At the conclusion of my last article on the church in post-Christendom, I argued that “demonstrating the reign of God [or gospel] within a distinct community may be the American church’s greatest challenge to its mission.”
I further stressed that this community-in which diverse people, locally and generally, are united by a common love for Christ and each other-is an essential witness to the in-breaking reign of God. In essence, the nonappearance of this "community" renders our acts of service indistinguishable from any other and our proclamation of Jesus shallow and without basis.
What hinders this community is not a weakness of the institutional church and its leadership but rather the radical individualism of its members. This is not simply a matter of concern over sporadic church attendance or mediocre participation in the church potluck dinner; the absence of visible community is a central underlying principle that undermines the witness of God's people and opposes the redemptive mission of God!
Observing the ascendency of radical individualism, Charles Taylor, the acclaimed philosopher and author of Sources of Self, pointed out that over the course of the last two centuries “our sources of self-identity have shifted from the external and transcendent to the internal and subjective experience of the individual.”
In one sense, as modern societies advanced beyond the necessity of community for sheer survival, we gradually and naturally began to transfer our dependency from other people and the local community to technology and ubiquitous governing structures. As our need for other people in order to survive diminished, and as means of transportation and communication evolved, we were less and less bound to our local communities. The bonds of connection and the sense of shared identity were weakened and our reciprocal responsibilities toward others began to evaporate.
As an example, if you live in a larger city, consider how often you see a stranded motorist on the freeway while hundreds if not thousands of people pass by without the thought of offering aid. Such a thing would be incomprehensible to those living with the sense of shared community identity experienced in previous generations.
Again, this is not a problem unique to the church in America; it is a fundamental problem within American culture as a whole. For Christians, the problem arises when we fail to recognize the worldly nature of this condition and blindly incorporate it into the church.
This would be akin to the church in Corinth trying to assimilate their former pagan practices into their new Christian life and worship. By not subjecting ourselves-and the culture from which we spring-to biblical scrutiny, we are essentially doing the same thing. This, in turn, makes us less distinguishable from the world around us.
Robert Putnam, Harvard professor and author of the definitive book on the collapse of American community, points out:
As the twenty-first century opens, Americans are going to church less often than we did three or four decades ago, and the churches we go to are less engaged with the wider community. Trends in religious life reinforce rather than counterbalance the ominous plunge in social connectedness in the secular community (Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone [New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000] p. 80).
This is a stinging indictment of the American church by an outside observer, demonstrating that we clearly live in the presence of a watching world-a world that longs for that which only Christ can give, whether they admit it or not. And one of the things all human beings need and long for is love and acceptance by their fellow human beings. We want to feel like we belong, and when we do-this is community! This innate longing emanates from our being made in the image of God and its absence exists because of the fall. It is for remedy of this alienation that Christ's victory and reign serves, and it is his body, the church, in which the first fruits of this redemptive work are to be seen.
I am quick to add that this witness-bearing community is not inwardly focused and separate from the world but rather it represents a distinctly different way of living through which the church serves and engages the world. In addition to local Christian communities expressed in and through the local church, there is also the larger “community” represented by all followers of Christ from various traditions and denominations, which at present is sadly and deeply divided.
As if the present diminution of community were not bad enough, as a culture we appear to be descending further into an almost hyper-individualistic sense of community. An example of this can be found in the phenomenon of social-networking websites (such as Facebook) that have gripped the next generation in particular.
Writing in the spring 2008 issue of Culture Magazine, Felicia Wu Song, Ph.D., makes the point:
Social-networking sites may have lasting consequence because their very design articulates what sociologist Barry Wellman has long argued: the local community is no longer a meaningful category for many Americans.... The best way to describe contemporary sociability is in terms of "networked individualism," overlapping networks of social ties that have individuals at the core of each. People understand “community” in terms of multiple systems of friends, contacts, and acquaintances that span time and place-but are oriented around each independent self.
I would add that many Christians similarly view the community of God's people as merely one of their many “systems of friends, contacts, and acquaintances” from which they can obtain the benefits common to networking. Dr. Song adds that these sites are not a causal force in this condition but merely “reflect and reinforce the basic dispositions toward networked individualism.”
So let me ask this: If the phenomenon of Christians living within a distinct community is essential to the church’s witness (see John 17), and because so many of us seem unable to surrender the independent self, and since our present expression of this community falls painfully short … what can we do to remedy this situation?
Clearly, this problem is enormously complex and deeply embedded in our social fabric and collective psyche. I don't claim to know the solution. (I have some ideas.) However, I think we can, by God's grace, through prayer and reflection, turn our greatest challenge into the church’s greatest opportunity: the recovery of distinctly Christian community that offers a compelling public witness.
What practical steps can churches and individuals take to foster and promote a healthy, distinctively biblical, and witness-bearing community?