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Longing for Community
We long for a place where we are welcome and where we can find friends and healing. God's provision is the local church. We haven't reached that ideal, but the cause is not lost.


Let's dream of a community where the weak are welcome. Where the lonely find friends. Where the poor feel rich and where the rich are poor in spirit. Where practical help and prayer go hand in hand. Where concern for others breaks down barriers and pours out into local communities and to the ends of the earth.

Although none of our churches have reached the ideal … the cause is not lost.

No foolish daydream, this is the church as it should be. Christ envisioned His followers caring for the hungry, inviting strangers home, clothing the poor, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners (see Matthew 25:31-46). Paul dreamed of a Church of "tenderness and compassion," where believers are "like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose … where each looks out for "the interests of others" (Philippians 2:1-4).

Someone recently commented, "There is not a building big enough to hold the people who would flock to a church that practiced true community." Although none of our churches have reached the ideal described in the verses above, the cause is not lost. Most of us can recall special experiences of care and concern that still make our eyes mist. Indeed, without the fellowship we enjoy in our local church most of us would be absolutely bereft. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes pain or tragedy to gain perspective.

When Carol and Gene Kent received the horrendous news that their only son had committed murder they fell into the loving arms of a caring community. A host of believing friends banded together to become their stretcher-bearers—a term inspired by those who brought the paralytic to Jesus.

I don't want to paper over problems in the church by using a dramatic example. Wallpaper rhetoric can't hide the ugly marks left by a body of believers who neglected one of their own during a crisis, or who ignored a weaker brother or sister instead of helping them.

If we grant that establishing a caring community is vital, where do we begin? From earliest times people have dreamed of establishing a utopia—a society where peace and provision reign, where progress and potential are encouraged, and where poverty and evil are unknown. Unfortunately, all such attempts have failed.

Knowledge of Old Testament history should keep us from being surprised by this. God called Israel to become a blessed community, a light to all the nations. Instead, it became a sordid example of the depth to which a privileged society can fall. The seeds of Israel's failure were not in its structure, nor its laws. People were the problem—Cain and Lot, Jacob and Esau, Aaron and Miriam, Saul and Solomon, and even David. Human nature is at fault in each case. Until something can be done about people, a caring community cannot be created. Hence, progress in building community is only possible where people acknowledge mankind's inability to build community.

Proclaiming the Gospel

Community building begins with a call for sinners to come to Christ for salvation. Until sinners are born again by the Holy Spirit their nature remains intractable. The believers of the Church founded at Pentecost demonstrated an amazing commitment to one another precisely because they accepted Peter's message of salvation and "devoted themselves to the apostle's teaching" (Acts 2:41, 42). The foundation of biblical community is a shared body of beliefs.

The best examples of caring communities, outside the New Testament, are those created in times of revival. Spiritual revivals are invariably associated with the names of great preachers like George Whitfield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. Where strong and applicable preaching is unknown, a sturdy sense of community is likely to be absent.

Leaders with servant hearts

Most laypersons and fulltime workers I queried about community drew attention to some aspect of church leadership. "It has to start with the pastors and elders, deacons, ministry leaders, etc. If the leadership is not genuinely interested in and concerned for people both inside and outside the church walls, you will never have true community" (Sandra Grant, layperson, Fellowship Baptist Church, Cobourg).

Leaders can promote or discourage the development of a caring community.

Communication ranked high in importance. "Communication must be open and transparent from the leaders to the congregation. Everyone should know what's going on" (Carl Bannister, elder, Long Branch Baptist Church, Toronto). "People must know and understand what is going on and be a part of the decision-making process" (Gillian Mauger, layperson, Bay Park Baptist Church, Kingston). Whatever we may feel about congregational meetings, their importance can hardly be overstated. Nor is paper wasted when a church publishes a summary of committee decisions. I've often seen Sunday evening "open forums" enhance a congregation's sense of involvement and openness.

Leaders can promote or discourage the development of a caring community. Some leaders drag their congregations kicking and complaining behind them. Others patiently communicate their vision and refuse to recommend a course of action until church members adopt the vision as their own. Pastor Ernest Kennedy of Fellowship Baptist Church in Cobourg believes in a third option. He thinks the vision should arise from the giftedness of the people and not be imposed from the top down. That has been his experience in Cobourg where many ministries grew out of the passionate concerns of members—divorce care, sports camps, support groups for those who grieve, practical help for singles.

Retired pastor John Bonham concurs. "If decisions are all top down, community is not fostered. If initiatives are only those of the pastor or pastoral staff, then community is not going to happen, people become spectators." He recounts how a well-chosen design committee, without a pastoral member, worked for three years on a building program. The committee members communicated so effectively with the congregation that when the 1.5 million dollar building program was presented, it was approved in ten minutes!

Biblical leadership is shared leadership. John Bonhm laments that, "Our Fellowship has a strong heritage and practice of 'one-man ministry,' … [the Baptist distinctive of] local church autonomy [becomes] local pastor autonomy … . Ministry should be led and carried out by teams." When the leaders are true servants the only distinctions they see between themselves and lay leaders concern giftedness, calling, and employment. Where a spirit of equality rules, community develops.

Loving one another

Without love all attempts to build community are fruitless. We can't ponder Christ's words too often. "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34, 35). Like a silver thread, this theme runs through Scripture. "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love" (Romans 12:10). Without it our programs are clanging cymbals and resounding brass (see 1 Corinthians 13:1).

… people with real needs or deep wounds can easily escape the attention of the church staff.

Loving other believers means we treat them as family. If we only meet other Christians in large gatherings our relationships will remain superficial. One doesn't have to adopt the cell church model to structure the church so people can get to know one another on a more intimate basis. At Long Branch Baptist Church in Toronto leaders organized a network of small groups, called encouragement groups. After 20 years they still continue.

Not everyone can or will attend small groups. As church membership increases, people with real needs or deep wounds can easily escape the attention of the church staff. Less vocal or less involved members can easily fall through the cracks. Dividing up the whole congregation into caring groups, with a layperson responsible for each group, helps address this problem. The layperson can write notes of encouragement or congratulation, visit those who are ill, and pass on prayer requests to the staff. These groups need not meet; they are organized to facilitate shepherding.

Former pastor David Daniels points out another way to build community. We need to work hard "to bring the members and adherents together in social activities, as well as the usual ministry activities." For 20 years, monthly soup and sandwich get-togethers have provided Long Branch Baptist Church with an informal way to encourage fellowship.

According to layperson Deborah Marling, participation builds community. Those who volunteer for any of the programs she organizes quickly develop a sense of togetherness. Her volunteers love and care for one another. The same dynamic is seen in Port Perry Baptist Church's "Helping Hands" ministry where a group helped a non-church family renovate a house for a stroke victim. David Daniels writes, "Anytime people band together to meet genuine human needs, it tends to bring them together."

Many hindrances could be mentioned, including ignorance of spiritual gifts and the worship wars. However, let me mention just a few others. The desire to control others dooms attempts at building true community. The passion to control often masquerades under a professed desire to keep a church true and pure when it is really driven by unvarnished ego and a failure to trust God's ability to administer the church He created.

Other misguided approaches that stifle community include leaders who dominate God's people rather than inspire them; those who smother ministry by forming endless committees; or those who use appeals to tradition to bludgeon new ideas.

Where the church fulfills its mandate to love as the Father loves the Son, it becomes a foretaste of heaven. In the fall of the year, a young woman named Linda traveled up the rugged highway from Alberta to the Yukon in run-down Honda Civic. The first evening she found a room in the mountains near a summit. She awoke at five a.m. to find the mountain shrouded in fog. She determined to press on. First, however, she ordered breakfast in a tiny café. The only other customers were two truckers.

When they learned that she planned to drive all the way to Whitehorse in her beat up car they exclaimed, "No way! This pass is dangerous in weather like this."

"Well, I'm determined to try," was Linda's gutsy but uninformed reply.

"Then, I guess we're just going to have to hug you," one trucker suggested.

"Don't touch me!" she replied.

"Not like that!" the truckers chuckled. "We'll put one truck in front of you and one in the rear."

All that foggy morning Linda followed the two red dots in front of her with the assurance that she had a big escort behind. With their help, she made it safely!

Don Graham writes, "Caught in the fog in our dangerous passage through life, we need to be 'hugged.' With fellow Christians who know the way and can lead safely ahead of us, and with others behind, gently encouraging us along, we too, can pass safely" (from Leadership by Don Graham, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan).

Eric E. Wright is a freelance writer and the editor of The Fellowship LINK magazine. He can be contacted at wrightee@eagle.ca.

Originally published in The Evangelical Baptist, Fall 2005.

 

 
 
 
 

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