Recently, I had the opportunity to preach on the topic of Christian community (specifically from the book of Acts). Although most everyone is probably very familiar with the term “community”, I am sure that if I asked five people to define community, I would probably get five different definitions. While it’s likely and even acceptable to have various definitions of community, the definition that I resonate with deeply and first heard from 3DM and Mike Breen is this:
“a collective group of people living together as a covenant family with a kingdom mission”
I love this definition because it encapsulates everything that we as disciples of Jesus are to be about.
To break down the definition and dive into a bit more detail on each let’s look at these four phrases:
· a collective group: we represent diversity, uniqueness, and a variety of life experiences and perspectives that come together “under one roof” and do life together. This may be one of the hardest parts of community – the “gelling together” aspect that is so countercultural to everything in our Western society, which is primarily highly individualistic. Culture tells us that in order to be the best version of yourself, you need to focus on just yourself and disregard the advice, counsel, and proximity of others. To the Christian, I would suggest that you can’t be “in community” and be a “lone ranger” at the same time. We need each other and all of us, together, make up a beautiful tapestry called the body of Christ, or the Church (See 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4).
· of people living together: we are not “lone rangers” just doing “our thing” with no regard for the larger community. We are committed to each other and that leads us to live our lives together. We share things. We sacrifice for each other. We encourage each other. We keep each other accountable. And the glue that holds all that together....our love for each other. (See John 13:35, Mark 3:31-35, Hebrews 10:22-26)
· as a covenant family: as we live in covenant with God, through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we are binding ourselves to God in an unending relationship and therefore the concept of “two becoming one”. The same type of relationship is God’s design for His Church, the people of God living together on earth. We are to live in complete unity and devotion to one another (See Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37) for the sake of the unbelieving world, so that they might catch a glimpse of the goodness of God through the way we as Christians love each other and are committed to each other (See John 17, John 13:35)
· with a kingdom mission: this may be the single most important distinctive that makes this definition unique to Christians. You see, without these four words: “with a Kingdom mission”, our definition of community could fit anything from a university sorority to the local Rotary Club. So in a nutshell, this is the mission: “The mission of the church (the community of believers) is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, gathering these disciples into churches that they may worship and obey Jesus now and into eternity to the glory of God the Father.” (definition by Kevin DeYoung)
Without this mission, we will be nothing more than a social club. Since Jesus is our King, he’s not looking just for a relationship but also for representatives or “ambassadors” and that’s the mission part – “the same people who are in a covenantal relationship with Him also adopt His mission and learn to represent His kingship in the world.” (quote from Mike Breen’s book “Family On Mission”) (Also see 2 Corinthians 5:20, Matthew 28:16-20, and this post by Kevin DeYoung on the “Mission of the Church”)
So there were some brief thoughts about Christian community and it is by no means exhaustive.
The second question we come to then is: “What is this community for? What’s the purpose? What is it all about?”
In the context of the early church, specifically in Acts 2, one commentator, Matt Skinner, notes that:
“The community of faith in Jerusalem lives a multifaceted witness, one not restricted to a single place or mode. This witness manifests itself in houses and in the Jerusalem temple. It benefits its members and earns the admiration of outsiders. The community exists not for its own sake, but to care for its most vulnerable members and to be a means by which God extends salvation to others (Acts2:47).” The community of faith exists as an extension of the ascended Lord Jesus' commitment to bring salvation to the world. Therefore, the virtues of justice, worship, and mutuality are not accomplishments of extraordinary folk; they are signs of the Spirit within a community of people who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity--not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers.”
As you read through the book of Acts, specifically 2:42-47 and 4:32-37, you can’t help but be in awe at the word picture being painted. I made this list and just imagining myself in the midst of this type of community is inspiring, to say the least. Take a look at how this first Christian community was described in these few verses:
- They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread (communion & sharing meals) and to prayer (2:42)
- Many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles (2:43)
- They had everything in common (2:44)
- they shared everything (2:45)
- everyday they were together (2:46)
- they were of one heart and soul (4:32)
- no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own (4:32)
- the Apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (4:33)
- great grace was among them all (4:33)
- there was not one needy person among them (4:34)
- many brought proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles feet and it was distributed to each as any had need (2:45, 4:34-35)
- they attended the temple together and ate meals in their homes and received their food with glad and sincere hearts (2:46)
- they had favor with all people (2:47)
- the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (2:47)
What stood out to you as you read that list of descriptions of the early church community?
The two major themes that stick out to me from that short list alone are that the early church obviously wasn’t a perfect people, but they were most certainly a devoted and united people.
DEVOTED TO EACH OTHER
Right off that bat, we see the early church accepting all people as they come to faith in Jesus and immersing them into the regular rhythms of the family. They are sharing meals together in their homes. They are selling their possessions to give money to the poor as well as to take care of each other. These people were devoted to each other in ways most of us may never experience. Once again, this concept pushes against the individualism mentality that we can so easily fall into. If we’re not careful, we’ll start thinking that because we work hard, the money and resources we’ve acquired are ours and ours to do with as we please. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite add up biblically when you read about how everything belongs to God (Psalm 24, 1 Corinthians 10:26, Hebrews 2:10), everything we have has been given to us as a gift from God (James 1:17), and that we are simply stewards of what we have to use for His glory until He returns again! (1 Peter 4:10, 1 Corinthians 4:2)
My Bible and my gut tell me that the early church understood this concept of being devoted to each other even if that meant they had to die to themselves, give some things up, or even live with less so that others may have some.
This is where a lot of us Christians, including myself, need to spend some time reflecting.
UNITED TOGETHER FOR A PURPOSE
Another piece to the early church community that jumps off the page is their unity amongst each other. Acts 4:37 says that those who believed were of “one heart and soul”. Some may wonder how in the world that would be possible...and I think part of the reason they were able to experience such great unity was because of what they were united around: the mission.
In John 17, Jesus is praying and in that one chapter alone, He prays four times that the believers would be one with the Father, just as Jesus was one with the Father.
In verse 20-21 we find the answer: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (emphasis added)
The reason unity matters so much is because the mission of the Church is to be a living, tangible expression of God’s love for us.
As we live in harmony, unity, and devotion to each other, unconditionally, the world witnesses the love of God paralleled for them. You see, our unity produces a Gospel-centered window through which the world can see and experience the tangible love of God.
This is also where unity and the mission intersect: The community of believers exists not for its own sake, but to care for its members AND to be a means by which God extends salvation to others.
The community of believers is a beautiful thing. As we walk in obedience to the Sprit in our everyday lives, we will find unity, devotion, mutual care, and purpose as we walk together as a covenant family with a Kingdom mission. That journey, my friends, will never disappoint.
Some questions for reflection:
1. Who are you living your Christian life with, for the purposes of making it to the end, persevering and maturing in Christ and advancing the mission of God?
2. What are some factors that hinder or prohibit you from involvement in community?
3. What could you individually and/or as a family do to foster this concept of community better in your faith community?