Today, it is fashionable to talk about community. Everyone wants community. Followers of Jesus Christ want community. People who do not follow Jesus Christ want community. In discussing the desire of “the younger generation” for community, Dallas Willard said:
That’s an expression of their loneliness. But most of them don’t know what community means because community means assuming responsibility for other people and that means paying attention and not following your own will but submitting your will and giving up the world of intimacy and power you have in the little consumer world that you have created. They are lonely and they hurt. They don’t know why that they think community might solve that, but when they look community in the face and realize that it means raw, skin to skin contact with other people for whom you have become responsible…that’s when they back away. (HT: Provocative Church)
If Willard is correct, and I tend to think he is correct at this point, then I must qualify my earlier statements. Everyone wants community, as long as the community is comfortable for them and of immediate benefit for them. People are willing to pay the price for a certain kind of community, as long as there is a tangible return on their investment. However, once the cost becomes too high, or the return becomes too small, then we naturally return to self-sufficiency and self-reliance and leave the community to fend for itself.
What is the cause of “backing away”, as Willard calls it? What causes the cost of community to become too prohibitive or the return from the community to become too small? There can be only one answer: sin. And, not the sin in the community, although sin will always be present within the community – we should never be surprised about that. No, it is the sin of the individual that causes him or her to “back away”.
Whether this sin manifests itself in self-centeredness, selfishness, anger, impatience, etc., the root of the sin is almost always pride. It is pride that causes the individual to consider himself and his desires and his opinions above and more important than the others within the community.
There is a depth to community that can only be plumbed through the empowerment and submission to the person of the Holy Spirit. The scriptural exhortations to consider others as better than yourselves, to confess your sins to one another, to accept and welcome one another, to bear with and forgive one another, to care for and give to one another, and – as Jesus put it – to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him can only be understood and realized via the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the life of a child of God.
There is a misconception that community is built around uniformity: people who believe alike, act alike, respond alike, desire alike, etc. However, uniformity will not create the type of community in which God calls us to live. This is evident in the constant exhortation for believers to bear with one another, forgive one another, have patience with one another, and consider others as more important than themselves. Thus, the authors of Scripture recognize that there would be relational frictions between believers. This relational frictions Willard describes above by the phrase “raw, skin to skin contact”. The way that someone responds to relational frictions demonstrates whether or not they are living in a Spirit-enabled, Spirit-empowered community, or if they desire to live in a uniform community.
People normally and naturally respond to relational friction with anger, impatience, divisiveness, selfishness, defensiveness, pride, etc. These responses are manifestations of sin. This type of response may reduce relational friction, but it will not maintain community.
However, through the indwelling and enabling of the Holy Spirit, it is (super)-naturally possible to respond to relational friction with understanding, acceptance, patience, humility, forbearance, perseverance, and even joy. This type of response will not immediately reduce the relational friction, but it will maintain community. In fact, true community is only possible in the presence of relational friction and a Spirit-controlled response to that relational friction.
Let me say that again: true community is only possible when those within the community – or at least a majority of those within the community – respond to relational friction through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Also, if there is no relational friction, then there is no community. There are either surface acquaintances, with the real friction hidden beneath, or a cult-like uniformity where those who disagree are excluded from the “community”. Neither of these is a community.
If we want to determine whether or not we are living in a Spirit-led, Spirit-enabled community with other believers, we can begin by examining how we respond to relational friction, that is to “raw, skin to skin contact”. If we respond by demanding our rights, privileges, wants, expectations, etc. then we are not living in community, but we are allowing sin to hinder our relationship with other believers, which demonstrates that sin is also hindering or relationship with God. If, on the other hand, we respond to relational friction in Spirit-created humility, joyfully allowing others to usurp our rights, privileges, wants, expectations, etc. then we are demonstrating that we are maintaining the community of the Spirit.
One thing before I finish this post: It is not the goal of the believer or a group of believers to create or maintain community. Instead, it is the goal of believers to demonstrate their love for God by loving others. As believers demonstrate their love for God by loving other believers in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, then Spirit-created community will ensue. Also, as believers demonstrate their love for God by loving non-believers in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit-enabled mission will ensue. Either way, the goal is to love God by loving others.