Becoming a compelling community (I)
A summary of lessons learnt from the book, "The Compelling Community" by Mark Dever and Jamie DunlopThursday 18 February 2016 by Ad Taylor-Weekes
I found The Compelling Community to be a very thought provoking, even compelling, book. Although it’s written with church leaders particularly in view, most of it is something we all need to think through. What follows is a deliberately imbalanced summary of the most useful points for the whole church and some thoughts of mine on applications for church life. There are four parts to the book: A Vision for Community, Fostering Community, Protecting Community and Community at Work.
So that the blog post isn’t too long I’ll post it in two parts: A Vision for Community, this week, and the rest next week.
A Vision for Community
Community exists even where God doesn’t!
Firstly, the book highlights the fact that community doesn’t necessarily need God to exist. I suppose, on one level, you might argue that all community only exists because God is community. Part of our made-in-God’s-likeness-ness does, no doubt, include a desire for community. But that’s not his point. His point is that community exists even where God is not acknowledged. That much is pretty clear isn’t it? Community has become somewhat of a buzz-word in recent years in many different spheres: we hear talk of the “Gay-community” or the “Online-community” to name only two. And yet even in churches we can have the feel of community but, in reality, it’s community that would exist even without a shared understanding of, and love for, God.
2 kinds of “community”
Dunlop goes on to suggest that a community can either be “gospel +” community, where the gospel is a bonus but not necessarily essential, or “gospel-revealing” community. In order to be gospel-revealing 2 dimensions are necessary – depth and breadth. Now he’s pretty clear that saying this doesn’t preclude the existence of genuine community with people that you would get on with anyway, apart from the gospel – but that’s a bonus and shouldn’t be the only or even the major feature of community. So, for example, if you’re a student in a church and there are some other students there too – bonus! But that doesn’t necessarily make for a “gospel-revealing” community, although it could do. What does he mean by depth and breadth?
Depth in community
Depth of community basically means that we have real and deep relationships with people that we relate with. Relationships where talking deeply of spiritual realities is not weird but normal; where discussing the Bible-talk, or the Bible, when the formal part of meeting together has finished is not alien but natural; where applying Bible truths to each other’s lives is not “full-on” or “intense” but is the way we love each other.
Breadth of community
As important as depth of relationships is, equally important is being broad if we are to be a gospel-revealing community. The gospel is a message that, when believed, tears down natural barriers between the people that believe it. Think about all the barriers that our world erects and the categories we divide the world into and they are all brought down and crossed in the gospel between those who believe it: age boundaries, economic boundaries, political boundaries, boundaries of social ability and cultural background are all transgressed by the gospel. This is, “boundary-crossing love that perplexes the world around us.” Of course the particular boundaries that need to be crossed are determined by our context. Our church community should reflect the community that we’re in to some extent. You wouldn’t, for example, expect an Alaskan Christian in your Church-community if there are no Alaskans in your local community – much less go looking for one!
A natural consequence
So how do we achieve this?Dunlop argues that we don’t! It’s a natural outflow of the gospel. Having said that there are lots of things we can do to hinder it. He lists 3 which are all very challenging and good to ponder: ministry by similarity, consumerism and the invisibility of the majority culture.
Ministry by similarity is where we gear activities to one section of the demographic whether it’s by age or stage. He’s not saying that these are always bad, but that it’s about what characterises community in the church. So it’s ok to have a student group, or women’s group, or men’s group – but these are not where I find real “community” (in opposition to whole-Church activities.)
Consumerism is an attitude in the individual that sees church as a means of meeting my needs. This clearly works against diversity which is more about willing and joyful sacrifice on the part of members whether that’s sacrificing our comfort, our preferences, our resources or our habits
By the invisibility of the majority culture I think he means that if you’re in the majority you often can’t see it and see past it! Here’s a quote:
“When I ask a young man in our congregation to lead in corporate prayer, his prayer often addresses what you might term “young man” concerns. Sexual purity, difficult bosses, challenging children, trying to make a difference in the world, etc. Now, in no way are those things foreign to the life of the church member in his seventies. But repeated prayers like that tell the seventy-year-old that this has become a “young person’s church.””
So if the church is naturally made up of a majority, as it presumably always will be to some extent, those in the majority need to be aware of the needs, preferences and situations of those who are not.
What’s the point?
Ultimately this is all important because this is the way that the gospel and the glory of God is put on display. So we do want to see both depth and breadth: we want to see students chatting deeply with young (or not so young) professionals or kicking a football around with 10yr olds; old age pensioners being served biscuits by 6year olds as they tell them stories of God’s faithfulness to them; a married couple with a young family praying with a lady from Angola in the middle row after the meeting etc. Not merely for our good but because this is gospel-revealing community, it demonstrates the power of the gospel and brings glory to God. And if you’re on your own, and you feel like there’s no-one like you, well your presence is all the more key to the witness of the gospel. Just think how the glory of God would be diminished if you weren’t there!