When people talk about America, they see many things to admire. But they usually offer three criticisms. The first is that we are materialistic. The second is that we are fearful. The third is our individualism. We lack the same sense of community that other nations have.
Our individualism is something we cherish. But it is also our greatest weakness. Very little is accomplished through one person alone. We need to cooperate to build a successful life or society.
Robert Putnam wrote about our growing social isolation in his book, Bowling Alone. The title comes from an advertisement he saw at a bowling alley in the Midwest. Bowling is a sport that people do in groups. But with the decline in bowling leagues, alleys have tried to promote individual bowling. Fewer people today want to join social organizations.
All kinds of group activities are declining—especially churches. American churches have responded by promoting “bowling alone” Christianity. Church has become a place where people come to meet individual needs, a feeding station for the faithful instead of a family of God. It never even occurs to us to question whether we have any responsibility to other people in church.
We’re fond in America of saying that denominations don’t matter, churches don’t matter, but all that matters is our individual relationship with Jesus. We never stop to question whether that is what the Bible is really saying. We must be personally saved, but we are not just saved alone. We are saved to be part of a community of faith. The New Testament church was a place where individuals were not only committed to Jesus, but to each other.
Jesus said in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Our commitment to each other is one of the marks of the true church. The community of faith is indispensable to His plan and to our witness in the world.
Peter says in 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
Peter calls us a holy nation, a chosen race, and a royal priesthood. To join a church is to join a family, a nation, and a union. This relationship to one another in the church takes precedence over all other allegiances.
In the early church, they actually lived that way. Look at Acts 2:42-47
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Acts 4:32-36 repeats the same idea.
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
This passage is the New Testament model. We study the Word together, pray together and work together, but we also hold all things in common. The early church was so close that they did not regard what they had as their own, but shared their worldly goods with each other. They were not tithers, but went far beyond tithing in their generosity.
Why is community so important? Three reasons:
First, because community is how we show Jesus to the world. We are a community, whether we feel it or not. Our unity is not based on our personal sense of belonging, but on God’s decree according to His grace. We are family, even if we want to disown each other. Nevertheless, our unity should be lived out on earth. Let’s ask ourselves some questions.
· Do we seek out one another’s company? Are we socializing with each other?
· Do we seek out the help or advice of others in the church? Are we comfortable asking for help?
· Do we trust each other enough to be honest? Are we comfortable stating our opinion in church?
· Do we believe that if we needed help, the church would give it, both emotionally, personally, and financially? Nothing drives people away from the church more than the perception that the church is disinterested in helping during some personal crisis.
· Do we know the other people in this church and what they are struggling with?
· Do we enjoy coming to church and meeting friends? It’s not essential that we like the people in church, but it helps.
· Do we feel a common sense of purpose? When we come together, do we see the whole as something greater than ourselves, the manifestation of Jesus?
If someone comes into this church looking for Jesus, they don’t see Him in the music or in the preaching. We most clearly see Jesus in the behavior of the church community. We see Him most clearly in the way we treat each other.
Second, we need community to fully know what God intended us to be. Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Our interaction makes us greater than the whole.
This part of community makes us the most uncomfortable. When Iron and iron clash, sparks fly, but both irons gets sharper. It’s the only way to sharpen iron. We can be good alone, but we can’t be great without someone’s help. Only through interaction do we become complete.
Third we need community to make positive changes. In these passages we read about community, we read of signs and wonders. Community brings power. Without community we are just individuals working in an uncoordinated way. With community, we become an army, a force, and a power.
Church leadership experts define five ways of influencing—coercion, persuasion, being a good example, and nurture. But the greatest is cooperation. Cooperation multiplies power and influence. When we join others, we become greater than the sum of all the individual members.
We are not just any community, but we are a community in Christ. We come together to worship God, and to become united with Him. We are more than just the sum of our parts—more even than a group of people who cooperate. We also are unite with the source of all power, the Spirit of God almighty. If we are willing as a group to surrender our will, our pride, and individualism to His will and His purposes, then the Spirit of God will give us all power in Him.
There are two errors we commit in community. The first error is isolation. Community makes us uncomfortable so we withdraw. Many of us are by nature people avoiders. Our culture makes this easy. God help us, though, if we don’t overcome this. We must not run from community just because of potential conflicts.
The other error is domination. This happens when people seek their will above the group as a whole. People who do this are often unaware they are doing it. They do not listen to what others are saying. We must be humble in all relationships, encouraging other people to criticize us and to act upon our ideas. Diversity in a group is a strength, not a weakness. A domineering person wants to sharpen others, but seeks to avoid sharpening himself. Being a part of a community is necessarily submitting our will to the whole.
Last week Joy and I saw some wonderful sights in Ireland. One of those was the great library at Trinity College. There is a room there, as long as a football field and two and a half stories high, filled with antique, leather bound books. What a magnificent sight! Consider, though, what went into the building of that room. First, thousands of people over many ages had to write the books. Second, bookbinders with great skill had to bind the books, so they could last the ages. Third, librarians had to painstakingly categorize and collect the books. Fourth, architects, carpenters, stonemasons, painters, electricians, and air conditioner servicemen had to build and maintain the climate controlled hall to house those books. Without any of those people, the collected knowledge of the ages in that library would be lost. Any one person or one group of people working alone would make this collection impossible, but working together all this was possible. Without the individual bricks in the stone wall, the library would be useful, but when they are all put together, and each takes its place cooperatively, then they produce a wonder.
You are an important person in the world. But you are only important when you cooperate with others. Without others, your work is incomplete. But when the church comes together and the Spirit of God blesses, there is no end to what we can accomplish together in Christ.