Many of the conversations among church folk about what we should be and do employ the word “community.” Yet I have been surprised to note in some recent studies that several published and studied frameworks for “healthy” or “vibrant” or “growing” churches don’t mention “community” at all.
One lists “holistic small groups” and “loving relationships.” Another talks about “caring relationships,” while still a third goes only so far as “radical hospitality.” None of them say “community.”
Community cannot be an end in itself for the church. I’ve felt that from even before I went to seminary, but I always expressed it in terms of distinctiveness, like, “People can find community anywhere. The community of church should be distinct, special.” I’m no longer so sure about the ready availability of community, because it seems more and more true that churches are in fact one of the few remaining cultural spaces where the sense of personal belonging outside of one’s family can still be experienced. We are an isolated people.
But I’ve come to believe that community cannot be an end in itself for the church for another reason, and that is that, by itself, community can be dangerous.
We are experiencing a crippling and frightening level of political polarization in the United States in 2019, but don’t both sides of that divide enjoy community with their like-minded peers? Don’t bullies move in tight communities? Aren’t cultures that wink at–or even encourage–abuse enabled by the community enjoyed by those in power? One of the most terrifying elements of the white nationalist violence we have witnessed of late is the thriving (and mostly online) community enjoyed by its practitioners.
For the church, community cannot be its own end. Here we need adjectives, words imaginative and practical like “truthful,” and not mushy and vague like “authentic.” Inclusive, yes, but also serving and compassionate and maybe even delightful.
The adjective doesn’t conjure the thing it’s describing, of course, but it gives us the marker we’re all moving toward and it guides us in our worship, our formation, our evangelism, and our decision making.