At the conclusion of my series on the Church in Post-Christendom, I argued that demonstrating the reign of God [or gospel] within a distinct community may be the American church’s greatest challenge to its mission.

I further stressed that this community, in which diverse people, locally and generally, are united by a common love for Christ and each other, is an essential witness to the in-breaking reign of God. In essence, the nonappearance of this “community” renders our acts of service indistinguishable from any other and our proclamation of Jesus shallow and without basis.

What hinders this community is NOT a weakness of the institutional church and its leadership but rather the radical individualism of its members. This is not simply a matter of concern over sporadic church attendance or mediocre participation in the church potluck dinner; this is a central underlying principle, which nullifies the witness of God’s people and opposes the redemptive mission of God!

Observing the ascendency of radical individualism, Charles Taylor, the acclaimed philosopher and author of Sources of Self pointed out that over the course of the last two centuries “our sources of self-identity have shifted from the external and transcendent to the internal and subjective experience of the individual.” In one sense, as modern societies advanced beyond the necessity of community for shear survival, we gradually and naturally began to transfer our dependency from other people and the local community to technology and ubiquitous governing structures. As our need for other people in order to survive diminished, and as means of transportation and communication evolved; we were less and less bound to our local communities. The bonds of connection and the sense of shared identity were weakened and our reciprocal responsibilities toward others began to evaporate. As an example, for those of you who live in the larger cities; consider how often you see a stranded motorist on the freeway in which hundreds if not thousands of people will pass by without the thought of offering aid. Such a thing would be incomprehensible to those living with this sense of shared identity.   

Again, this is not a problem unique to the church in America; it is a fundamental problem within American culture as a whole. For Christians, the problem arises when we fail to recognize the worldly nature of this condition and blindly incorporate it into the church. This would be akin to the church in Corinth trying to assimilate their former pagan practices into their new Christian life and worship. By not subjecting ourselves and the culture from which we spring to biblical scrutiny; we are essentially doing the same thing, which in turn makes us less distinguishable from the world around us. Robert Putnam, Harvard professor and author of the definitive book on the collapse of American community points outs:

…as the twenty-first century opens, Americans are going to church less often than we did three or four decades ago, and the churches we go to are less engaged with the wider community. Trends in religious life reinforce rather than counterbalance the ominous plunge in social connectedness in the secular community. (Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 80, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)

This is a stinging indictment of the American church by an outsider, demonstrating that we clearly live in the presence of a watching world – a world that longs for that which only Christ can give, whether they realize it or not.  And, one of the things all human beings need and long for is love and acceptance by their fellow human beings. We want to belong and when we do; this is community! This innate longing emanates from our imago Dei and its absence exists because of the Fall. It is for remedy that Christ’s victory and reign serves, and it is His body, the church, in which the firstfruits of this redemptive work should be seen.  

I am quick to add that this witness-bearing community is not inwardly focused and separate from the world but rather it represents a distinctly different way of living through which the church serves, and engages the world. In addition to local Christian communities expressed in and through the local church, there is also the larger “community” represented by all followers of Christ from various traditions and denominations, which at present is sadly and deeply divided.