Becoming a Contrast Society: a Reflection on the Nature of Christian Community

C. Christopher Smith
Friday, May 1st 2015
May/Jun 2015

Over the last decade, community has been a rising buzzword among Christians in North America. From the emergence of new monastic and missional communities to the publication of books with titles such as From Couch to Community and Lean on Me: Finding Intentional, Vulnerable and Consistent Community, there is a deep hunger in our age to talk about and to live in Christian community. Certainly the powers of the modern age’technology, consumerism, unbridled sexuality and, above all, individualism’conspire to tear asunder the basic communities that gave shape and meaning to life in earlier generations, particularly family and neighborhood.

We are indeed living in what British journalist George Monbiot recently referred to as “the age of loneliness.” But does all our longing for, dreaming of and talking about community necessarily cultivate the sort of Christian community to which we are called in Christ? Near the beginning of his classic book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer issues the stern warning that we should be wary of preferring our dreams of community to actually living in community. “The person who loves their dream of community,” he says, “will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

Almost two decades ago, my wife and I helped start a church comprised almost completely of young adults. Most of us in that church were weary of the minimalist consumer church we had grown up with: show up on Sunday morning, do a few religious activities, and then go your own way for the remainder of the week. In that new church, we found deeper ways to share life: eating together several times a week, serving together in our neighborhoods, and often doing social activities together. This new church community felt good and certainly went deeper than the ways of being church that most of us were familiar with. And yet, I suspect that we were not a very mature expression of Christian community, rooted more in our dreams of community with like-minded friends than in the self-sacrificing and reconciling love of Christ.

With Bonhoeffer’s words at the front of our minds, let’s explore the nature of the community to which we have been called in Christ, and reflect briefly on a few possible hallmarks of healthy Christian community in our age. To begin, let’s turn to the biblical narrative. A careful reading of Scripture, from beginning to end, emphasizes that community is not optional for those who are called to follow Jesus. Indeed, the gathered people of God are at the very heart of what God is doing in the world. The Old Testament is predominantly about the Israelite people’the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’who were set apart as God’s holy people. Although God was the creator of all humanity, God had a special relationship with Israel, rooted in the promise to bless the descendants of Abraham and through them to bless and restore all creation. God gave the law to the Israelites to teach them how to share life together in ways that embodied the love, truth, justice, and compassion of God. The Old Testament story depicts that in spite of God’s guiding presence and the thorough instructions of the law, Israel was not particularly faithful to God, often preferring to follow the ways of their pagan neighbors. God, however, was not ready to abandon Israel and sent prophet after prophet to call them back to the way of God.

Jesus, who was raised up within the Israelite people and whose work focused almost exclusively on Israel, began his ministry by gathering a community of disciples around himself. These disciples traveled with Jesus and shared life with him on a daily basis. Spanning the range from Simon the Zealot to Matthew the tax collector, this community was about as diverse as one could have imagined within first-century Israel. These disciples followed Jesus at great cost, giving up their previous professions and leaving their families. There was, however, a deep sense in which the community of Jesus’ disciples became a new family for both Jesus and the disciples.

After Pentecost, the wall of ethnicity that separated the Israelites from the rest of humanity was torn down. As the Apostle Paul notes in Romans 11:17-24, Gentiles were grafted into the tree of Israel and adopted into God’s family. This adoption is the legacy of our churches today; we are part of God’s people, adopted through the reconciling work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Israel, the ancient people of God, was not abolished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Rather, it expanded to be defined no longer solely by ethnicity, but by faith in the reconciling work of God.

Even in our highly individualistic age, there are all sorts of communities to which we belong: people of a certain national or ethnic heritage, people who do similar kinds of work (for example, unions or professional associations), fans of a particular sports team, neighborhood groups, or people who share similar hobbies or interests. How are we as communities of Christ’s followers to be distinguished from all other sorts of communities? The answer to this question is found in Israel’s call’and our call, as ones grafted into Israel’to be a holy, set-apart people (see, for instance, Deut. 7:6-8). Holiness, though, is not an end in itself, but rather a means by which we bear witness to the reconciling love of God. Contemporary German theologian Gerhard Lohfink refers to the people of God as a “contrast-society,” a people whose life is structured in a way different from all other communities. In Jesus and Community (Fortress Press, 1984), Lohfink writes:

[There are] two grounds for Israel being a holy people. First, there is the electing love of God, who chose Israel from all nations to be his own people. But, in the second place, Israel’s holiness also depends on whether it really lives in accordance with the social order which God has given it, a social order which stands in sharp contrast with those of all other nations. (123)

Our aim is not simply to be different, or to be a counterculture that rigidly opposes the dominant culture at every turn. Rather, we are called to be attentive not only to what we do, but also to how we do it. We may do things that look very much like the things our neighbors do, but we do them for different reasons. We may work in jobs or own businesses as our neighbors do, but that work is always secondary to the work that God is doing in the world, to which we bear witness in our church communities.

Cutting against the grain of the prevailing culture is always difficult, but what specifically are the impediments to our living as a contrast-society in our church communities? The primary opposition’as the Apostle Paul emphasizes in Ephesians 6’is not flesh and blood, but rather powers of darkness. These powers are perhaps most oppressive in the ways that they shape our imaginations. Many of us, for example, cannot imagine going without health insurance or life insurance, a car, smartphone, or 401K. A little more than a century ago, however, none of these things existed, and yet few of us now can imagine life without them.

Sometimes these powers shape our imaginations through the institutions we work for or through the built environment. If my employer expects me to work forty, fifty, or sixty hours per week, it is going to be difficult to imagine a shorter work week with more time for church and family, especially if I find the work energizing. I might find it difficult to bike to work because the roads between my home and workplace were built primarily for cars and with little thought for bikers. The powers thus narrate for us what we should desire, and how we should live in the world. Advertising is an aggressive power that works on our desires to compel us to buy stuff we don’t need with money we often don’t have. The power of individualism teaches us that we need to have our own house, our own car, our own pool, our own retirement plan, and so forth.

As an exercise in imagining what it might look like for our church communities to be contrast-societies in their particular places, let’s look at a few specific powers at work in the dominant culture of North America, and how shared practices of the church can help us start to bear witness to a different way of living and being. Let’s begin with the most basic and most fragmenting power in Western culture: individualism.

Our life together stands in contrast to the individualism of the broader culture because, above all, we are rooted in the biblical narrative, at the heart of which is God’s work of gathering a people. Although we are unique persons created in the image of God, our primary identity is located not in our own personal stories, but in the story of God’s gathering and reconciling work. We also demonstrate an alternative to individualism through the practice of koinonia, or sharing our resources. Koinonia is the New Testament Greek word often translated as “fellowship,” but this religious gloss often obscures a deeper reality. The early Christians in Jerusalem embodied koinonia in having “all things in common” (Acts 2:44). The later story of Ananias and Sapphira illustrates that this practice was not a sort of collective in which a central organization owned and managed all the resources. Instead, individuals and families had resources that they did not consider as their own private possessions (see Acts 4:32), but rather as resources for the good of the whole community to be shared generously. This sort of koinonia economy offers a sharp contrast to the individualism of our age, in which people are solely responsible for taking care of themselves. Finding ways to share resources such as homes, cars, meals, lawnmowers, and so on, frees us to share even more abundantly with our brothers, sisters, and neighbors.

In a similar fashion, the practice of generosity forms us into a community that offers an alternative to consumerism. Our consumer society, fueled by advertising that stirs up desires in us, compels us to buy and own more stuff. Consumerism, of course, goes hand in hand with individualism. When we exist largely in isolation, we have little imagination for sharing our resources, and we also are significantly more vulnerable to the manipulation of advertising. In contrast, God shares abundantly with humanity, providing abundant resources for the health and flourishing of the world. As we follow God in the way of Jesus, we learn to share generously the abundance that God has provided for us. Generosity does not always come in the form of charitably giving money away. In fact, the most intimate form of generosity is perhaps hospitality, sharing our homes, church buildings, and lives with others. As followers of Jesus, our aim is not amassing our own private empires, but rather seeing the kingdom of God being realized on earth, as it is in heaven. This calling frees us from the bonds of consumerism; we are freed to be able to share the resources God has given us with our sisters, brothers, and neighbors.

Our church communities also bear witness as an alternative to the narcissism, or self-absorption, of the broader culture. We should not be surprised that a culture in which individualism reigns supreme is also profoundly narcissistic. In contrast to the narcissism of the world, we have been called in Christ to “give preference to one another” (Rom. 12:10) and to “look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). Many of our attempts to foster Christian community, like the story I shared at the beginning of this article, are fundamentally narcissistic because the community is made up of people who are largely like us: of a similar ethnicity, income, age, and so forth.

One of the greatest flaws of the church-growth movement is a similar sort of narcissism, often referred to as the Homogeneous Unit Principle: that is, churches grow best when comprised primarily of a single, particular demographic group. The advocates of church-growth ideology were not wrong. Churches can grow large when focused on a particular audience; but that sort of homogeneous community is not the sort of Christian community into which we have been called, one in which God is engaged in the messy work of reconciling diverse peoples’Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female (Gal. 3:28).

I have described here some of the virtues that define the church as a contrast-society, but I’ve said very little about the practicalities of what a church that embodies these virtues might look like. I’m hesitant to say too much about practicalities, because I believe local churches should discern how they will embody Christ together, and these communities will inevitably look quite different in differing places. I do want to mention briefly two practical considerations that are pertinent to our capacity to be a contrast-society: engagement and proximity.

In order to cultivate the sort of contrast-community I have described here, we need engagement with one another deeper than simply a Sunday gathering and possibly a midweek gathering. We need to find ways for our lives to be intermeshed with one another on a near-daily basis. I don’t recommend lots of new programs, but rather finding ways to engage with our brothers and sisters in things we are going to do anyway: for instance, living in a neighborhood, working a job, the schools and activities of our children, and our entertainment.

Thinking about intermeshing our lives leads us to the second consideration: proximity. It is hard to be deeply engaged and share resources in diverse and meaningful ways if we have to travel long distances to do so. Yes, some communities will be more dispersed (especially in rural areas, where life is simply more spread out), but it is hard to cohere as a community that bears witness to anything’let alone a different way of life’when we spend large chunks of time commuting. There are many ways in which we can be mindful of proximity’from relocation to smaller groups of people within the church who live close to and share life with each other’but regardless, our churches cannot continue to be oblivious to place and proximity.

It is good and timely that many Christians are longing for community today, but as we seek to fulfill that yearning, let us be vigilant to discern a sort of contrast-community rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ, rather than in our idyllic dreams of community!

Friday, May 1st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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