Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Church as Community in Community

            One of the consequences of the cultural shift from modernity to postmodernity is a shift from being individual centered to being community centered. “Postmoderns need and want community. They don’t know how to get it and they are not good at it,” asserts Don Bartel.[1] People need a place to belong. When the body of Christ is seen working together, serving together and worshiping together it is attractive to disassociated postmoderns and it buttresses the message of Christ.
            A church should be proactive and strategic about creating “communitas.” Communitas is described as an intense spirit of community that nurtures social equality, solidarity and togetherness. Communitas is the by-product of working shoulder to shoulder on mission. This is especially true where there is risk and hardship. There is no greater sense of communitas than that shared by soldiers who have served in combat together as a unit. In the movie Band of Brothers, the series depicts the harsh, harrowing and heroic experience of Easy Company in Europe during WWII. There are heart-wrenching interviews of the real surviving soldiers throughout the series. I was captivated and inspired by their love, commitment and sense of responsibility for one another after all these years. This is communitas. These men came from different ethnic and socio-economic circumstances but the walls were removed by sharing the mission together; an agreed upon, worthy and hard mission to which they were called to accomplish at all cost.  
            The church has an agreed upon, worthy and hard mission. And believers are called to fulfill the mission of making disciples at great cost. When a church embraces Christ’s mission for His church and expects believers to participate in fulfilling the mission there is something attractive about it. Outsiders and observers may be skeptical about the mission but they cannot deny the camaraderie and the commitment of the faith community who has embraced and embarked upon the mission. The church should leverage this as a witness in their locale.   
            I will illustrate the attractiveness of community and how it creates healthy curiosity and even co-ops unbelievers into the mix. A church in our community has adopted the task of cleaning the local high school football stadium after Friday night football games. About twenty minutes before the end of the game you notice several people with red-shirts throughout the stadium. They are holding bags, sticks and blowers. After the game ends, they wait a few minutes then jump into action.  The sight of a hundred red shirts working diligently to accomplish a singular task is pretty intriguing.  After the third game or so, by-standers were seen helping clean up. By the middle of the season, these by-standers were staying afterward for snacks, fellowship and prayer. This is a microcosm of the benefit and power of communitas. Obviously the higher the risk, sacrifice and stakes of the mission the stronger the bonds can become.
            The church community can be viewed as an outpost of heaven in a dangerous and foreign land. We are ambassadors, are we not? When the Word is faithfully and fitfully proclaimed and leadership is willing to ask hard things of believers, a sense of communitas becomes an evangelistic asset to the local church. What did Jesus mean when He said the children of this generation are wiser than the children of light in their generation? I do not believe that it is a stretch to receive this as a rebuke of American church legalistic pettiness, lack of excellence in the arts, unwillingness to throw caution to the wind, fear of true community service because we might “compromise” the Gospel. It is only compromised by our lack of Gospel-compelled action, sacrifice and love.
            Community mission effort does two things: it accomplishes the feeling of a shared experience that strengthens our bonds as a body and it attracts the unchurched and skeptics to see what we are doing and why. We now have people that come and help us that are unchurched. They share in the experience with us and begin to feel as though they belong. This becomes a form of pre-conversion discipleship and it provides a strong relational foundation for the sharing of the Gospel message. Postmoderns need to feel like they belong before they will hear.[2] 
          For years, many churches have made short-term mission trips off limits to unbelievers. Some churches are beginning to rethink this position with the right conditions. Short-term mission trips create a sense of  communitas that is difficult to replicate within similar cultures. When we go to the Andes of Peru to evangelize in a mountain community our team struggles together, eats together, learns together, and fails together. When these teams arrive back in the states that have a bond that is unique and potent. Postmoderns need to see this interaction and experience it before they can embrace it. This sense of community is only obtained when a church is intentional about creating and displaying it. Maybe this is one reason that God calls us “co-laborers” with Him (1 Cor. 3:9).

            [1] Don Bartel, “Evangelizing Postmoderns Using a Mission Outpost Strategy,” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing  Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 348.

            [2] Jimmy Long, “A Strategy for Reaching a Postmodern Generation ,” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing  Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 328.

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