Real community is a hard thing to accomplish. Much of what we label as community is often something else. What we call community can be a collection of friends with whom we share life together based upon our personal bonds. Or, maybe it is a small group, which was largely based upon a therapeutic model of small groups as a place where people learned how to share who they are and relate to one another. Or, maybe we call community is actually a small, tightly interconnected network defined by strong hierarchical relations, where relations are primarily ordered around the decisions of a few people whose status gives them a place of leadership. Friendship, therapy, and leadership all have a place in our life and they may even exist within the contexts of a community, but I would suggest none of these are necessary nor sufficient for group of people to be a part of a real community.
Which leads to the definition of community. What is a community? Community is one of those words that most people seem to know what it is but few people would come up with a similar definition of community. For some, community might be defined by something that resembles the local church or other civic and religious organizations. For others, it is a town or village. Yet, for others it is seen in more emotional terms, such as a place where one feels connected, where one feels loved, etc. The task of trying to define community is a tenuous one as it seems to point to some common experience of social life with other people that is valued for its emotional significance, but what makes a community community is not always the same from person to person. This combination of “objectivity” in terms of it being a particular form of social network and “subjectivity” that takes specific desires and emotional experiences being satisfies for it to be community means that “community” can be understood descriptively and normatively. While recognizing that various people would understand the community a bit differently, I will try to provide a definition that I feel best reflects the various descriptive and normative aspects, recognizing that no definition of community will be perfect for all people.
I offer this as a definition of community for my analysis that follows: Community is a group of people 1) who do not have deep relationships with all members but yet 2) have regular interactions with each other 3) based upon having mutual dependence to other community members such that 4) their behaviors are regulated based upon a common way of life.
The first three features are offered to define the community in such a way that community is not reducible to a) a collection of friends but includes other people outside a zone of personal intimacy, b) therapeutic interactions where people experience personal growth or healing but includes interactions that are structured for other purposes, nor c) hierarchical relations where those in power have little dependence or accountability to those whom they lead. To be clear, friendships, therapeutic interactions, and hierarchy can exist in a community; a community does not negate the existence of these features. However, for a group of people to be a community, there must be another feature that prevents friendships, therapy, and power from determining the nature of the social network.
This is where the fourth features come in. Community member’s relationship to each other is regulated based upon a common way of life. What constitutes a “way of life” can be many things. It can be a specific set of proscribed practices and rules. It can be an assumed pattern of habits that people all share. It can be the behaviors that are necessary to live within a specific geographic area. What specifically constitutes a “way of life” can vary from one community to the next, but this “way of life” and however it emerges, however it is experienced, however it is expressed, serves a vital model for regulating the interactions that people have with each other.
This distinguishes a community from other social networks that are goal-driven, such as a corporation. A corporation is built around a specific goal in which people’s behaviors and interactions with each other is primarily evaluated and regulated based upon pragmatic instrumentality: is one doing what is necessary to help the corporation to succeed in its goals. An employee spends their time accomplishing specific tasks allotted to their job, such as a customer service representative helping customers who call in with questions, so that they can maintain customer satisfaction that ensures repeat business. Employees answer to their managers for their job performance, to make sure their quality continues to help maintain their bottom line. They work together with their co-workers to make sure their specific tasks are accomplished. Corporations are an example of social networks in which participants behaviors and social interactions with each other are regulated based upon a principle of pragmatic instrumentality where specific goals and results have precedence over all others.
A community, by contrast, does not define interactions based upon any specific set of goals that are always given precedence to other goals. A community may have goals, but what goals are selected in a specific moment by its members vary based upon the common way of life. A community of Christians may respond to a member in need based upon the principle of Christian ‘agape’ found in the person of Christ and establish a goal of helping that person; but that community is not defined simply by this specific task so that they only seek to help people in need. They also value meeting together for meals together with the purpose of fellowship, where ‘agape’ directs people to engage in conversations together. Then, during worship, ‘agape’ is directed towards God as they express gratitude and their anxieties and listen to a person who they trust and hope God has formed to communicate a message from God to them. A Christian community defined by a way of life of ‘agape’ will have various goals, depending on the time, people, and circumstance.
I point this out from my Christian perspective to highlight a concern I have with many of the modern ecclesial models built around church planting and revitalization; many of them designate themselves as trying to create missional churches or some other synonymous term for goals, which is usually used in reference to trying to form and lead churches into practices of evangelism, discipleship, service, etc. Now, I certainly have nothing wrong with churches seeking to participate in the missio Dei where we as Christians are formed and directed to take God’s mission of salvation and reconciliation into the world. The problem is, however, is that to define a church “missionally” is to define it according to a pragmatic instrumentality rather than according to a distinctly Christian way of life of agape. The church becomes defined around specific goals that take precedence over others, and this gets reflected and communicated in worship, discipleship, etc. Rather than trying to broaden the understanding of the way of life of agape in its fullness such that we learn, grow, discern opportunities for, and engage in evangelism, discipleship, service, etc. the way of life can be readily substituted for specific missional goals.
However, I would say that churches can participate in the missio Dei without giving up its way of life by understanding the way of life of ‘agape’ by the pattern of God’s love as fully demonstrated in the ministry, cruxifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and empowerment through the Holy Spirit. What God makes known about wisdom, righteousness, redemption, etc. in Christ is realized through the Spirit. Here, worship and discipleship would be patterned are according to two different themes: the worship of the Savior and the enactment of the Spirit’s gifts.
However, what is essential to this relationship of worship and disciple to the Christian communities’ way of life is that the worship of Christ and enactment’s of the Spirit’s gifts are not rigidly fixed to a specific, fixed patterns, such as a perpetually routinized focus on Jesus’ crucifixion as an atonement for our sins (as is commonly the case in evangelical Protestantism) or the valuation of the gifts of tongues (as can be a big pitfall of Pentecostal and charismatic churches). There is a diversity both in how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to be understood and how the Spirit manifests human empowerment according to the same tasks. Jesus was prophetic, even as the Spirit provides prophecy to guide the Church and its people. Jesus was wise, even as the Spirit provides wisdom to build up the Church Jesus was a servant to the well-being of others, even as the Spirit provides capacities for healing and power in service of others.
Through this recognition of the diversity of the ways to construe the ministry of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit, the people of the Church become progressively aware of the fullness of Christ that is to be realized in the the body of Christ as the people are formed by the Spirit to have the mind of Christ. A source of division between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ churches can be partly attributed to the narrow construal of the church in service to very specific types of tasks; progressives can be quite prophetic in seeking to challenge unjust structures, whereas evangelicals can aspire to the rightness of doctrine that approximates what wisdom would often have been understood as. And so, progressives can portray Jesus in this prophetic revolutionary, whereas evangelicals can construe Jesus and his crucifixion more so to fit the specific doctrines of atonement and justification. The diversity and fullness of Christ that the community of Christ is to grow into can be sidetracked by the specific construals of Christ and gifts that are more highly valued for other, pragmatic purposes; various images and gifts are treated as instrumental towards our pragmatic goals , whether it be the realization of a new way of life through prophetic, societal transformation or conservative retaining of an old way of life through doctrinal maintenance.
The net effect of this devaluation of the diversity of images and empowerments is to “missionalize” churches towards specific goals that define the church according to specific purposes within the world and the challenges that they present. When this form of diversity is devalued, even if it is in the name of diversity of another type, then a church becomes an image of the part of the earthly world we live in and it begins to mirror the specific desires, practices, and conflicts that define that specific task and goal. Retaining of the diversity of construals of Christ and empowerments of the Spirit allows the way of life of ‘agape’ in the Christian community to not be defined by particular tasks and struggles that come with a specific type of ministry, even as it engages in those tasks and struggles.
However, even in this diversity, there is a unity; even as there are many gifts, there is one Spirit, and even as there are many services, there is one Lord. All the construals of Christ must, to be authentically Christian, recognize Jesus is Lord through a crucified life; the cross is Jesus’ coronation and so all the rest of how we perceive Jesus in term of various ministries like the prophetic, teaching, and healing are all situated to and pointing towards a crucified and resurrected way of life. Our understanding if the Spirit’s work must, to be authentically Pneumatological, recognize that the empowerment of the Spirit is for building up the Body of Christ as advancing movement of the new creation of God’s kingdom; thus, the empowerment of the Spirit is not for the attainment of personal status or control over the world as it is. Instead, the diversity of the construals of Jesus’ ministry and the diversity of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit function around a central point of coherence: God’s action to bring about new creation through death and resurrection. Any understanding of Christ’s ministry and any employment of the gifts of the Spirit that conflict with this central point of coherence is at the risk of redirecting the church into some other purpose, some other mission, some other task other than the missio Dei.
And where is it that we can begin to understand God’s will for new creation and what God’s work is progressing towards in Jesus and the Spirit? While one might be tempted to answer “In Jesus and through the Spirit,” that is an answer that while it sounds good is liable towards a form of vicious circularity in which we define the images of Jesus and the gifts of the Spirit by reference to themselves. At this point, one can attribute most anything to Jesus or the Spirit and then one finds oneself in a self-reinforcing theology that never finds any source to actually challenge our understanding of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
This task for the community of Christ can only be fulfilled by the Scriptures, which we believe testify to God’s actions in addition to also explaining them. When Paul tries to explain the what God makes wisdom known in 1 Corinthians 1-3, he builds it in the form of a Jewish homily that makes repeated references to the prophetic Scriptures. Understanding God’s wisdom in Christ is understood by God’s purposes expressed in the prophets, particularly Isaiah; God is overturning human wisdom so that wisdom about God will be seen to only come from God. Then, as express in 1 Corinthians 15, the death and resurrection that Jesus experienced was understood in terms of the Scriptures; the shape of God’s redemption spoken throughout the Scriptures without exact definition is now demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Hence, the Scriptures are the way in which the Church comes to be able to reliably understand and distinguish God’s purposes and help understand purpose the Christian way of life participates in.
However, even here Christian communities can tend towards different perspectives of the Scriptures that can redirect and reform the Christian way of life for other pragmatic goals. One tendency in the fundamentalist hermeneutics treats Scriptures as containing various propositions, all of near equality in doctrinal and spiritual value. Holding to six literal days of creation is of near the same importance as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By contrast, one can consider a common hermeneutic in progressive circles to highlight on specific key themes or ideas as most important treat the rest of entirely superfluous, if not even misguided. For instance, Jesus told us to love others and that is all that really matters, so we don’t need to consider with care what we teach about sex and marriage. What these two hermeneutical practices seem are taking specific principles of responsible understanding of the Scriptures and then taking it to the extreme at the exclusion of other principles. To name two of them, 1) certain parts of Scripture bear greater significance and weight to our faith and life than other parts, such as most notably Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, but 2) all of Scripture is useful for Christian teaching. Propositional hermeneutics can prioritize #2 and forget #1 and the prioritization of #1 while forgetting #2 seems to be a driver in various progressive circles. Why? Because these hermeneutic practices are pragmatically instrumental for accomplishing other, specific goals rather than the learning and realization of the specific, Christian way of life for God’s people demonstrated in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, and testified to by the Scriptures.
To bring this back to the place of community, it can become easy to change a group of people who live other in a community into so other type of social network, situated for other purposes, whether they be for friendship, therapy, power relations in the form of transformation or maintenance of a specific way of life, etc. But a Christian community is properly defined not by these various social relations that the church becomes instrumental for fostering (although friendship, therapy, and specific power relations may be instrumental for the Christian way of life) but by the way the people live together in a mutual dependence upon each other in accordance to the agape way of life as God’s will testified to by the Scriptures, demonstrated in the crucified Christ, and realized through the charismatic empowerment of the Spirit; by allowing our minds to understand both the appropriate diversity and fullness and coherent unity can a Christian way of life in the body of Christ participate fully in the missio Dei, without having to resort to “missionalizing” through the systematic valuation of certain goals over and against others in evangelism, worship, and discipleship.