In traditional society, community is associated with a place. A person would grow up in a village. He would work in his home or in the village where he lived. His friends would be people from that village. Work (W), Church (C), friendship (F) and interests were centred on his home. He belonged to a community, which is self contained and effected all of life.
The person works, plays, worships, with the same group of people. They are also where he finds his friends. This provided a great deal of security, but gave a rather narrow outlook on life. The person's influence was very limited. They would have very little impact on the wider world. A Christian could only reach a few people with the gospel.
The industrial revolution moved work away from the home, to the office, factory or shopping centre. Transport allowed people to belong to interest groups (I) away from their home. The result is that work, church, home, interest groups (rugby club, knitting circle) are different and distinct communities. They are like separate balloons that we are linked to.
We have to travel to participate in each community. As a consequence we spend a lot of time travelling from community to community.
Each of these communities is incomplete because each one only meets part of our needs. One provides for work, a separate one provides for spiritual needs and friendship is found in another.
The communities hardly have any overlap. Very few people will have friends or members of their church at the place where they work. Their friends will often go to a different church.
We live compartmentalised lives. Often the people in our work community will not know the people in our interest group, community or church community. This weakens our witness
This involvement in a broader set of communities enriches life.
The person has far greater contact with the outside world. This gives more opportunities for evangelism.
We are each committed to a number of communities, so we can only give a limited commitment to each community. Work takes a massive commitment, so the others only get a small commitment spread thinly.
Work is the biggest balloon. It demands a lot of time and energy, but often does not provide much of the benefits of community, like fellowship.
The result has been fragmentation of society and lack of community.
Consider three people living next door to each other. They are neighbours, but each belongs to a different set of communities. They each have different set of balloons. They know people at work better than they know each other.
The only community that is shared, by two in this case, is the golf club. Even if they are Christians they belong to different Christian communities.
Is this inevitable?
Pastors do not understand the fragmentation of modern society. A pastor's work community is the same as his church community. He often lives at this place of work. His best friends will often be members of his church. His situation is similar to the person in traditional society. His community of work, church and friendship are identical. The pastor's problem is that his community is two intense. He often chooses to have an interest community that is outside his work community. A pastor wants a balloon to give balance to his life. This makes it hard to understand the situation for his flock. for whom the problem is too many balloons.
The church tries to solve the problem of fragmentation by getting people to spend more time at church or in a home group. This is seen as a way of strengthening community.
However it is still just a slightly bigger balloon amongst a whole lot of others.
Questions for the Church
Can the church be a unifying factor in a world that is increasingly fragmented? Jesus died to break down the barrier and dividing wall. He prayed that we would be one just as he and the Father are one.
Or is this an unrealistic dream?
Or is that just for a few, who are willing to make a higher level at dedication?
Do the rest have to make do with a home group?
Question. Do people need regular contact with each other to form community?
Can we have community by using the Internet and the telephone for contact? The Internet and modern communications have resulted in the death of distance. Connectivity is said to be important. We can have even longer strings on our balloons. In theory, we can belong to work communities, interest groups, and have a set of friends we have never met. I don't think we have on-line churches yet, although I suppose there are some people whose only church is the tele-evangelist.
The result is tremendous pressure for the fragmentation of society.
How important is common location for community?
Networks are important. They expand our influence in the world. The internet does provide Christians with a useful tool for communication to a wider network. It is a good way for Christians with special interests to communicate. For example, a person who wants to study eschatology or Christian economics would be unlikely to find people with these interests in their own church. However, using the internet they will be able to link with other Christians with similar interests. Many special interest communities will develop on the internet. However, this cannot fulfil the more basic need for deep fellowship with other Christians.
Sometimes groups of people with a common interest will create an intentional community by buying houses and living close to each other. People who live beside each other have a community in common. A community based on locality has real strength, because people can have close contact with each other
Several people in the community may work at the same work place. This means that they share two communities in common (work and interest). They have much stronger community life, even though they still have to travel to work. Most people will have their strongest friendships within the community. For many, the community will be their main interest. However, this coincidence of home and interest is limited to intentional communities. This possibility is only open to people who share the interest that unites the community. Intentional communities are often based on a common religious interest (eg Hare Krishna).
Most Christian intentional communities have been either rural or monastic. They have had a tendency towards manipulation and control by their leadership. A good model for Christian intentional community is urgently needed.
Community by Accident
Intentional communities depend for their success on commitment to the ideals of the community. However, community for its own sake is a very difficult goal to sustain, as individual agendas and personal differences tend to get in the way.
Community should not be a primary goal for Christians. Their goal is to live in total obedience to Jesus in fellowship with other Christians. If Christians take this goal seriously, community should be an unintentional by-product. The Christians in Acts 2 did not decide to live in community. They surrendered to Jesus as Lord and seriously committed themselves to living out the gospel. Achieving these goals, they also became a community by accident. This is the way it should be.
Church becomes Community
I believe that there is a way that a church can become a community. The key is to establish a church that is totally based on locality. If Christians were to commit themselves seriously to living out the gospel in a church based on a very narrowly defined locality, community could follow.
A church can become a community by implementing one simple rule. The rule is simple, but it would require a very high level of commitment. The simple rule is that no one should be allowed to join the church, unless they move to live within a short walk of the place where the church meets. This rule might seem quite strange, but commitment to locality is the key to a church becoming a community.
We do not have a lot of control over the location of our workplace. We cannot control where our friends live. We cannot usually determine the place where our interest groups meet. The one thing we can control is the place where we live. We should use this freedom to allow our church to become a community.
In the modern church, locality is not very important. Most people need to drive quite a long way to get to their church. They have to get into a car to attend their home group, cell group or church. This limits the frequency of meetings. Regular fellowship and sharing are difficult, so these groups are almost as fragmented as the rest of society. The car has been a destroyer of community. Christians will have to resist the seduction of the freedom provided by the motor vehicle, and choose to live within an easy walk of each other, so community can develop.
The best way to apply the locality rule would be for a group of Christians, who know each other well and are committed to each other, to choose to live close to each other. They could buy or rent houses in the same locality. The leading of the Lord would be essential to finding the right part of the town or city. They should choose a location that is not close to existing churches, so they are not a threat.
All the houses should be in the same street or at least in the same block of houses. However, their houses would not be right alongside each other. They would need some space between their relationships. They will want others in between to see Christianity in action. (In cities with high rise apartments, they would need to get homes in apartment blocks that are close to each other.) The map below is a plan showing how the streets might look when the Christianshave moved in. The properties shaded in blue are those containing Christians. The house with no letter represents a Christian household already living in the area.
Once they had moved into the new area, the Christians would establish a church centred on the location they had been called to. The place where the church meets will be fairly irrelevant. The focus will be on building relationships with each other and the people in the area. They will meet in whatever is available. One church Paul started met beside a river. Jesus is present wherever his people are gathered, so a place to meet is a trivial issue. The church will often meet in the lounge of one of the elders when it first starts.
All the members of the church would live close to each other. They could have regular fellowship with each other. They would be able to "encourage one another daily" (Heb 3:18) as the scriptures require. They would be good friends, so they would be committed to each other. There would be many opportunities for people to share with each other. If they are willing to make a deeper commitment to each other, community could emerge. The church could transition to become a real community in which they would share and care for each other (Acts 2:42-47).
The church would be a voluntary community. Nothing would be forced upon people. They would be able to choose the level of their commitment to sharing. Single people or older people might choose to share homes and have regular shared meals. Couples with families might choose to spend a lot more time with their children. People would be free to leave, simply by moving house or moving to another church. Provided the church adopted a team leadership model, it should be able to avoid problems of over control that have plagued many communities.
Evangelism would concentrate on reaching people in the same locality. The life of Christ would be visibly demonstrated in the functioning of the church. The activity of Christians would be open for all to see. This would be a tremendous witness to the people who live around them, so evangelism would have a high level of success.
In a hostile culture, community based evangelism will always be more successful than church-based evangelism. The reason is that most non-Christians will never go near a church. They will need to see Christians living and sharing to see Jesus. People who live in the same neighbourhood will be able to see the interaction of the members of the church.
People in the neighbourhood will be the subject of intense intercession. Very few Christians are sufficiently motivated to pray for another Christian's neighbour, whom they do not know. So often they will have only one Christian interceding for them. In a church based on locality, each person will have several Christian neighbours interceding for them.
As households are converted, they will be drawn into this community. Seen from this perspective, becoming a Christian would be the same as joining a community.
In the map below, the church has grown. Several households have become Christians.
The Church is now probably getting too big for the lounge. If necessary, they will knock down a dividing wall to another room to make room for their meetings. Another possibility would be to meet in a garage. The yellow square above is a four-car garage. The owner might put some carpet on the floor and spreads some cushions and chairs around to make it comfortable for a fellowship meeting.
The map below shows the church after it has grown quite large. It has been so successful that there are only a few homes left which are not Christian.
The large yellow square on the corner is the local cafe bar (or whatever building is available). Its owner has converted to Christianity. Many of his patrons have been converted and are not such good patrons any more. He is happy to use it for meetings of the Church.
This is how it will look in a New Zealand city. In a city where the people live in apartments, it will look different, but the same principles will apply.
Many people in the church would go out into the city to work, so they would also belong to work communities. Many would belong to other interest groups. This would give the house church an outward perspective. It would look something like this.
I can see a city that is made up of a large number of locality-based churches that are also small communities. Each will consist of all the people living in a small geographical area: a block or perhaps an apartment building. The lives of all the people in a community will be closely linked with each other. Each community will be an independent and cohesive unity. It will be a village within a city. Most important of all, each community will cover the same geographical area as a church. A common commitment to Christ will be the unifying factor in each community.
When the church/community has reached many of the people in the chosen area, some of the Christians will be sent out into a new location to start a new church, which will also become a community. (To see how it would work follow this link.) A city could be gradually won for Christ, as communities/house churches expand into each block and street of the city. As they expand and grow, true community will be built in the city.
For this to work, the Church members would have to give up their devotion to home ownership. Most Christians buy a house in the area where they will get the best return on their investment. For a church to become a community, the church members would choose to live close to where the church meets. The best way to do this may be to rent a house, so that it will be easy to move out and start a new house church in a new area.
I am convinced that it is possible to build true community in the city. The key is to establish location-based churches, which will also function as communities.
Modern Christians go to church.
The early believers were all together.
The way that real community fit with being Church is fully described in Being Church Where we Live.