If you’ve been in a church for any length of time, you’ve watched the powers that be wrestle with community. Personally, I’ve been part of Life Groups, Community Groups, Women’s Groups, Homeschool Groups, and a number of other programs designed to unite us into communities. I’ve seen them divided by life stages, educational preference, sex, and more. The biggest common factor is that a couple years down the road someone throws up his/her hands in despair and tries a new program of community.
Not to say we shouldn’t try. The Bible is filled with commandments about unity, bearing burdens, praying together, eating together, sharing belongings, and otherwise being in community. It sounds so simple–we are all part of this invisible kingdom. In a way, it’s us against the world. That united purpose should create some sort of natural community, right? So why is it so hard to do that?
I think the short answer is there is an Enemy who thinks communities of Christians are pretty dangerous to him, so anything we do is going to meet with some epic roadblocks. Egos clash, time is filled with other things, agendas call… it’s not all as simple as it sounds.
But I think there’s more. Jesus seemed to have a few levels of community in his life. (Because I’m sick of the word community, I’m going to change it. I’m going to call it friendship.) Jesus seemed to have a few levels of friendship. He had his inner circle of three. He had the next circle of twelve. And then he had an unknown number of followers after that, including women, leaders, tax collectors–people from all cultural groups of the time.
I like the word friendship. I think in a perfect community model, there would be only friendship. Everyone would have their inner three-or two or four–but not more. These are often bonded by subculture. I’m a mother. Wife. Potter. Writer. Homeschool mom. A researcher of spiritual disciplines. My inner circle will likely all share at least one common foundational trait–some area where gifts and passions lie. Since that’s where my time and energy goes, to imagine my inner circle will be completely different is a little silly. I have close single friends who are artistic and homeschool friends who aren’t, but my inner circle is likely not going to include single male accountants–there’s just not enough common ground for intimate friendship there.
So, I have my inner circle. But outside this are others. Some are the inner circles of my inner circle–an expanding network of friends. Maybe my circle is Betty and Sally. Sally’s circle includes Rachel and me. If Rachel has a need, and Sally knows about it, and Sally knows I can fill that need, suddenly I can reach into that circle and help Rachel. I’m now finding my twelve–those who are close enough for favors exchanged, burdens borne, but not on the everyday radar of the closest friends.
So the inner circle shares some of my passions, understands my use of time, gets the quirks of my particular subcultures. The twelve is spread a little farther and might shift and change–okay, all levels shift and change–but this change is more regular. In times of trouble, the twelve might or might not be close enough to know I’m in trouble, but once they do know, they are willing to help.
Then the largest group, the followers. These are the rest of my local church body. Through the three and the twelve I have loose links with all of these. I feel comfortable eating with any of these at a church meal, but I may not call them in times of need–although I will accept their help if those in various other levels put us together. I can pray for this group and care about them, but in my daily life, they aren’t really present. I know in eternity I will have time to grow close to each of them, but in my current life, we’re not close. In my human body and mind, I don’t have the capacity to get that close to that many.
I’ve been told that Christ is enough to bond us. I’ve been told I can be assigned to a group of ten people who share none of my passions and subcultures except loving Jesus, and that’s enough to build community. I’m not sure I agree. I think it boils down to friendships, networks of friendships, and a peaceful shifting of those as we move through life. Yes, we are united in Christ, but if Jesus himself had different levels of bonding with his friends, maybe it’s okay if we accept and value those levels, too. And maybe friendship is the word, not community, and maybe, just maybe, we can call a community group program a success if it helps some of us find good friends.