Monday, July 9, 2012

Church Community: Ends or Means?

Perhaps you have noticed that one of the buzz words circulating in the church world today is "community." Recently I listened to an interesting and eye-opening talk by Chris Rosebrough on some of the origins of this movement (if you are interested in listening to the 90 min talk you can click here). It is quite interesting to trace some of these modern roots, but there is a lot of biblical warrant for a focus on community. After all, the Greek word where we get our word "church" ekklesia means gathering or assembly. What I am troubled about is that "community" has become the end rather than the means to an end. Let me explain.

In recent years, seeker-friendly churches have moved away from small group Bible study classes to "community groups." The goal of these groups is personal connection and interaction. I see a fundamental problem with this:

The last hold out in the church for true, transformative discipleship has been replaced with watered down conversations focusing on subjective experience (this is right in line with a postmodern/existentialist worldview). This might seem like a bit of a hyperbole, but talk with your average seeker-driven church and you will probably find something like this:

You: I've noticed that your sermons focus on life topics rather than on in depth teaching of the Bible.

Church Staff: Our Sunday morning experience is arranged to be accessible to everyone. We don't want to push people away with a lot of heavy teaching. Hopefully they will find a home here and get plugged in deeper.

You: So, if I want more knowledge of the Bible, I should go to a Sunday School class?

Church Staff: We are moving away from these type of classes and pushing for community groups.

You: OK. So that's where I would go to learn more about the Bible?

Church Staff: Actually, the primary goal of community groups is not in depth Bible study but fellowship and connection within the church--a good place to bring your unchurched friends. They are designed to be a safe environment for unbelievers.

You: So...where do I go to learn more about what the church actually believes, more about the Bible and theology?

Church Staff: Well, you can study on your own or start a study, but Christians need to quit whining about going deeper and wanting to learn more. We need to be out in the community "loving on people" and not be bickering about our beliefs.

You may think that I am exaggerating, but I as have researched church trends, talked with friends in ministry or who are looking to plug-in to a local church body, scrolled through dozens of church websites, and read articles and books, I assure you I am not.

I hope you can see the problem with this model too. Namely, no true discipleship ever happens. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus calls us to baptize and teach them to observe everything that He has commanded.

If community is the end goal or service is the end goal, then let me ask what the fundamental difference is between being in a book club or a service organization like the Rotary or the Lions clubs? Why go to church?

Community is important, but the identity and center focus of that community must be Jesus Christ, as revealed by the Scriptures, if the church is going to be fundamentally different--if it is going to be salt and light in the world. Thus, community is not the ultimate goal--Jesus is. So if the body, the church, the ekklesia isn't focusing on helping us be more like Christ (and not just in the narrow focus of service to others) it isn't Christian community. Jesus didn't die because He was a really nice guy that helped people. His theology got Him killed. He didn't found 4H. He founded His church (Matt 16:18). A casual glance through Stephen's speech in Acts 7 will show that God has abandon rebellious and hard-hearted projects, such as the tabernacle at Shiloh and the Temple, before. For the "church" to be the Body of Christ, it has to be the place, the community where the Spirit of Christ resides. Jesus thought little of the masses. Jesus focused on discipleship.

Does this ring true to your experience? I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

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