The human ego is a sly and persistent bugger. Our bent toward self-centeredness is an ever-present menace in times of well-intended Christian living. You never know when and where the individual ego, under the strong influence of the Enemy, will take and distort an otherwise good, God made gift.
The Enemy will often lead our dry, thirsty souls to water. But then instead of drinking our fill we end up splashing around and skipping rocks, leaving more parched and thirsty than when we arrived.
This is certainly the case with some forms of “community” we are finding within the life of the church. Our culture of fast-paced, career-driven, materialistic lifestyles has left many people with a great sense of emptiness and a longing for connection and belonging. When we spend our waking hours as cogs in the machinery of various businesses, corporations and organizations, many begin to yearn for a more soul-enriching purpose and to be placed within a different story and community.
More Meaning than The Quest for the American Dream
The church offers such a place. The church stands at the busy intersections of our daily jobs and family lives, and invites the weary soul to become part of a community with a purpose—a deeper, more satisfying purpose than the world offers. The church tells another story that gives our lives more meaning than the quest for the American dream.
However, some of the community we experience within church circles still fails to rescue us from the individualistic, self-centered orientation of the world. All too often we simply bring the worldliness and “fleshly” mindset into our Christian community gatherings and never see God’s gospel and Kingdom reality radically transform us into new people filled with new perspective, values and commitments reshaped around the Christian story and simple obedience to the Way of Jesus.
In their bold, prophetic book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon offer a sharp and timely warning to Christians to beware of a pseudo-community that can offer us a form of “togetherness” that our lonely hearts crave but nevertheless leads us no closer to Christ. If we’re not careful and vigilant, all kinds of so-called Christian communities — Bible studies, book studies, small groups, youth groups, house fellowships — while good intentioned nevertheless are built upon and centered around all the wrong things. In their words:
“When people are very detached, very devoid of purpose and a coherent world view, Christians must be very suspicious of talk about community. In a world like ours, people will be attracted to communities that promise them an easy way out of loneliness, togetherness based on common tastes, racial or ethnic traits, or mutual self-interest. There is then little check on community becoming as tyrannical as the individual ego. Community becomes totalitarian when its only purpose is to foster a sense of belonging in order to overcome the fragility of the lone individual” (Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens, 78).
A Kingdom-Oriented Life and the World Around Us
There is nothing wrong with togetherness based on similar tastes and common interests. We’re not out to put an end to book clubs, church softball teams, golf leagues and knitting circle. These are good things. But we should monitor whether this is as deep as our common bond goes. Our world is certainly offering many short cuts to cheap and shallow forms of togetherness: from internet chats and online flings to company parties, shooting the breeze at the bar or fantasy football leagues—all surface and no substance.
But the community formed around the story of God’s activity in the world in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus invites us to a new life together that goes to the deepest level of our being — our core beliefs, values, commitments, purpose and relationships. The community we share as Christians is not the end itself but the means to a far greater goal of embodying the life of Christ in our fellowship and letting that Kingdom-oriented life flow out into the wider world around us. As Hauerwas and Willimon put it:
“Christian community, life in the colony, is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about disciplining our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives. In living out the story together, togetherness happens, but only as a by-product of the main project of trying to be faithful to Jesus” (78).
Those who’ve had their hearts renewed by the Holy Spirit and transformed by the gospel desire a deep, Jesus-centered unity with other believers. They want more than mere togetherness. They want to celebrate their common treasure together, swap stories of his amazing grace together, explore the depths of his Holy Word together, serve others in his name together, spread the message of the gospel together and offer up worship and praise together. The Christian community God designed us for has at its focus on the single-minded pursuit of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
Mutual Love and Passion for the Gospel
Sadly, many Christians will gather this week in Christian homes and buildings to do Christian things, read Christian books, offer Christian prayers and talk about Christian topics but never experience the deep bond of mutual love and passion for the gospel. Many will not escape the powerful demands of an ego still enslaved to its own desires and needs. They’ll come primarily to “be filled” and have their needs met. They’ll come out of fear and obligation to sooth an otherwise guilty conscience. They’ll come to be part of something larger than themselves but turn it into another opportunity to serve themselves. They’ll come thirsty for the life-in-community God desires for them but only splash around for an hour or so in a shallow puddle of mere togetherness and go home just as thirsty as they came.
True Christian community is a gift from God and can be entered into and experienced only as we’re rescued from our sinful bondage to ourselves. Only as our gaze is lifted off of ourselves and turned toward others in self-denying, other-oriented love can we begin to enter into the joy of Christian fellowship, of being the corporate expression of His Body to a world in need.