Community is about belonging. Everybody needs to belong to something, not just ‘signed up’ to it but really find themselves at home there, or else we drift, get ourselves isolated and then fall foul of doubts and darkness that overtake our minds. The modern world is largely losing its sense of community, and mental health issues are sharply on the rise.
The same is true of the church. To belong to a church we must do more than turn up once a week to watch a small group of people (or just one person!) run the meeting from the front, so that it doesn’t really matter whether we are present or not. I am not against structure and leadership in the church, but every member must be able to contribute towards the community to properly feel a part of it, whether on Sunday or during the week.
The apostle Paul had, perhaps, the opposite problem when he wrote to the new church in Corinth. In chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians he had to lay down instructions for orderly worship, so that their enthusiasm to participate could be channelled and developed for the benefit of all. What a good problem to have! These days we are set up with professional leadership for spectator-based services and scripted programmes (official and unofficial), and the occasional ‘audience participation’ slot.
It is clear from the vast range of gifts that we have as the people of God that we cannot all participate effectively every Sunday in a church meeting. Our church communities need to be much wider than that. Take for example a lady I know who grows a huge amount of vegetables in her garden. On many Sundays throughout the season she brings a box of beans or swede or whatever, and it is distributed after the service. Her contribution has blessed the church, not with a psalm or hymn or spiritual song, but with extremely fresh and good-tasting food for the nourishment of the body. Her input into the community has been considerable, just in this one area.
Now imagine a church community that took hold of this one thing and began to grow small amounts of food for each other. It’s not an attempt to be self-sufficient in order to cut out everyone else, but to demonstrate in simple ways that they love each other and stand together in all things. Or perhaps someone grows lavender and makes bags, or someone keeps bees and gifts honey, or someone knits, or… the list could go on getting longer and wider. In fact the commodity doesn’t really matter at all, it is the act of preparation and the joy of giving and receiving that is important. As long as it takes effort, and not necessarily money, then its worth will be eternal (see Matthew 10: 24 and the surrounding verses for Jesus’ comments about giving to acknowledge and bless the people of God).
To widen the activities of the church community in this way is not an inward-looking act but one of tremendous witness that is easily understood and appreciated by those watching us. Can you imagine, as Tertullian did in second century north Africa, people looking in at the church and saying, “See how these Christians love each other”? Then examine your immediate reaction to this article. Are you thinking about the impracticality of it all, or the extra time and effort it might mean, or how your fellow Christians wouldn’t appreciate it anyway? Then listen to the second half of Tertullian’s thoughts, “… and how they are ready to die for each other”, and realise what a long way the church in the west has come from the discipleship and commitment of the early church. Will we ever do what it takes to recover such devotion?