Building Community

Frank Viola warns in his books that fresh-start housechurches often fail within two years, either breaking up through differences or giving up on the vision and just going through the motions in meetings. When this happens it is because they fail to become a true community. In Scott Peck’s book The Different Drum, the first part, called The Foundation, is about the moulding of a group of people into a genuine community. (The rest of the book is a mixed bag and is not relevant to Church 14-26.) Peck sets out the stages and the pitfalls along the way. An apostolos is a ‘team builder’ who works with a group of persons converted under his preaching, so as to forge them into a community. The role of the apostolos in the New Testament is twofold, both preaching and community-forging. Scripture records that apostoloi seldom worked alone. How they shared these tasks is not specified, and in Church 14-26 the two tasks may be assigned to different persons.

In the first stage of community-forging, everybody gets on well, because they are avoiding disagreements and contentious issues and hiding their vulnerabilities. Personal questions and contentious issues are not brought up, and if they do arise then the subject is soon changed. This stage is merely agreement to avoid disagreements. A true community understands how to resolve disagreements.

In the next stage, chaos breaks out. Disagreements begin, and grow. Some people show some of their vulnerabilities. During this stage the apostolos has responsibility to know when to intervene – and when not to, for sometimes it is best to let the group work out their deadlock, or at least experience its full depth. Some group members might propose rules for preventing conflict. That would be law rather than grace, and the apostolos must refuse such rules. He must let people taste the full depth of each stage on the path to community before pointing them on to the next stage. A likely source of conflict is differing understandings of scripture, and the apostolos must choose at the start what differences to tolerate.

In the third stage, people realise that they must empty themselves of their expectations – their ideas and motives about the group and its members. These must be subject to death. This is the crucial stage in the process of becoming community, because it is the point at which people are required to change – and you can change only yourself. The end result, if people see it through, is a mature community, a genuine family of believers. They are committed to one another, they identify with one another – with each other’s pain, joy, hopes, and ultimately with their persons. That is unity. That is love. “Love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples” – Jesus in John 13:34-35. (Imagine the famous passage 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 with ‘love’ replaced by ‘community’.)

Self-emptying can be seen in 1 Corinthians 2:2, where Paul arrived in Corinth from Athens determined to depend exclusively on Jesus Christ crucified and risen (see Acts 17 & 18). In Athens he had begun in the synagogue and then been drawn into a fierce confrontation with philosophers. Only a few people converted in Athens and Acts 17 does not record any miracles there, whereas in Corinth a flourishing church sprang up.

Sunday-only churches seldom get beyond the first or second stage, which is why most of them are hardly more loving than the world. Frank Viola wrote in Reimagining Church (p.11) that “I… saw very little spiritual transformation in the people who attended these [traditional] churches. And the spiritual growth that I myself experienced seemed to occur outside of traditional church settings.” There would be instant community and love without strife if all Christians behaved like Jesus Christ all of the time, but they don’t, and trying to simulate loving behaviour by willpower is futile. That is because our will is part of our sarx, our fallen self, and must be laid down. Change does not mean changing your desires to match God’s so that you use your will to do what God wants; that is impossible. Instead, your will must be crucified, and you must identify with the new life you receive in Christ (Galatians 2:20).

Christians often give up when squabbling breaks out in stage two, because they know that it signals a failure of Christian love, and if God is not helping them toward unity then unity seems impossible. The important thing is not to avoid conflict but to persevere and forgive each other. If you find yourself in a difference of opinion, strip your rhetoric of satire and barbs; say what you think and why, but say it courteously. (That is not the norm in our culture.) Say what statements or actions you disagree with, rather than disagreeing with the personality of the other. Christians should actually be better at doing stage three, because it involves some processes described in the New Testament: subjecting your expectations to death is called crucifying them (Romans 6:3-12) or mortification (Romans 8:13).

Scott Peck, himself a Christian, found that the stages of community-forging were the same for Christians as for other groups. But there is something unique that Christians can do which I doubt he witnessed. Jesus said that where believers gather for Christian purposes, He would be present (Matthew 18:20). Believers should therefore speak and behave as if Jesus were actually in the room but invisible – because he is! Genuine believers will soon get into the habit of speaking according to the view that Jesus is present. Pin notices on the wall saying “Don’t speak about Jesus in his presence – speak to him or to others!” A flavour of the shift required can be experienced by reading Frank Laubach’s book The Master Speaks, a harmonisation of the gospels altered grammatically to put Jesus into the first person – effectively an autobiography of his time on earth. By speaking of Jesus as You, rather than He or by name, you are not trying to convince yourself of something that isn’t true – you are trying to convince yourself of something that IS true.

Not many gatherings of Christians are conducted like that, even though Paul said that we should pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17, Ephesians 6:18), a statement that suggests prayer isn’t what it is often taken to be. Speaking one by one directly to Jesus is only part of group meetings, for we encounter him in others too. Meetings should encourage fluid social interactions that facilitate people getting to know each other better – each one’s hopes and fears – the better to love and support each other in mutual edification. People only open up when they trust each other, and winning trust takes time, effort and wisdom. The result is koinonia, which in the Christian context means the corporate experience of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus Christ is given freedom to set the agenda and run the group. Even if your private relationship with Jesus is firm, this adds a further dimension to your faith.

Christianity is a religion of relationship. In community, the group learns who has which gifts of the Holy Spirit, so as to work together as the body of Christ. The spirit of the community, its ‘community spirit’ or spirit of unity, is the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4). The presence of the Holy Spirit is vital, for you cannot just decide to prophesy as described in 1 Corinthians 14; it is God speaking.

The group can usefully learn to practice silence for 5 or 10 minutes as an exercise in just being with each other. They should be aware of each other during these times, and not close their eyes or ‘tune out’ into solitary prayer. Quakers are aware of the advantages of this practice.

The optimal group size is about 12, based on the number of disciples whom Jesus chose to accompany him, the size of regular indoor rooms, and the balance between intimacy and diversity. The work of the anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that the numbers of people that anybody can know meaningfully, and know closely among these, are hard-wired, and 12 is a good size for a close group. Groups will not be static in practice, because people come and go. Do not criticise anybody who departs. If it becomes necessary to exclude an errant brother in order the keep the bride of Christ clean, meeting in homes makes exclusion easier logistically. Pray for them.

A saying from Africa is that it takes a village to raise a child. Likewise, it takes a church that is a genuine community to nurture faith ceaselessly and raise a Christian to spiritual maturity and live the Bible. Because secular humanism is more concerned with society than with the individual, it is seen most clearly – the better to differentiate from – by a community of Christians. This is the biggest difference between churches in our culture and churches in Acts of the Apostles. A Christian community will show charity and hospitality to people in the secular world (Matthew 25:35-36), simply because of what it is. In a book called The Red Dragon Cast Down, Jim Wilder explains also how a community of Christians is necessary (and sufficient) to give the support needed by persons who have suffered the worst wounds that can be inflicted on anybody.

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