It is not uncommon to hear someone reference the church as the community of faith, and that is not an inaccurate description. I have done it, and I have heard hundreds of others use the description as well. Although it may not communicate the depth of relationship that the church should have with one another.
Community is kind of a catch all word that can reel in a lot of different types of organization, it also seems to be a very disarming word, and often is very helpful in speaking with people about the church and its function. Here me loud and clear THIS IS NOT A POST ABOUT NOT USING THE WORD COMMUNITY. In fact I think we should use it, moreover I think that it really helps people get over a lot of baggage that comes with the word church. What I am proposing in this post is that we understand, and can articulate what we mean when we say community.
I have found over the years that in a culture where words can facilitate a multitude of connotations, it is incredibly important that we clarify how we are using any certain word so people know what we are talking about. So when I talk about community in reference to the church I am talking about a very deep relationship between people that binds them together in a much more significant way that mere affinity.
When we talk about community I would like to suggest that, what we are really talking about is the idea of communitas. Communitas is the idea of something incredible happening that drives individuals to find one another because there is a commonality in the incredible experience.
In Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways he dedicates a chapter to the idea of communitas. In the chapter he talks about some research done by an anthropologist named Victor Turner, who studied rites of passage among several African people groups. He coins the term liminality which is the idea of a transition process accompanying a fundamental change of state or social position. Turner connects this with the idea of communitas, which is the comradeship that is forged in the testing conditions of liminality.
Communitas is therefore always linked with the experience of liminality. It involves adventure and movement, and it describes that unique experience of togetherness that only really happens among a group of people inspired by the vision of a better world who actually attempt to do something about it.
Alan Hirsch—The Forgotten Ways
A community of people may or may not change anything. They may just simply be happy hanging out together, with little to no goal of ever impacting something externally. A community of people might not ever experience life together, in a way that creates the feeling of family. But, the church that is something deep. As we read the early narrative of the church in Acts we see that people had an experienced that pushed them together. This experience was not simply affinity, it was deeper, it was the extraordinary transformation of the heart that came from the Gospel that made being family possible.
The church is a deep family, it is a family linked together because of the transformation they have all commonly experienced with one another. It is this experience that causes people to give up what they own so that another does not go without, it is what moves you to reach into the darkness and shine the light of Jesus ever so brightly. It is the beautiful moment when you kneel down at the side of someone who is at the wits end and you advocate for them, even when that puts you in harms way.
The church is birthed out of people transformed by the Gospel and that bond being what drives them together. The church is a beautiful picture of the community that God has in himself, that we see in the trinity, it should communicate to the world a sense of hope and love and beauty.
Church has to be more than simply community, because communities come and go but the church will never cease. It will never die, it will never fail. The church is God’s vessel to proclaim the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and to support one another as we engage in the task. The church is there when no one else will, be and the church is the expression of Jesus’ love for humanity on earth.
It is a high calling to be the church and not simply a community. Maybe that is the problem. Maybe the reason people see a decline in people connecting with the church, believing that the Gospel is real, is because we have simply let an inferior understanding of what the church is take over. We have stopped being a community bound by the adventure, experience, and transformation of the Gospel. The church needs to rediscover what it is that binds it together and regain its active place in the world, regardless of the circumstances.