A while ago, I wrote a post titled ‘If Christian community is supposed to be compelling, why does it so often suck?‘ The article was addressing the fact that we often settle for a definition of ‘community’ that rarely extends beyond a few meetings. When compared to the community offered by the world, our claims to compelling community often fail to stack up as a credible response to the words of Jesus. If Christian community is supposed to be the compelling evidence of the gospel, why does it so often appear to be lacking?
Nonetheless, it bears asking the opposite question too. Whilst Christian community can suck, why is it that it is still nevertheless often compelling? Despite all its faults and failings, Christian community still, somehow, manages to be attractive. Why is that?
First, much of what amounts to community often goes unseen. A cry I have heard from people in a variety of churches is ‘what is happening for so and so?’ or ‘I hear Mr X is struggling, and nobody appears to be doing anything’. What the person rarely knows is that many people have been doing lots of somethings, others just happen to take seriously Jesus’ words:
Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)
Much community work – acts of mercy, hospitality, formative discipline – all takes places quietly, outside of the watching eye of the many. One may hear about some of it as a recipient lets slip in passing that John happened to invite them over for dinner or Mary came over to visit when they were sick. But such things are rightly not paraded. For the average person, it may appear ‘not much is happening’ but that doesn’t necessarily mean nothing is happening.
This unseen work is compelling for two principal reasons. First, it is compelling when one receives it because it is not given simply to appear righteous (for how can what is done in secret be done to appear godly in the eyes of men?) But second, it is compelling because what is seen is not so much the acts of love and generosity but the manifest desire not to one-up each other and do anything for appearances sake.
Second, Christian community is compelling because it extends to those who – apart from Christ – are not necessarily our kind of people. Churches are full of people from different places and backgrounds, with different interests, who are often very different kinds of people. Not only may we have little in common with many of the people in church, in truth, they may even be the sort of people we would naturally choose to avoid. Yet, in Christ, we have come to love such people and they have come to love us with all of our faults and foibles too. When care is offered, it is oftentimes given to those who under other circumstances wouldn’t be our friends and toward whom, apart from the gospel, it is difficult to explain our love.
Third, it mirrors the message we purport to believe. This is how the apostle John puts it:
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11)
Going on to state:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
Just as Jesus gave up his life for us, we lay down our lives for him, which likewise means laying down our lives for his people. John elsewhere tells us that we cannot claim to love God, whom we haven’t seen, and yet hate our brothers and sisters that we can see. The love of God is manifest in our love for our brothers and sisters. Even those brothers and sisters who are not like us and not really our kind of people. My biological brother is a very different person to me, yet I still love him as my brother. My Christian family are often very different people to me, yet I still love them as my brothers and sisters. This kind of love is compelling because it is familial love shown to those whom the world would not recognise as our family. It mirrors the love of Jesus Christ to his people and expresses something of the gospel to the world.