to flourish and survive was directly related to the complexity of the community. Simple, homogeneous mono-cultures are notoriously unstable. A good example is a field of corn, which must be artificially maintained.
Church community must deal with differences. Differences promise conflict; conflict may range from differing opinions to open warfare. The drive for community, along with the inevitability of change, guarantees conflict. Consequently, churches must practice effective and ongoing conflict resolution in order to grow as a community.
McKnight’s closing words should haunt Christians:
We all know that community must be the center of our lives because it is only in community that we can be citizens. It is only in community that we can find care. It is only in community that we can hear people singing. And if you listen carefully, you can hear the words: “I care for you, because you
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