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Shared commitments and other frightening thoughts

What is the nature of Christian community?

It is difficult to define and quantify but I think most life long Christians will know it when they see it, or, more accurately in this case, experience it. But I suspect that what we think of as authentic community is still something far short of what is possible; something M. Scott Peck might have called “pseudo-community.”

One of the most pleasant things I ever hear said about our church in Hollywood is that it is a place of authentic community. Just this week I got an email from someone I’ve never met. Here are a few excerpts while maintaining the author’s anonymity:

Hello Pastor Bell : )

I am a [insert occupation] who is currently here in Anytown, USA….

For the past few years I’ve been out here trying to put down…roots and its [sic] been pretty difficult. While I’m not at the point of “giving up” my pursuit, I have been thinking on and off about relocating to a place that might be a better fit for [me]…

But more than that, I have really struggled to find a sense of community at any church here. I’ve visited just about every one of them, but I just haven’t been able to click at any.

A friend of mine attended your church a few years back, and has suggested that I move back to CA, try the LA…scene, and attend your church. My friend said that your church had a real sense of community.

I get a lot of emails like this, but no matter how many I get, I’m always surprised. What does this mean, exactly, I wonder. What is it that people experience in one visit to our church that leads them to tell someone else that there was a “real sense of community?”

The past few weeks, during Eastertide, we’ve been in 1 John. Specifically, the past two weeks we’ve been working with 1 John 3:16-24 and 4:7-21. These texts, written to the fledgling Christian communities in Asia Minor, hold up a high ideal of Christian community. In 1 John 3:16, 17 we read,

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

I asked the congregation whether they thought this was a good measure of love and authentic community. What if this test were applied to Christian churches everywhere? Again and again in scripture we are confronted with this theology: the sacrifice of Jesus, the Christ, is not only personally redemptive but corporately normative for our life in the world. In other words, the cross not only saves us, but models for us the way of life to which we are called – open, sacrificial and risky.

The following week we encountered ideas like,

Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister* whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also (4:20, 21).

Instead of a normal sermon, this week we divided the congregation into five groups, roughly corresponding to the qualities of community depicted in these passages (Trinitarian, fearless, forgiving, incarnational and Eucharistic). We asked the groups one question: “If we were to take this vision of Christian community seriously here in Hollywood, what shared commitments would we need to make?” The results were remarkable. One group even dared to ask the question, based on 1 John 3:17, what if we paid off each other’s debt? Some were fearful of the “socialist” implications of John’s vision. Others thought it was precisely what is called for in our individualistic, consumerist culture.

This week we are pressing into this even deeper. 1 John 5 talks about obedience to God’s commandments. “Obeying commandments” and “shared commitments” are scary things in a culture that despises both sharing and commitment. And commandments, well…that’s just out of the question. I’m not sure where this is going, but I know that my congregation is already well down the road to understanding what this will entail.

In spite of the uncertainty, one thing seems clear. We cannot set out to “create community” as so many church planters and well-meaning pastors aim to do. Community is not something that can be addressed directly. Rather, community forms when a group of people discovers that their journey to God is bound up with the others that God has placed in their lives. We don’t so much create community so much as we create the conditions where community can take root and grow. This kind of community is costly in every way.

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