The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is a nonprofit organization that invests in building the vitality of communities in the United States. It recently completed a three-year study conducted by Gallup. This Soul of the Community Research Project attempted to determine what encourages members of communities to be emotionally and positively engaged with their communities and what impact this engagement has in the success (particularly economic) of those communities. Some of their conclusions provide an interesting context to this week’s lesson. Their report decides:
Engaged citizens within a community are inspired by the community around them. Connected citizens are engaged citizens in many aspects of community life. As a result, the community is a better place to live, which helps to grow and sustain citizen positivity and engagement to the community. There is a reciprocal relationship where they put energy into the system and the system gives back the energy.
Communities with higher levels of community citizen engagement have stronger desired outcomes….1
The implication of this study is that engagement and commitment give energy back to the giver and are likely to ensure a high degree of satisfaction in the community. In addition, the community itself becomes stronger. There are some different dynamics, of course, between a local community and a Christian or church community, yet the principle of the key relationship between individual engagement and satisfaction, on one hand, and community strength and influence, on the other, is still likely to be valid.
If that is true, what went wrong at the Tower of Babel? Here were very engaged individuals, building together to reach heaven. God was not impressed and sought to break the community apart by limiting their ability to communicate. However, God’s intervention could not have resulted from his antipathy toward community. Only a chapter later, we hear God promising Abraham that he will become a father of great nation, a great community (Gen. 12:13).
The problem seems to be that in the building of the Tower of Babel engagement was not with the ideals and goals of a community focused on God; these individuals decided on a personal agenda that they defined as building “a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so we may make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). So God sees the power of the community, that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them,” but recognizes a problem. Their vision does not include him. They are heading off in a self-centered and “human” direction.
Here is the dilemma. An engaged community brings strengths to its individuals and provides a synergy that positively impacts both the community itself and those beyond. However, there must be a vision, a shared purpose, for synergy to happen and, in a Christian community, the unity must be centered on God. If not, we run the risk of recreating a Tower of Babel scenario.
There are two essentials, then, for a powerful Christian community: shared unified purpose and personal individual commitment and involvement. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 provides a powerful insight into the need for unity in the Christian community. After praying for himself and his immediate disciples, Jesus prays: “My prayer is not for them alone. 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” (John 17:2021). He continues to identify the future believers’ “complete unity” as the way the world will know they are loved by God (John 17:23). Here is the ultimate unified purpose for the Christian church: a unity in belief, love, and purpose that is as inseparable as the Father’s unity with his Son.
In Ephesians 4, Paul provides the church in Ephesus further insight into the idea of a Christian community living in unity. He provides a context that is demanding on each individual: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” he writes (Eph. 4:23). These are the attitudes a Christian community needs if it is to nurture each member. These are not simple expectations. This is not about what “I” as an individual get from the community; it is what I give to others in that community.
The issue of personal responsibility continues later in the chapter, where Paul identifies the different way that God’s people are equipped to serve: from apostles to pastors to teachers (Eph. 4:1113). First Corinthians chapter 12 adds to this perspective: each of us is a vital part of the body of Christ: the eye, the hand, the hand, the ear. What is the result of a community with unified purpose, with each person accepting responsibility for his gifts of service and care for others in the community? Paul continues in Ephesians 4: “Then we will no longer be infants…. Instead…we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up into love, as each part does its work.”
What the Soul of the Community Research Project and the Bible both indicate are that the strength of a community lies in members being fully engaged in their unique ways in the vision of that community. Respect for others whatever their differences, unified focus and direction, and personal commitment: these are what make a strong community and enervate members to continued engagement. What is the flip side of this picture? There can be no room for personal power play, for shifting the focus from God’s mission to our own, for demeaning any others in the community, for sitting back and letting everyone else take the responsibility. The church, our Christian community, is as strong as its members are engaged. Its members find personal growth and satisfaction as the church is strong. Central to this ideal has to be complete unity in Christ as a result of every individual totally focusing on God.
Notes and References
Andrea Luxton is president of Canadian University College, Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.