Community: Now Only $14.95 Per Person!

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately. And I’m not the only one; community is high on the priority list for most people who attend a church in America today. But while community is important to almost everyone, that’s about where the commonality ends.

It seems there are as many different opinions of what church community should look like as there are people. The church I pastor, like many other churches, is made up of all sorts of different people. We have different church and denominational backgrounds (including many with none at all), different personalities, and different life experiences. This can lead to different ideas about how “community” should function.

With so many different opinions, how do we experience community at church? In fact, what is God’s ideal for church community? Interestingly, the Biblical phrase most frequently used to describes community is “one another.” As in pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens, encourage one another, be kind to one another, exhort one another, teach one another, admonish one another, be patient with one another, and love one another. Two things stand out in my mind as I examine this Biblical list of “one-anothers.”

First, Biblical community is all about, well, one another! Community does not mean a few insiders reaching out to the masses. It isn’t mainly about the few pastors or elders of a church pursuing each member, which would make community a top-down thing; something done to us. Rather, the Bible is describing community as all of us reaching out to all of us. Biblical community is a delightfully organic thing, engaging every person in a thriving dance of giving and receiving. Because community is not a one-way thing, the person who walks in to a church, sits down, and waits for community to happen to them is going to be waiting a long time. And the person who goes from church to church doing this, evaluating each one on how relational the church is will almost assuredly never find what they're looking for.

Which leads me to the second thing: a direct implication of the “one-another” language in the Bible is that community is not something you find. Community is something you help make. Many people bounce from church to church looking for community the way we might hop from store to store in search of just the right plasma TV. But because of its one-another nature, community can’t be boxed and put on a shelf for discovery. Community is not something we find at church; community is something we bring with us to church.

Community happens when I determine to be a one-anothering kind of person,
and I seek opportunities to share love, grace, patience, encouragement, and burden-bearing with those around me. It does not require me to have a socially outgoing personality. Rather, it requires me to spend enough time getting to know people that I know what needs they have, and what will encourage them. Then it requires me to take a little risk, by stepping out and meeting that need.

At that moment, you’re touching another person’s life powerfully. You become Jesus to them, you begin a strong relationship, and you make God’s church a little bit more like what he wants it to be.

And that’s way better than anything you can get from a store.

A Dawning Realization, Which I'd Rather Not Admit... that God changes me most, and makes me a far better, more Christ-like person through pain. There, I said it. Yuck. Not a huge fan of pain.

But it's true. There's something about being stretched to a breaking point by stress and difficulty that stretches and expands your character as well - if you let it. I'm coming to see this ever more clearly, through experience. When I come out of really challenging times, depleted and drained, I find myself strangely more empathetic; more sensitized to other people. I tend to sympathize more easily with their pains, and I also tend to appreciate other people who are naturally compassionate more readily. In other words, I'm a bit more compassionate myself for having been stretched.

I got to thinking about all this recently as we worked through a particularly intractable pain issue with Amy. We've learned how to cope with chronic stuff for the most part, which is good because like most guys I do NOT appreciate the feeling of not having full control over my circumstances. I also find that difficulty in my bride's life is much harder for me to handle than in anyone else's life, including my own. She's something of an Achilles' Heel, you might say. So this recent bout really frustrated me.

As always, God provided some answers and the ability for us to act on them. So we're "through it" for the time being. But I was just telling her that now, on the other side of it, I find myself changed. Why is it, I wondered aloud, that God has to use pain to change me? (And why does she get the unlucky task of being the main way for God to get my attention? What a lousy lot... sorry babe.) Most likely, pain is the road to change because under normal circumstances my life is pretty good. I'm generally in control and generally happy with the results. At such times I fall easily into a self-satisfied state, and lose my focus on the big picture. It is then that the worst of my nature can take over, and I can find myself task-oriented and not sufficiently engaged with other people.

That reminded me of a saying that a friend shared with me years ago - I don't know where it originated - and he asked me what I thought of it: "God cannot use someone greatly until he has wounded them deeply." I wasn't sure whether I agreed with it back then, and I'm still not entirely wild about the way it's worded. But I think it may be on to something. If that statement is saying that pain and difficulty can stretch our capacity to care for others, and that we thus become more like Christ when we walk through dark times, then I'm increasingly inclined to agree.

At the very least, I know that for this task- and intellectually-oriented person the times that strain me most are the times that increase my capacity for love the most. First of all for God and the future, unshakable kingdom he's promised us in Hebrews 12:28-29. And because of that, greater compassion and empathy for other people, whom he loves.

Whether I'd like to admit it or not.

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