As a pastor, which in my context means one of five elders of a local church who happens to be the one who goes by pastor and works full time at the church, I am obsessed with biblical Christian community. I have been a part of several iterations of Christian life together, and these range the gamut between practically communal, to a church on an interstate exit where some members live an hour apart from one another. What I have learned to this point, is that what is more important than the style and quantitative aspects of community, is the mindset toward Christian community. In short, how does one think about the experience?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the Christian pastor who was executed for trying to help assassinate Hitler) has been my tutor in this area, and I have read his magnificent Life Together dozens of times. I am planning to hand copy the book next, so that I can work toward memorizing every word. It resonated with me twelve or fifteen years ago when I first read it in the midst of church planting, and it has shaped my thinking more than any other book outside the Holy Bible (because it is so biblical). So if you have read it, you will see where I am coming from. If you have not read it, stop reading this, and go find a copy. Read that.
If I were to boil down the book to the single most important point, it would be this: Christian community is a reality in Christ. One participates in it by faith before taking any concrete steps toward deepening the relationships. If a group of people are gathered for the sake of worshiping God, growing in faith, taking the ordinances (Lord’s Supper and baptism), fulfilling the Great Commission, and that group is centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then it is a church family.
It is a local expression of the world-wide, across time, in Heaven and on Earth, Body of Christ. God has assembled it. That church is a gift from him to the members. Whatever shape it is going to take will be by his grace, and for the sake of his glory. Ours is to be thankful for the fact of its existence, and for whatever it might look like at any given time. The relationships are bound by Christ and what he has done. The members are connected by the Holy Spirit. Christ is the center, and we are bound to it by faith. We are bound to each other by faith and faith alone.
The first thing one must do is praise God for the church, and be thankful that we are not alone. We should be thankful for whatever it is, because it is nothing short of a gift. It is not ours to judge, but to participate by faith, trusting the God who gathered this local church to make it into whatever he desires it to be, as the members participate as faithfully and thankfully as we are capable.
The Bible says to “work your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Our salvation is a reality in Christ, but we are to work it out after taking that on faith. This means that we will look to him every day in order to conform to the likeness of Christ, growing all the days of our lives, and it is “God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). We start with a reality, our salvation in Christ alone, and work it out, knowing that God is the one working in us. This is a mystery but we know it is good.
Christian community is the same. We are bound in our local church by faith. It is a reality in Christ. Our relationships are Christ centered. We’re not bound by any commonality or fondness but Christ. Then we work for the rest of our lives to close distance with one another in a faithful way, thanking God for the privilege of Christian fellowship. Here are the steps:
- Thank God for what you have, no matter how paltry it seems to you.
- Pray for closer connections.
- Reach out and give of yourself and build some friendships primarily on the love of God in Christ. If these friendships can’t handle conflict, disagreements, annoyances, you didn’t center them on Christ.
- Go back to steps 1-3 until you die or Jesus returns.