Community happens in different places and spaces. It happens in a small group at church whether that’s your community group, your worship team, your children’s serve team or another group where you have shared experiences. It happens in your expat group when you live overseas. It happens with your neighbors here or abroad. It happens with the moms of your friends. Because after all, who knows better than they do how challenging parenting can be? It happens in all kinds of groups. The thing about community, whether it is with a group of Jesus followers at your church, or your neighbors next door, or your team at your office, clearly, just the group itself does not“community” make. Community happens when we invest in that group on a deeper level than that which is rendered by humdrum greetings and superficial engagements. Spiritual growth quite naturally is born out of real community. When you have authentic community resulting from personal investment which includes personal disclosure and quality time spent together, spiritual growth is inherent. It is inevitable. You can’t really stop it from happening. In fact, I would go so far as to say, that in the same way a lack of engagement in the Word, or an on and off prayer life, can stymie spiritual growth, so can a lack of true community.
So how does community grow us spiritually? How does it make us better friends, spouses, parents, employees, or ministry leaders? How does community compel us to be more loving agents of the Gospel? Well, when you engage with people in your home, or over a meal, or at their child’s T-ball game, or in most any place that is away from the church pews, it transforms you from a spectator to a player-from a consumer to a producer. Community is one way we express our faith in action. It means doing life with people outside of your immediate family. We are a military family, now retired. In that business, we moved a handful of times. That did not stop us from forming the kind of community in our lives that propped us up emotionally and spiritually. Indeed, that career demanded it. In those years of frequent transition and change, we formed communities literally home and abroad that helped sustain our marriage and our family life. Those communities were composed of diverse and fascinating people. Undoubtedly some of them were very similar to us in every way, but many of them were very different-different in ethnicity, politics, and religion. In fact, the four years we lived in Germany, we were never able to come home for Thanksgiving, so we exploited that opportunity to share our holiday celebrations with our neighbors who included German, Dutch, French, Canadian, and American. As we gazed around that table of God given bounty, and not just food, but the bounty of fellowship, with our own children serving our invited guests, I was reminded of the parable of the wedding banquet in Luke 14. The prep for that banquet began with an expectation of guests who looked a lot like Jesus but ended up being just the opposite. As we shared food and fellowship around our own banquet table in our small village in Germany, it was overwhelming to think about how God blessed us with such camaraderie and hope as we had found in the most unlikely of friends. Language barriers be damned. And that is just the thing about true community. It strives to erase those barriers. And not just language barriers, but cultural and social barriers. Community is often a real-life picture of Ephesians 2 which says “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
Community also helped us survive those tough years of being newly married. I often tell people that Paul and I “grew up together” as young single adults and forward, in church small groups. Community gave us hope and encouragement when raising babies from infancy to young adult. Recently we went to a wedding for a daughter of one of those “old” friends. As well as a wedding, it was also a small reunion of our old life group, the one that started us on our way with babies, the one that propped us up emotionally and gave us the confidence necessary to handle that ginormous task of parenting. And at every season of parenting, I have relied on my community of sweet and loving mom friends who have the courage to hold me accountable while at the same time loving me unconditionally.
Truly, the world inflicts much deeper wounds than what our skill set alone is able to reconcile. We were simply never hardwired to power through life on an island, single handedly fighting our way through the trials and hardships that life abundantly supplies. Likewise, we were not hardwired to revel in our joys alone. What parent ever said, “I hope no one asks me about my daughter’s latest accomplishments?” Said no parent ever! What person ever said” “I am keeping the news about my big promotion all to myself?” Not one person ever! Community invites us into a place of utter refuge, a place of hope, a place of unspeakable joy, a place where DNA isn’t required and where-thank you Jesus-the every-day, unrelenting evil of this world cannot breech the threshold of those who surround us with such deep and abiding love and acceptance. In Zephaniah 3:9 the Lord said, “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lordand serve him shoulder to shoulder.”Is that not one of the most beautiful pictures of community you have ever seen in the written Word? Just imagine a group of people who do life together shoulder to shoulderso much so that when the going gets tough, the tough can still get going.
Paul the apostle understood the value and necessity of community as well as anyone. His tearful separation from the Ephesian elders at the close of Acts 20 is underscored by Luke’s words in Verse 1 of the following chapter, “After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea.” This preempted their arrival and layover in Tyre where the bible says, “We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home.” Wow. That’s some serious community.
If you are someone who is “community-less,” ask yourself a couple of introspective questions: 1) Am I a person who walks in and out of the spaces and places of my life, including my church, without interacting with anyone or without investing any of myself, my gifts, or my time in that place? OR 2) Am I so hungry for community that I am over-involved in so many “small groups” that I have not the time or energy necessary to invest in one or two of those groups on a personal, deep level?” Both of these situations can render you community-less. Because remember what we said earlier: “Community happens when we invest in that group on a deeper level than what is rendered by humdrum greetings and superficial engagements;” and it requires“personal disclosure and quality time spent together.” Neither of these two aforementioned situations (under involvement or over involvement) allow for this.
In his poem penned in the 16thcentury John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” I think Donne was so so right. You might say, I cannot afford either the time or the emotional investment of community.” I say, “you cannot afford the loss that is sure to happen without it.” I don’t think human life can sustain itself without community.
And as a final important thought, if you are a parent, the last thing you want to do is to send your kids out into this chaotic, cruel world community-less. Kids who have never had community modeled for them, or who have never lived their lives this way, often become church casualties. If they have spent their whole lives leading up to college surrounded only by their immediate family, even if that included “regular” church attendance, will they know how to form the kinds of relationships away from home that love them so much they are willing to hold them accountable, and to laugh with them when they laugh, and cry with them when they cry? Relationships that steer them toward God, not away? I fear not. We must have a sense of urgency when it comes to equipping our kids to embrace true community.
Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, it does not matter. I’m more introvert than extrovert. I tend to recharge alone-not together. I often seek out solitude when my life is in overdrive. But undoubtedly, I enthusiastically seek out God given, and God ordained community when I need hope, help and truth; conviction, love and joy!