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 saw that the process by which a group of people become a community follows a universal path, and he set 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 is twofold, both preaching and community-forging. In the New Testament, apostoloi seldom worked alone, but moved about in pairs. 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. People talk in generalities rather than about their own lives. This stage is merely agreement to avoid disagreements. It is not a true community, which knows how to resolve disagreements.

In the next stage, chaos breaks out. Disagreements begin, and grow as advice is offered that might have worked for one person but is not necessarily universal. Disagreements also break out over contentious matters, as people press others to agree with their own viewpoint. Some people show some of their vulnerabilities. This is all part of the process by which people with fallen ‘flesh’ (sarx in Paul’s Greek) become community. During this stage the apostolos has responsibility to know when to intervene. The temptation is to intervene too early, for the apostolos might get attacked for not providing leadership when it is actually best to let the group work out their deadlock, or at least experience its full depth. Some group members might respond by proposing rules for preventing conflict. The apostolos must not let rules be put in place, because they are law not grace, and Paul warned the Galatians that the two do not mix. A genuine community is a group that has learned to resolve conflict rather than avoid it.

In the third stage, people realise that they must empty themselves of their expectations – their assumptions, ideas and motives about the group and its members. These expectations must all 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. Yet it is hard to let go of your prejudices, or your wish to control others or to look good in front of them. Each person must recognise these things within himself or herself and be willing to renounce them. The end result, if they see it through, is a mature community, a genuine family of believers. They identify with each other – with each other’s pain, joy, hopes, and ultimately with their persons. That is unity. They arrange to meet each other beyond the two weekly Church 14-26 meetings, simply because they want to be in each other’s company. That is love. (Imagine the famous passage 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 with ‘love’ replaced by ‘community’.)

An example of 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.

Scott Peck, himself a Christian, found that the stages of community-forging were the same for Christians as for other groups. There are lesser differences, however. Sunday-only churches seldom get beyond the first or second stage. That is because they know they are supposed to love one another, and love means not fighting (although trouble will out). 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, for 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 are likely to give up when squabbling breaks out in stage two, because they know that it signals a failure of Christian love, and they reason that if God is not helping them to achieve unity then no higher power can. It helps if they know in advance that fall-outs will occur, and that the important thing is not to avoid conflict but to persevere and forgive each other. Seek neither agreement nor disagreement for its own sake. Whenever 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 be better at doing stage three, because it has parallels with processes described in the New Testament. Subjecting your expectations to death is called crucifying them (Romans 6:3-12) or mortification (Romans 8:13). Community must be nurtured; even after it has been attained, the group might fall back into squabbling or even empty politeness, but if it has tasted genuine community then it can recover it.

The apostolos must allow people to experience the full horror of each stage on the path to community, and after they have done so he must point them to the next stage. Once the community is up and running then, as further growth occurs, it can divide into housegroups which subsequent converts join.

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. (Hence the need for liturgy, or at least an order of service, as a substitute in churches in which the Holy Spirit does not manifest in most members.)

Why might Christians fall out? It is because when believers differ over church issues the stakes are high; church matters. One likely source of conflict is differing understandings of scripture, and the apostolos has choices to make at the beginning over what differences to tolerate. Theological differences will still come up in housegroups; when they do, the greater unity which believers share in Christ must be kept in view. Also, Church 14-26 meetings should not become de facto services held in a home, and conversely the group should not become merely an unthemed prayer group. If a group is moving in one of these directions and somebody points it out, the persons who are driving the move – either unawares or seeing no alternative – will likely object. Both sides should ask themselves what they think is happening that should not be happening and what they think is missing; then they should run those ideas past the whole group in the light of scripture. Believers who join a Church 14-26 from a conventional church background will have to unlearn some things about how church meets, and unlearning is harder than learning; in some ways a group is more easily started with new converts.

The group should 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.

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 facilitates that action. Pray hard 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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