Darrell Guder, who works with churches to develop patterns that promote missional communities, finds a common theme within the Western Church. Instead of an outward focus, Guder notes that many churches in the west are “inwardly oriented, focused on itself and its members and on their savedness.”(1)
Many of us already realize that organizations which focus inward long enough begin to erode, but for most of us the church isn’t really about focusing inward all the time, anyway. Look at our church participants, and many are volunteering within the community at different organizations, in schools, and within our neighborhoods. We are active people, and our faith calls us to be active within our communities.
Christianity is limited when we view it as being confined to a single day or space. Early Christians wrote about being transformers of their communities and the world. They wrote about being the salt of the earth (Mat. 5:13), light to the world (Mat. 5:14), and the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). Forming Christian community was less about creating a set of rules or dogma that others could learn, it meant living out a faith that not only impacts others but is shaped by the needs, concerns, and desires of one’s community.
Shaping our communities is messier than staying in our Sunday pew. It requires us to reflect on the systems that are around us and challenge even the ones that benefit us. As black theologian James Cone famously wrote, “Living in a world of white oppressors, black people have no time for a neutral God.”(2) Modern liberation theologians in Latin America, for instance, view God as active in the struggle of the poor and that God’s redemptive plan for creation is still at work.
The call to Christian discipleship is also a call to participate in the work of our communities. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, after wrestling with the inaction church leaders had against the rise of Nazism, noted that Christian community was “not an ideal which we must realize,” but “rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”(3) Instead of seeking what God wants us to do with our church, Jesus invites us to live as the church within our communities.
Josiah Royce, one of our great American philosophers who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wrote about the Beloved Community. The pillars of Royce’s ideal community rested on the foundation of love and justice. Almost one hundred years later, this model would become a central theme in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the basis for the Civil Rights movement. For King, the idea of the Beloved Community was more than an impossible dream; it was the community formed when we lived out and into the true expression of Christian faith.
Every time we gather we are creating the Beloved Community. May we wrestle with how we can strengthen our community in ways that not only shape us but also shapes our neighborhoods.
1- Darrell L. Guder, "Walking Worthily: Missional Leadership after Christendom," The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 28, no. 3 (2007): 253.
2 - James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: Lipincott, 1970), 132.
3 - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, ed. John W. Doberstein (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1954), 30