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? 

 

Got to Get Yourself Connected: a book review

About ten years ago I read Randy Frazee’s The Connecting ChurchIt had a signifcant impact on me. While I typically don’t read mega-church pastors hoping to find deep community, Frazee had substance.  I found real theological depth and sociological insight. He challenged churches to be more attentive to solid biblical teaching, to commit to a particular place, and to share  life together.  While other church leaders were touting small groups as their complete answer to building community, Frazee kicked it up a notch.  This book challenged me and after reading it I found myself in thicker community, living in the inner-city sharing life with fellow believers and missionally trying to reach out to neighbors. Frazee’s book helped prepare me to make sacrificial commitments. It also helped me form my convictions about intergenerational ministry.

The Connecting Church 2.0: Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community by Randy Frazee

This month  The Connecting Church 2.0, is released. Frazee revisits the topic of community and reflects further on how to implement his suggestions.

Parts one through three follow the original book (slightly expanded). Part 4 discusses  how to implement the vision. In part one Frazee tackles the problem of individualism by exhorted us to community around a common purpose.For Christians who seek to be biblical, the Bible provides us with the story of God’s plan of redemption brought to fruition in Christ and his call on our lives to be his ambassadors. Frazee challenges us to know the Bible story. [This of course dovetails nicely with recent work that Frazee has done (with fellow pastor and author Max Lucado) on The Story]. 

Frazee addresses the problem of isolation in part two. Because of urban planning, automobiles and the suburbs, more and more people live in isolation from their fellow neighbors. Middle class culture tends to prize self sufficiency and independence. The tragic outcome  is that we do not know our neighbors nor are we known.  Frazee exhorts us to buck the trends and connect to a common place. This means investing in your neighborhood, stopping by to see your neighbor, borrowing things (putting yourself in a place of need) and spending time in the front yard (being accessible).  He also has some proactive ideas for church small groups. He suggests not breaking people up by life-stage-affinity groups but geographically. That way a small group, in a given area of the city is able to be really community for one another and a missional presence of their neighborhood.

Frazee discusses the problem of consumerism in part three and challenges us to share common possessions. By this he means more than just sharing stuff. He is exhorting us to a lifestyle of interdependence, intergenerational life, shared responsibility and mutual sacrifice. In many ways, this section puts all of the above together and was one of the things that really excited me about the first edition of this book.

Part four is written for ministers and church leaders to help them process how to become a connecting-church. Frazee opens this section with a chapter discussing some lessons he’s learned in the past ten years. He then discusses spider or starfish organizations (referencing a popular business book)  to contrast centralized leadership in a church  versus decentralized, organic approaches to organization and ministry. Most churches are more like spiders (a head with legs and a complex web surrounding them). Starfish have their DNA written in every part of their being, at every level. Frazee suggests a hybrid model where the church provides organizational structure but frees up small groups to pursue community and mission more organically.  Ultimately he commends the starfish model as the goal but knows that our churches are not able to make the shift yet.

I liked this book a lot and consider it an essential resource for church leaders seeking to deepen their experience of community. At the very least, this book should be in every church library, if not in every pastor’s study.  I think that Frazee’s challenges are good ones. But I found that what I liked about this book most was what I had read in the earlier form. I really appreciated Frazee’s thoughtfulness about how this works out and the wisdom he’s learned, but for me the thing that captivated me most was the original vision: a community united around a common purpose, in a common place, sharing common possessions. That is what church should be.  Unfortunately that isn’t always what church is. I am grateful for Frazee’s prophetic challenge and hope that this new edition will help the church to be the church.

I give this book 5 stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and Zondervan for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Intentional Christian Community Handbook by David Janzen: a book review

My experience in intentional community is limited. About nine years ago my wife and I did  Mission Year in Atlanta. We lived in community with three other couples and invested in our neighborhood there. After a year,  we moved with one of the other couples to Miami  and continued  community living.  At the end of  that year, they went their way and we went ours.  Community living had its headaches and there are things we would do differently, but my wife and I grew from our experience (and still love the couple!).  Currently, my wife and I live in a house in a gated community. We do not know our neighbors beyond polite pleasantries. We commute to church. We often feel isolated from those who know and love us best.

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: for Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus by David Janzen

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook was written as a guide for those in community, or those who are interested in intentional community living. The subtitle of the book  indicated it is “For Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus.” I happen to be all three, so I read with interest.  David Janzen helped found the New Creation Community in  Newton, Kansas in 1971. In 1984 he moved to Evanston, Illinois to be part of Reba Place Fellowship and has been there ever since. He is someone with a wealth of experience living in a ‘thicker’ style community where community members pool possessions and resource and share life together. He is also in conversation with  a variety of other intentional communities.  In these pages, Janzen offers his wisdom for thos who  interested in community, and what practices will sustain communities for the long haul.

This handbook  is divided into six sections which address different aspects and stages of community life. In part one,  Janzen talks about the longing for community in our  individualistic, consumeristic culture.  Trends in society have contributed to the break down of families and communities. Those who long for intentional community are bucking those trends.

In part two Janzen helps those interested in community discern ift a particular community context is right for them. He asks probing questions about what the calling of that particular community is, and whether or not you as the individual can find a place in that context. However he  also cautions this is not an individual decision. He suggests interning with the community, finding mentors and discerning your personal call with the wider community.

Part three examines considerations which precede community formation.  What will community look like? What is the calling and purpose of this community?  Where will we put down roots?  How will your community commit to racial reconciliation and gender equity? Or will it?  This section is fairly practical, and Janzen shares examples of what various communities have done.

Part four talks about the first year of community living. He urges new communities to work-out  leadership structures,  to thoughtful navigate careers and schedules and  advises  new communities to connect with other more established communities.  he challenges communities to clarify how they share life together (be the church).

In part five he discusses some of the growth edges for young communities. A community rule of life or a covenant may seem unnecessary in the early years of community but as a community matures they clarify identity and purpose.  Likewise, there will be growth and change in some community practices. Justice around food and creation care may occupy a more significant place than in earlier years of community life.  Communities also faces challenges when people leave, or fail to live up to the community’s ideals. One major challenge for growing communities is the presence of children. It is easier for single people to commit their life and resources to a cause and live in a ‘risky neighborhood.’ As families grow, communities change and often members move to ‘safer’ outlying neighborhoods.

Finally part six addresses issues relevant to the mature community. The communities need avenues for healing  hurts, uniting for a common mission, sustaining prophetic vocations, accountability, nurturing new communities, and caring for and challenging the ‘execptionally gifted person.

Janzen has numerous examples from his own community life and from a variety of other intentional communities.  I was pleased to see one of my mentors (Leroy Barber) profiled in the book. Because each community is different, this book is by necessity non-comprehensive. However it gives good food for thought and sage advice to all who are on the road to intentional Christian community. People in their twenties and thirties who have read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove or Shane Claiborne (who wrote the forward)  will find Janzen to be a wise guide as they seek to live in community.  Longstanding communities will also find places of challenge and growth. This is a very thoughtful resource!

I do not currently live in intentional community, but part of me still longs for it. Maybe this book will sow the seeds of something new for me and my family. Maybe it will for you too. I give it five stars ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for Providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review