By Community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature…A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion and forgiveness…Community life is by definition a life of cooperation and responsibility. Private life and public life, without the disciplines of community interest, necessarily gravitate toward competition and exploitation.
~Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community-a collection of essays. pp. 120-121.
Mix Three Ingredients
This is where community and much of our experience with conventional church structures part company. If Berry is right in his definition community, then most of our experience in church does not reflect it. It seems to me that our people—by that, I mean the followers of Christ—should naturally reflect the qualities that Berry mentions. Indeed, those very qualities seemed to emerge quite spontaneously in Acts chapter two. The significance is in the fact that there were no other influences on the newborn church than the gospel message and the presence of the Spirit. There were no slick programs and stewardship drives. No Evangelism Explosion, Experiencing God, or Purpose Driven Life. There was the gospel, the Spirit and the Church. Mix the three and the elements of community came forth like a fragrance.
It needs to be said that the conditions in Jerusalem at the time were unique. Many of the new believers were pilgrims on the verge of packing up and heading home. To have one’s travel plans interrupted by the Spirit of God made a change of plans imperative. Still, the first century response to the need of the moment is instructive. Hospitality was a natural answer to the plight of homeless travelers who, based on the surprising events, needed to remain to find out what came next for a follower of Jesus. Proximity to other believers was a simple necessity. Interdependence became a way of life. The result of the new church’s answer to the Holy Spirit and the new life He brought was, “day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Conviction vs. Affection
I heard my wife, Jody, say the other day, “Community isn’t about affection, it’s about conviction.” I think she is right. I think that buried in the soul of every believer is the understanding that we are not to live independently, but interdependently. If we listen carefully to the prompting of the Spirit, we can hear the command (note it’s a command, not an invitation or suggestion) to love one another. Commands don’t happen by accident; neither do they always happen by preference. Sometimes commands must simply be obeyed. Community is the environment that God creates among us that best supports the Great Commandment, love God, love your neighbor. Without deliberately choosing an environment in which we can do unto others as we would have them do unto us, whether we prefer to do so or not, we will never fulfill the law and the prophets which Jesus declared was the desired outcome of such conduct (John 7:12). Berry’s community, then, isn’t a pleasant image—a Kinkade painting—but a description of the life we must choose purposefully.