It doesn't matter what part of the world I visit, I always return to the good ol' U.S.A. a little bit envious.
That might seem backwards to you. Since most of my overseas trips are considered "missions trips" I'm supposed to be bringing the people of that country something they don't have, right?
It's a little ironic that most the time I leave other countries with a small glimpse of what God may have intended the church to look like all along.
At times I've sat in an open-air tabernacle with 50 people in 100-degree heat, other times I've worshipped with a few believers in a small tent. Regardless of the setting, every plane ride back home causes me to ask the same questions.
Do we really understand community? Do we really understand what this picture of the church in the book of Acts was intended to be?
This concept hit me like a ton of bricks one day as a small group of us were conducting a medical clinic in a school just outside of Santiago, Dominican Republic. I spent an entire week with about 120 students from that area.
By the end of the week I had a good relationship with many of the students but I could never figure out which parents went with which students. Towards the end of our trip I asked our local contact in Dominican Republic about this and he proceeded to educate me in the matter.
"Life here is different than you are accustomed to." If you were apart of the church in this community you had certain responsibilities. They truly shared life together. They shared the workload, their food, the disciplining of their kids, their evenings together -- everything. Can you imagine if we shared the disciplining of our kids? It's a lawsuit waiting to happen in our culture.
The reason I couldn't tell one family from the other was simply because they acted like one big family.
I would bet that many in the U.S. would say that the poor economic conditions of many countries is the catalyst for these close-knit communities, and maybe there is some truth to that. Regardless, they have discovered something in their Christian walk and in their local churches that I long to experience in my life and in my church.
Every time I read the book of Acts I read about a group of Christ followers who understood that because of their faith they were intimately connected to one another. I read passages like "all the believers were together and had everything in common" and "selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need" and my heart longs to experience that kind of community. (Acts 2:42-47)
I also read the prayer of Jesus just before he would be arrested and crucified as he prays for the future church "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.
May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:21).
Jesus' prayer is that because of what God has done inside of them, they would be unified in the church and become a witness to the rest of the world.
So, why don't we generally experience real community in our churches? Maybe because we simply don't recognize the need for others. We have our own lives, our own agendas, and we make a personal commitment to Christ. We have a mindset that being a part of community of faith is optional. I would argue from scripture that it certainly is not.
Maybe we recognize the need for community but we're not willing to truly commit ourselves to one another. True community is not instantaneous and it's rarely convenient. Unfortunately, many of us aren't truly committed to one another through thick or thin. We are committed as long as it's convenient or as long as we don't get offended. It's unfortunate because working through issues, problems, and offenses is a necessary prerequisite to experience real community.
In his book, "The Different Drum," M. Scott Peck writes that most people actually live in a phase called pseudo-community, believing they are experiencing real community but actually continuing to put on masks and facades with one another.
To achieve actual community the group of believers must go through pseudo-community and into the chaos phase where things really get sticky. This is where people get real, they get transparent, and the group learns to work through differences, conflicts, and personalities.
This is not easy. Our culture has adopted a philosophy of sticking around in relationships until it gets difficult. Instead of persevering through the valleys in our life to experience mountaintop we bail out in the valley. As a result, our relationships become an endless cycle of beginning, experiencing difficulties and parting ways. We never get past the difficult phase into real depth.
Several years ago I had an experience with God that forever changed me. From that day I decided to truly commit myself to group of believers. I allowed them into my life, I became completely authentic with them, and I chose to work through all the problems that would inevitably arise.
My life has never been the same. My walk with Christ has never been the same. I believe I'm seeing just a glimpse of what God designed the church to be all along.
I challenge you to take the dive. It will require effort, patience, and perseverance but man is it worth it.
-(Matt Nelson is lead pastor at City Church)
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