Series - Community

Seasonable Thoughts on Building Community

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Within every church, members tend to form circles around common interests. I have suggested that this phenomenon is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can be helpful in the process of building community. In general, pastors should encourage this tendency, but they should also oversee it.

Some circles may revolve around explicitly religious interests. A church may develop groups of people who are particularly interested in biblical prophecy or poetry. People may form circles around a special burden for witness or missions (or even a particular missionary). In one congregation I know of, some women formed a group to pray especially for the church’s day school.

Other commonalities may not be specifically religious but are still suitable bases for fellowship. Most churches today have some form of specialized children’s ministry, youth ministry, women’s ministry, men’s ministry, and ministry for the aged. Since both age and gender are aspects of calling, and since one’s Christianity must be worked out within one’s calling, these groups are not necessarily inappropriate. Nevertheless, they do pose the danger that the group might become a sub-congregation that practically detaches itself from the body.

Circles of interest, whether formal or informal, may develop around other aspects of vocation. Builders will talk to builders about building, programmers to programmers about programming, and so forth. Homemakers with small children will find each other, and they will also look for older women who have reared children and can offer counsel. These circles of interest present wonderful opportunities for Christians to help one another in working out their own salvation.

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Further Thoughts on Building Community

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In order for a church to function as a community, its members must develop relationships that touch all of life. The development of these relationships requires Christians to share interests outside of the purely devotional and ecclesiastical. The question arises, however: will not the sharing of secular interests result in secularized Christians who have less interest in spiritual things? Specifically, do not secular interests constitute a distraction from God’s work?

The Greatest Commandment requires us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mk. 12:30). This description means that we must love God with every fiber of our being, so exhaustively that no love is left for anything else. Yet the Second Greatest Commandment requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mk. 12:31). The juxtaposition of these commands creates a paradox: if we must love God so exhaustively, how is it not a distraction to love our neighbor, our wives (Eph. 5:25, 28), our enemies (Lk. 6:27), or the lost?

The answer lies in the distinction between loving something as a means and loving it as an end. We must love God as an end, as He is in Himself, for no other reason than that (and what) He is. An ordinate love for God is absolute and unconditioned. If we love God as a means to an end—if we love Him for His gifts—we do not really love Him, but the gifts. We force God to serve our true loves, which is idolatry.

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More Thoughts on Building Community

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People naturally gravitate toward others who share their interests. As C. S. Lewis once noted, friendships are built among people who are looking at the same things. In general, the more interests we share with one another, the more profound our friendships are likely to be. In a certain sense, friendships are communities of interest. Friendships that are formed around specific interests also tend to spill over into other areas of life, leading to the discovery of other shared interests and closer levels of friendship.

This principle holds as true for church members as it does for unbelievers. Christians are naturally drawn together by their interest in Christianity. They are further drawn together by their interest in and agreement upon specific aspects of Christianity: we rally not only around the gospel, but around theological ideals. More than that, Christians are also drawn together by human interests that are not specifically Christian (though, as Christians, we hold them to be under the lordship of Christ).

Not surprisingly, churches find that their members cluster around varied interests, many of which are not even specific to Christianity. A church may see groups of members being drawn together by their stations in life (age, sex, locality, family situations, careers, etc.). Adolescents are drawn to each other, and so are retirees. Women talk to other women in ways that they do not talk to men, and vice versa. Parents of preschoolers take an interest in each other’s challenges. Farmers talk farming with other farmers.

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Thoughts on Building Community

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My pastor has asked me to present a Wednesday evening series on the marks of a church’s wellbeing. Much of what I am doing is thinking through Baptist distinctives from a different point of view. As these discussions are completed, copies of the visuals will be posted on the Fourth Baptist Church or Central Seminary web sites.

One of the matters I’ve been reexamining is the nature of the particular church as a covenanted body. Many Christians other than Baptists recognize the covenantal nature of the organized church. Not every assembly of believers is a church. To constitute a church, a body of believers must—at minimum—purpose to be a church.

At this point, however, a difficulty arises: true Christians disagree among themselves about many features of the church. They disagree about its form of organization, the number and function of its officers, the correct way of observing its ordinances, and the qualifications of those who will be received as members. They often disagree about the system of faith that the church ought to profess, about which aspects of the system leaders should have to affirm, and even about which aspects should be required beliefs for members.

When Christians disagree about how a church obeys Christ, they cannot all commit themselves to membership in the same church. Some Christians believe that a church is sinning if it does not permit the baptism of infant children. Other churches believe that a church is sinning if it does. Christians with these conflicting commitments cannot become members of the same church unless one side is willing to participate in what it believes to be sin. Separate organization is virtually mandatory if all believers are going to live in what they perceive to be biblical faithfulness.

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