By Meredith Flynn
Of all the buzz words floating around churches over the past decade, “community” might be the buzziest. Biblical community is something many churches aspire to now. It can take the shape of small group meetings, monthly dinner gatherings, or a simple encouragement to show hospitality. “Community” can also be used to describe in general the way we want to feel about church. We want community. The Bible tells us we need community. Right?
What about the family who struggles to make it to small group during the week? Or the newcomer who doesn’t feel comfortable sharing personal details with relative strangers. And are “older” forms of community—like Sunday school classes—still a valid expression of the concept?
I’ve felt those tensions in my own life and family. As a single adult, community wasn’t difficult. An evening meeting with people in the same stage of life was a welcome break in the middle of the week. But as a married mother of two preschoolers, it’s often difficult for us to get out of the house on a weeknight, and even harder to arrive in an attitude befitting community as we’ve come to understand it.
Is it a command for all Christians, or just people who are wired for it?
Our current situation begs the question: What is the value of community with fellow Christians, even when a particular set of circumstances or stage of life makes it challenging?
Thankfully for us, the Bible has much to say about community, even if the authors don’t use the term like we do. By exploring how Scripture describes early Christian community, we can start to define the characteristics that ought to mark ours:
1. Community encourages. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul tells the church there that he longs to see them so he can “impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” His aim isn’t just one-way encouragement. The apostle says he wants to be encouraged by their faith too.
When we put this in context, we can draw a parallel between their time and ours. Christians in Rome were being persecuted. The level of our persecution now is drastically less severe in most cases, but there is a connection. We as believers can encourage each other to continue in the faith, even when the circumstances of our lives are difficult, or the culture moves farther away from a real understanding of God’s plan for the world.
2. Community shares the load. “Carry one another’s burdens,” Paul tells the church in Galatia. He’s talking about sin burdens, commentaries note, but Charles Spurgeon extended the metaphor this way: “Help your brethren….If they have a heavier burden than they can bear, try to put your shoulder beneath their load, and so lighten it for them.”
Many burdens have been shared in community groups I’ve been a part of over the years. Depression, career disappointment, death of a parent or a sibling or a child. These burdens were shared verbally and then figuratively, as group members prayed for each other and kept in close contact.
Community gives believers an extra shoulder to bear the weight when it’s too heavy to bear alone.
3. Community provokes (in a good way). The writer of Hebrews encourages Christians to “watch out for one another to provoke love and good works.” Whereas the encouragement we see in Romans 1 undergirded the early church, the encouragement referenced in Hebrews 10:24 spurred it forward.
In a recent community group discussion about hospitality, I listened as my fellow group members shared humbly about how God is opening doors to share Jesus, simply because they’re inviting people into their homes. I was encouraged and “provoked” to do the same so that the gospel can go forth.
4. Through community, God builds his church. Acts 2 paints a glorious picture of the church. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer….Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42, 47, CSB).
Living faithfully in the context of community drew people to the truth of Christ. The same thing happens now. At a recent baptism at my church, two couples shared how they came to understand their need for Jesus in the context of their community group.
Scripture’s depiction of biblical community puts the emphasis on God’s graciousness to us. The gifts of community—encouragement, burden-sharing, good works, and the opportunity to see God build his church—are gifts from God himself. It’s far more about him than it is about us.
Meredith Flynn is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist and a member of Delta Church in Springfield.