Months ago a young couple visited our church, and we had them over to our home for lunch. As we ate and conversed over meatloaf and mashed potatoes, the young woman peppered me with questions. “So what is community like at your church?” “How many people are in discipleship relationships?” In between questions, she gave us a glowing review of the church they had been a part of in another state.
I felt expectations rise as she shared about her close relationship with the pastor’s wife, who happened to live in the apartment above them, and how she popped in on their family at all different times of day. I was beginning to feel like a job description was being offered to me, and our church was being evaluated as to whether we fit the bill.
I’m thankful this couple had such a wonderful experience at their former church, but I couldn’t help but wonder how helpful it was to measure everything against their previous experience. Yes, we learn from our past and are blessed when we have great models, but is it helpful to compare communities of faith and assume that one is the ideal model and all others should strive to look the same?
The conversation about what church community should look like caused me to reflect on different issues I’ve noticed emerging around this important debate.
Community Without Commitment
Despite all the hype about the importance of community in the body of Christ, there can be a tendency to want all the feelings of community without a firm commitment to a local body of believers. Relationships deepen and grow only when we’re willing to commit time and energy to fostering them (Hebrews 10:24–25).
Committing to a Bible study or small group or discipleship relationship often provides the setting to establish community. But if you always have a list of reasons why you don’t have the time, how will the body of Christ you belong to know how to minister to your needs? If having babies or being tired or working late keeps you from faithfully serving your church or being served through a ministry of the church, you’re likely not going to feel well-connected.
How will we know how to pray for each other when there isn’t a regular time to meet in a smaller setting and share our joys and burdens of life? If your travel plans or children’s sports schedules consistently have you missing corporate times of worship, you’ll be deprived of not just hearing the word proclaimed, but the interactions that happen in the pews before and after the service.
We will never experience true community without a firm, sacrificial commitment to a local body of believers.
Community Without Accountability
True community also means being transparent enough with your own struggles so that others in the body know how to pray for you (James 5:16). Not everyone in your church needs to know your darkest moments of despair, but do a select few know your battles? Are others free to ask you how you’re faring in your war with pornography, binge eating, or gossip? Or do you meet them with a high wall of defense when they try to speak truth into your life?
When another member in the body has the courage to confront our inconsistency or hold us accountable in a struggle we’re facing, we should ask God to give us grace to receive their words with humility and meekness. Our own pride can tempt us to surround ourselves with people who will affirm our words and actions, instead of challenge us when we turn down the wrong path.
There is a temptation to shut people out who are speaking truth into our life by avoiding communication with them: unfriending them on Facebook, turning the other way when you see them at church, or conveniently never finding the time to meet them for coffee. But we’re missing out on what could be a primary means of sanctification in our lives when we refuse to be held accountable by our community of faith.
No Perfect Community
So, in your search for the church with the perfect community, be willing to accept that community will look different from church to church. Maybe your community was established by a strong relationship with the pastor’s wife at your former church, but be willing to see that your close relationships at your new church could come through an unexpected way: a single woman longing for companionship or perhaps a gray-haired grandma willing to meet you for coffee each week.
Instead of sitting on the sidelines comparing and critiquing what your church does or doesn’t have, commit to a ministry of the church to both serve in and be served. Find a smaller group within the body to share life with, study Scripture with, and pray for one another with. And keep the commitments you make. If you sign up for a Bible study that lasts twelve weeks, do your best to commit for the long haul. If you’re feeling disconnected from others within your church, evaluate your own level of involvement.
True community is established through faithfulness, commitment, and a humility to both share your struggles and receive counsel. You honor God when you commit to the saints and sinners he has placed in your church family.
We Need Each Other
We might not ever find the perfect community this side of heaven, but our church families are essential for our walk with Jesus. Like Hebrews says, the state of our very souls depends on our community of faith:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12–13)
We need community. We need our brothers and sisters in Christ. However imperfect our church may be, we need our family to point us to the gospel. One day we’ll see Jesus together, but we’ll only make it if we push each other to cling to him today.