Community vs. Individualism (part 1)
My buddy Justin Buzzard interviewed me recently about the nature and necessity of community for his magazine Commit. Commit is a gospel-centered magazine that engages vital issues of our time. To find out more about it click here. I highly recommend it.
Anyway, here's part 1 of the interview. I'll post part 2 in a couple days.
1. Why is understanding and taking part in Christian community especially important in today's cultural climate?
I'm convinced that one of the reasons the church is not having a greater impact in our world is because, like the world around us, Christians have succumbed to individualism.
Individualism is a fundamentally worldly way of understanding what it means to be human. Stamped into the fabric of our modern society is the idea that the individual is the primary center of reality, the ultimate standard of value. We live in a culture where there are no longer any obligations to others. The locus of all authority is squarely fixed on the individual self. This approach devalues the role of "the many" in favor of "the one." Togetherness and community are radically diminished. It's all about "me," not "we."
In the Bible, however, we discover that while we're called by God as individuals, we're called into his new community, the church. One of my all-time favorite quotes about the church comes from an excellent little book entitled Total Christianity by Frank Colquhoun. He writes, "The fellowship of the church is part of God's good news to men. It imparts to the gospel one of its most thrilling notes—that when Christ saves a man he not only saves him from his sin, he saves him from his solitude."
In our day the word church tends to make us think of buildings and institutions; we assume it refers exclusively to a particular structure or establishment. In the Bible, however, the word for church literally means "the called-out ones"—those individuals who have been called out of darkness and called together into the light, thus forming God's new community (what the early church fathers called the communio sanctorum, or the communion of saints). Therefore the church is first about community, not construction; about people, not programs.
This means there's no such thing as Christian individualism; it's an oxymoron. The church is meant to be a God-formed community of people who have abandoned the notion that life can and should be lived in isolation. Christians are connected people—connected to each other by God the Father, through God the Son, in God the Spirit.
One of my goals as a senior pastor is to lead our pastoral staff to embody gospel-centered community so that we serve as a model to the rest of our church. We strive to laugh with one another, cry with one another, love one another, serve one another, exhort one another, and forbear with one another. We pray together, read the Bible together, and serve together. We share in one another's pleasures and pains. And we try, by God's grace, to "stir up one another to love and good works" (Hebrews 10:24). We work hard at becoming the kind of community we want our church to become.
Not surprisingly, our commitment to demonstrate gospel-centered community has spread throughout our church, and our church has increasingly become what we long for our surrounding area to become. As this continues to happen, our church models what human life and community can look like when fueled by the gospel. I think it's really important to remember that God's great evangelistic tool is the church—this new, counter-cultural community in which the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comes to expression in the unity, community, and joy of God's people. As we live together in a way that's consistent with who we've been remade to be, we become a blessing to the world by showing them how sweet life can be in a community of individuals who love one another, care for one another, defer to one another, are patient with one another, and serve one another. The world will take notice of a community of men and women who refreshingly and joyfully bear one another's burdens and who actively look to lay down their lives for others in need because Jesus laid down his life for them. When the world sees that Christians want to help people because God has helped them, they'll begin to ask what makes us so different. A faithful presentation of the gospel to our world, in other words, requires Christian community on full display.
2. How should the gospel shape what Christian community looks like?
The gospel turns everything upside down. It defines success in terms of giving, not taking; self-sacrifice, not self-protection; going to the back, not getting to the front. It shows that we win by losing, we triumph through defeat, we achieve power through service, and we become rich by giving ourselves away. In fact, gospel-centered living means we follow Jesus in laying down our lives for others; serving instead of being served, seeking last place, not first.
Well, all of this ought to mold and shape the church at every point and in every way. For instance, when you understand that if you have Christ you have nothing to lose, it enables you to live a life of great sacrifice and generosity. Gospel-centered people are those who love giving up their place for others, not guarding in their place from others, because their value and worth is found in Christ, not their place. When you understand that your significance and identity is anchored in Christ, you don't have to win—you're free to lose. In Christ, my identity and significance is secure which frees me to give everything I have because in Christ I have everything I need.
To live a gospel-centered life is to treat others horizontally the way God has treated us in Christ vertically. The gospel motivates us to treat people right by reminding us that God in Christ has treated us right. We're to be kind and tenderhearted and forgiving because God in Christ has been kind and tenderhearted and forgiving toward us. We serve those around us because God in Christ has served us. We forgive those who wrong us because we who have wronged God have been forgiven by God in Christ.
Let me give you another example. While I may enjoy kindness from Kim (my wife), I don't "need" it. In Jesus I receive all the kindness I need. This enables me to be kind to her without the fear that she might not return the favor. I get to revel in her enjoyment of my kindness without needing that kindness to be reciprocated. I get kindness from Christ so that I can give kindness to her.
When you multiply that freedom across every relationship you have, you're liberated to lay down your life for others without needing anything from them in return, because in Christ you've been given everything you need. Living out this reality would transform our relationships with our spouse, kids, neighbors, coworkers—everyone. As the church increasingly becomes a community that devotes itself to being kind and tenderhearted and forgiving, we warm up this cold world, making it more livable for everyone. We show this world how freeing, safe, warm, and secure life can be when it's marked by tenderheartedness and kindness and forgiveness—when it's marked by the gospel.