What’s in a Word?: What Do We Mean When We Say Community?

I have filled out my fair share of pastoral applications and have read through many church profiles. One of the things I have learned is this: every church values community.  No brainer, right? Why would you be part of a church if you didn’t value community? In a world that is increasingly spiritual and not religious, you wouldn’t. Being a church member means, at some level, we hunger for a deeper connection with others. And so it makes sense that I’ve heard churches describe the joy of community. Some churches even put community in their name. signifying how much being in community is part of their identity.

But what do churches mean when they say they ‘value community?’ I think there is quite a range in the practice. Some churches have a thin concept of community. For them, community means gathered worship, participating in a church event and maybe a small group. Other groups, influenced by monasticism (new and old), Anabaptism, and the second chapter of Acts have a much thicker practice of community with a more robust form of life-sharing. Think shared meals,  a common purse, intense relational commitment. Either thin or thick styled communities can have a sense of God’s presence in the church gathered, but thick communities are more intentional about continually gathering.

Thin communities are popular and widespread, but there is a pull towards a thicker, more robust form of community. Except where there isn’t. Sometimes in our efforts to reach the masses, we minimize the sort of lifestyle commitments we call people to. Sure we want community, but we also know how busy people are and we don’t want them to feel overburdened. So we lower the bar. We call people brother and sister, but don’t bother with them outside of  our church sponsored events. Acts 2 and 4 speaks about a radical commitment, but as many conservative commentators remind us, Acts is being ‘descriptive’ not ‘prescriptive.’ Nowhere are we commanded to share life in this way! I have a friend who is a youth pastor who uses Acts 2 to teach his kids proper Biblical exegesis by demonstrating that Acts 2:42-47 doesn’t really apply to them.

To me, this lacks imagination. We may not be required to join an intentional Christian community and sell all our private property, but the fact that the first group of people ever called ‘church’ did is amazing. It evokes communal imagination of how we can share life together. We need to let this passage challenge our individualistic, privatized lives and our lack of commitment to one another.

Three chapters later, Ananias and Sapphira are struck down for pretending to share their possessions. Peter says to Ananias,” “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?  Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4). If we allow this passage to speak to us about community we learn two things. First, a robust community is never about compulsion. Ananias was free to share life with the church in Jerusalem and still hold something back.  There was no command to ‘sell all he had to give to the poor.’ Second, we see Ananias and Sapphira under judgment (struck down!) because they lied to the Holy Spirit. 

This is a disturbing passage and one of the difficulties I have with it is what it shows me about how much God hates our pretensions of community. Ananias and Sapphira died because they said they made a commitment, they never made. How often have I done that? How often have I called my fellow church member brother or sister, but resisted my responsibility towards them as a family member?  How many times have I promised to pray for another and did not? Where have I said I would be available or said I was willing to serve, and yet totally flaked on my commitment to others?

If we are honest, we know we all fail at community. One of the reasons that an Acts-2-style community is left largely untried is because we know we could not sustain that sort of life sharing. But this passage is a prophetic call toward a deeper shared life. This is one of the reasons I celebrate movements like the New Monasticism (and other incarnations of  Intentional Christian Community).  It is when we covenant with others that we are formed more fully into the image of Christ. His body transforms us and invites us into a shared life of mutual giving and receiving. Sundays and Wednesdays are not enough!

What would deeper community look like for you? 


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