It’s a buzz word. It’s often misunderstood. It’s central to the Christian faith and yet so absent from many churches. Community. I would like to launch into sociological reflection on community, drawing from observations made by sociologists like Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, Better Together) to demonstrate the human desire and decline of community, but I don’t have the time or expertise. Instead, I want to address two main issues with our attempts to find community. First, defective Christian views of community are based on unbiblical notions of the Church. Second, true community is based not on what you do but who you are.
Church, a community?
Most church-goers conceive of church as a building. On Sunday mornings they get up, get dressed and “go to church.” However, this is not how the early Christians conceived of church. They did not go to church because they were the church. Church is a community, not a building or a meeting. Church is all week not just on weekends. Church literally means a public assembly of people. It has to do with people gathering, not with program participating.

In a letter to a pastor named Timothy, the apostle Paul described the church as “the household of God.” Household has more to do with dwelling and living than it has to do with brick and mortar. God dwells in the church. The church is not just people; its God living room, his neighborhood. So, church is both human and divine, a place where people and God live in community together. In trying to communicate this reality to my two year old son, I have changed the way I talk about church. Instead of telling him that we are “going to church,” I tell him that we are going to be with the church, to sing and eat with them. Once Christians repent of reducing church to buildings and programs and begin to cherish the people God has given them to live with, warts and all, community will increase.

God, a community of persons
Community as a divine-human phenomenon is traced back to the nature of God. God is not, as many assume, a disinterested Scientist, a removed Observer or an impersonal Energy. According to the Bible, God is three persons in relationship—God the Father, Son and Spirit. God has always existed as a community of persons, self-sufficient, self-delighting, self-honoring, with no need of others. When he created the universe, he made man like himself, “in his image.” This means many things. In particular, it means is that man was created with a need for community. This can be observed among feral children. Kids that are abandoned in the wild make friends with animals. We are social creatures.

God is also purposeful. He designed the universe for redemption. New life comes out of dying stars. In divine agreement, the Trinity agreed that Jesus would die to rescue the world that man would mar. Jesus died “before the foundation of the world.” As a result, Jesus put the creation project back on track. He began restoring it right away. Healing lepers, stilling storms, balancing the unstable, drawing people back into community with God and with one another. God is missional. One of his purposes is to redeem and restore community by saving humanity from their broken relationships with him and with one another.

Gospel, the center of community
But even with Jesus dying to remake people into better, worshipping, missional communities, the Church still remains defective. The family of God is dysfunctional. Why? Because at the center of community we too often have a set of rules.

Most communities fluctuate in their success based on how well people keep the rules of the community. For instance, if I join a book club my acceptance in the club will likely go up or down based on how well I understood the book, know the author, and can discuss his ideas. My sense of acceptance from the community is related to things I do, not who I am. The same is true for most community outlets in this world. If I am part of a Fantasy Football community, my sense of significance will ride upon how well I know my player stats and football trivia. Bottom line, the strength of a community is often determined by how well I perform, by what I do or don’t do, not who I am.

All too often Christan communities have rules at their center, not the gospel. If you read the Bible, don’t drink beer, and “go to church,” you’re accepted. If you do the opposite, you are not accepted. This is religion, not the gospel. Religion says “I obey a set of rules and I am accepted,” but the message of Jesus was “You are accepted by my grace and as a result you obey and follow me.” As dysfunctional people we need something more than performance to bind us together. We need something that provides acceptance and forgiveness even when we fail one another. We also need something big enough to satisfy our infinite appetites for community, something divine. We need Jesus.

Jesus is sufficient for our failures and successes in community. He offers forgiveness for our failure to receive his acceptance and for seeking acceptance and significance in everything but God. With Jesus at the center of our church, we will find greater joy, love, acceptance, and purpose than anywhere else. As a result, we will want to share it, to multiply it, by bringing others into the church.

The gospel of Jesus makes us new people. It is his grace that forms the center of true community. As a result, Christian community is based on who you are, new people, not what you do. Acceptance and family membership is based on the gospel, upon our repentance from seeking significance in acceptance from persons and things other than God, and reception of God’s acceptance of us in Christ