It's impossible for me to read the book of Acts without thinking a lot about community. The word gets thrown around a lot, but I'm not sure most of us have a good idea of what it means; maybe we have some kind of image in our head, but the specifics and the logistics are unclear. Churches title themselves with it, pastors pray for it, congregants crave it - but what did God really mean it to look like?
Here are some of the things I've learned as I've been studying and mulling over this concept.
FIRST, BIBLICAL COMMUNITY IS FOUNDED ON THE TRUTH.
The word itself is a bit of a giveaway, coming from the roots "common" and "unity." It means we aren't intended to be a congregation of individuals who each have personal relationships with Christ - we are intended to be a cohesive unit that stands, moves, and works together based on our common ground of undeserved adoption into God's family. It is the truth of their sin and lostness that draws three thousand people together into one of the most beautiful pictures of community we have in the Bible:
[Peter said,] "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ - this Jesus whom you crucified."
Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." . . . So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . . .
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common.
- Acts 2:36-38, 41-42, 44
Biblical community starts with the Gospel - the truth of God's holiness and grace, and of our sinfulness and desperation without Him. The beautiful thing about this is that it brings us all to level ground: regardless of our age, gender, appearance, race, or social status, we are all equals at the foot of the Cross. We have both a commonness and a unity with one another. That is why one of our most sacred rituals as a body is called "communion" - because communion is a sharp reminder of the place of darkness we all originated from and have all been saved from through the blood of Christ.
This demands that the community of our churches be friendly to diversity - not just the buzzword diversity that is popular in our politics right now, but a diversity that throws together people from every walk of life to learn from each other. Biblical community does not segregate people based on age or the current "season" of their lives! It is concepts like "college groups" and "over 50s" that destroy the beautiful purpose of community as a place to be sanctified in Christ. How will newly married people be taught the exhausting (I mean, sanctifying) demands of small children if childcare is always provided? How will fidgety toddlers learn self-control if they are never required to sit through a church service? How will older believers have the opportunity to obey the Word by passing on their wisdom (Titus 2) if they never cross paths with the college students who desperately need it?
THUS, BIBLICAL COMMUNITY IS A MINISTRY.
I'm not sure why, but I usually hear "community" and "ministry" used very separately in the church. It's as if we have this idea that community is merely an attribute of the body, while ministry is its actual purpose.
However, I would argue that no - or very little - effective ministry happens outside of community. Nor was it intended to. This was made very clear by Jesus in His last words to His disciples in John 14-16, and finally in His prayer for them in Gethsemane:
"[I ask] that they may all be one, even 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 sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me."
How was the world intended to learn the truth of Christ? By the oneness of the Church! Community is so much more than an ideal. It is a powerful ministry that should be cultivated and cared for as much as we would care for an evangelist or an outreach program. Paul, speaking of the necessity of unselfish ministry to our own brethren (specifically the giving of financial resources from one church to another, in order to expand their ministry to the unsaved around them), said,
Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. . . . Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness; you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God. Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ.
2 Corinthians 9:6, 10-13a
And, not surprisingly, both Jesus and Paul are proved right by the unprecedented growth of the body of three thousand that we already read about in Acts 2:
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. . . . And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-45, 47b
When we recognize that we are all equally unworthy and equally made righteous by the love of Christ, the ministry-killers that are selfishness and division no longer have a place in us. Reflecting the unselfish love we have been saved by is the only possible response - and the abundant bearing of fruit for the Kingdom is the only possible outcome.
FINALLY, BIBLICAL COMMUNITY DEMANDS A FACE-TO-FACE INVESTMENT OF LOVE, COMPASSION, AND ABOVE ALL, TIME.
We like to blame the death of genuine community in our churches on the advance of social media. In some ways, that may be true - I know for me it can be nearly impossible to fuel a face-to-face conversation when first of all, I already know every major thing you have done recently because you posted them on Instagram, and secondly, I don't have the energy left to care very much after being bombarded by hundreds of people's "like me! like me!" posts all week.
But I think to limit the blame to social media would be short-sighted. The root of the problem is deeper.
Simply put, we don't expect people to build flourishing relationships with God on a Sunday-morning-only basis - so why do we expect to build community as a body that way?
Let's take one more example from the church in Acts 2:
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . . .
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.
Acts 2:42, 46
Notice the words "continually" and "day by day." Not "on Sunday mornings" or "on the Sabbath." These Christians made it an every day priority to learn the Word, to fellowship with each other, to share their resources, and to worship God together.
It is a tragedy that in our culture, we can't imagine meeting our brethren daily to fill our souls with nourishment. We're much too busy - too busy making money to fill our bellies, too busy living a fantasy life through television and YouTube, too busy living in the faux community of social media, or whatever it may be. Our souls starve for the Word and the ministry of the saints while we fill up on emptiness and then get angry that we aren't "getting anything out of" Sunday morning church.
Well, here's the truth: Sunday morning alone was never intended to create community. Sunday morning is important, definitely, because it brings us together to learn, and the teaching of the Word should always be a priority because it is the truth that binds us. But we are in error if we neglect the maintenance of that bond, which comes in times of fellowship, of eating together, and of seeking God together in prayer. Not every gathering of believers needs to be structured or managed or outlined by discussion questions - sometimes the best food for a healthy church is just, well, food. Food, and the time to linger over it, connecting candidly through our common ground in Christ.
Are our hopes to achieve community like this unrealistic? I don't believe they are - in fact, I think community is the changeless will of God for His Church. However, I think we will make the process that much more difficult if we don't get a firm Biblical grasp of what community really is. As long as we treat it like it can only exist among groups of like mind and situation, or like a luxury instead of a necessary ministry, or like something that can happen without sacrificing much more than Sunday morning every week, I think it will be very, very hard to achieve.
Community means we stand on what we have in common as children of God - not necessarily just what we share as Americans or newlyweds or football fans or moms. Community means we work in unity to strengthen each other for the lifelong pursuit of serving Christ and reaching out to the lost. Community means we invest our most precious commodity - time - into the body of Christ, knowing that nothing else that calls for our attention is as important or fulfilling as seeking His Kingdom and His righteousness.
Acts: God of Power
Total read time: 2.25 hours
1 Thessalonians: God of Encouragement
Total read time: 15 minutes
2 Thessalonians: God of Admonishment
Total read time: 10 minutes
Galatians: God of Justification
Total read time: 20 minutes