What do we mean by ‘Community?’
WMF “Position Papers” do not necessarily represent the opinions of the entire WMF community, but seek to articulate alternative positions on issues of mission and spirituality. The starting points for these papers are the WMF identity statements and WMF’s commitment to living out these principles in daily life and ministry.
What do people think of when they hear the word “community”? Perhaps they think of a geographical area such as a neighborhood, or of a group of people living together in the same house; maybe they have the notion of sharing and having things in common. Although these things may be aspects of some communities, they do not necessarily result in community.
What is Community?
A deep and genuine sense of community is an intentional pursuit, initiated by God and sustained by His presence. Community implies people who have been called together by God for a purpose and who love and serve each other in humility. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote concerning community,
He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial (Life Together).
Therefore, we must be careful not to turn community into an abstraction but to, as the apostle Paul wrote, “be like minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” and deferring to the other and even giving up our perceived rights (Phil. 2:2-4). Simply put, “Community is not an ideal. It is people. It is you and I” (Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community).
Precisely because communities are made up of real people, they will involve much richness along with much struggle and even pain. Community is like a mirror that offers us a reflection of who we really are. In community, our sinfulness, selfishness, individualistic tendencies and brokenness are brought to the surface when we are confronted with the differences between others and ourselves. Thus, community can be painful because we are confronted with our real selves and honestly experience the broken places within us—the selfishness, pride, anger, jealousy and rivalry. However, the paradoxical beauty lies in the fact that, with a posture of brokenness, we can experience redemptive healing and restoration in community. Our deep inner pain can find healing through communion, acceptance, mutual self-submission, freedom to express our gifts and a sense of purpose, all bound together by love for one another. It is precisely in this encounter with others in community that we find a place for deeper intimacy with Christ through the loving relationships of our brothers and sisters. They are the tangible and visible faces of Jesus, and through the power of the Spirit they speak grace, love, righteousness and mercy into our lives.
What is Kingdom Community?
Communities, if they are to be signposts to the Kingdom of God, must be centered in Jesus Christ and have Him as the source of life (Rev. 7). There was and is no separation between Jesus’ life and the values of the Kingdom. In fact, His incarnation brought the “here and now” aspect of God’s reign. Jesus’ words remind us, “The time has come … The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).
(But) this forgiveness is not merely a judicial transaction or a stirring of religious feelings … Since the “sinner” was an outcast in the religious community and in society, forgiveness was an act of inner liberation from guilt, fear, and inhibition, and an act of social liberation—of reconciliation and integration with the community (Mortimer Arias, Announcing the Reign of God).
Therefore, God’s reign must also be welcomed to transform and liberate our communities. Submission to God’s authority and Lordship requires that a Kingdom community also open itself up to be redefined by the values of the upside-down Kingdom (Phil. 2:1-11; Matt. 5; Luke 6). We are called to go down the ladder of extreme individualism, competition and materialism (Jean Vanier). Together, we must find our dignity and identity in a lowly place, at the foot of the cross. We will, then, continually resist the temptation to define ourselves by what we do, what we have or what others say about us (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved).
A Kingdom community must also be close to the poor. Otherwise, it is in danger of missing or overlooking the presence of Jesus in its midst. The weight and testimony of Scripture is clear—God is on the side of the poor and identifies intensely with them (Ex. 3:7; Jer. 22:15b-16; Prov. 14:31; 17:5).
Jesus, the visible face of God, came to do the will of His Father in heaven. The Christ is the “image of the invisible God,” and “God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him” (Col. 1:15,19). Jesus came to preach the good news to the poor, identified Himself with the poor and became poor for us (Luke 4; Matt. 25; 2 Cor. 8:9). He brings the poor, the lost and the outcast from the peripheries of society to the center of community. Through Jesus, it is the poor who can save communities that are closed up in themselves and indifferent to their neighbors, especially those who are suffering, oppressed and marginalized. The poor can teach such communities to love and grow in compassion.
Just as each of us has one body with many parts, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-26). The metaphor of the human body used in Scripture wonderfully illustrates what a Kingdom community looks like. There is diversity in the many parts, yet a strong sense of connectedness and interdependence also exists. In this expression of community, there is inclusiveness and solidarity between the members who show equal concern for each other. Further, the weakest, most vulnerable members are held in a place of honor. After Pentecost, the followers of the Way gathered to read Scripture, pray, fellowship and break bread together. We read,
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer … All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (Acts 2:42, 45).
We also see this beautiful image in the eschatological community of believers around the throne of the Lamb in Revelation 7. The great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language in robes made white by the blood of the Lamb, and worshipping the slain Lamb who is at the center, gives us a key point of reference for our communities today. As Jacques Ellul points out, “All facts acquire their value in the light of the coming Kingdom of God” (The Presence of the Kingdom).
Is Community Foundational to Mission?
The very nature of the God we serve gives us the ultimate reference point and an inspiration for the way we relate to the world. The nature of the triune God is community. Jürgen Moltmann writes of the Trinity as “an inexhaustible life, a life which the three Persons have in common, in which they are present with one another, for one another and in one another” (The Trinity and the Kingdom). In his thoughts on community Jean Vanier says, “God is a family of three; three persons in communion one with another, giving themselves totally one to another, each one relative to the other” (Community and Growth). Miroslav Volf calls it “mutual interiority” through “self-giving love” where each of the persons in the Trinity are “in” one another (John 10:38). He writes,
When the Trinity turns toward the world, the Son and the Spirit become, in Irenaeus’s beautiful image, the two arms of God by which humanity was made and taken into God’s embrace (Exclusion and Embrace).
The Trinity provides humanity with a model of communion and community. God welcomes the humiliated, the victim and the poor (as well as all of sinful humanity) into His Trinity embrace; our communities must do the same.
In WMF, our continually deepening sense of identity as the beloved children of God is based on God’s inspired Word. God chose to create humanity after His own image. As brothers and sisters of God’s beloved Son we also hold on to the words of the Father, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Henri Nouwen once said that unless we see our own belovedness in Christ, we will not be able to see the belovedness of others. Community can be the garden in which we grow into the understanding of our belovedness and help others see and internalize theirs.
We are deliberate about creating intentional community through the reading of Scriptures, prayer, worship, the Eucharist and sharing meals together. Community is celebrated because we find in it “the greatest potential for discipleship, service and growth.” In community, our path of discipleship to Christ is enriched and challenged by the faith of others. Together, we can grow in the calling of God upon our lives and be pressed closer to His heart.
Personal intimacy with Jesus is a priority, but it is given opportunity for genuine expression and growth within the context of community. “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship). Alone, it is easier to veil our sin and keep it hidden from others. But it is much more difficult to separate our sins from community. Our sins will affect and hurt those in our community. Dying to our self-centeredness and inflated egos, and instead choosing the path of humility is painful. Many times we resist the call to take up our crosses daily. Yet in dying, a new resurrected life in Christ is born. “If we died with Him, we will also live with Him,” says the apostle Paul (2 Tim. 2:11).
Within the context of discipleship, a community can have a great impact in terms of making its faith relevant in service to the world. We look to our Lord’s example, believing that ministry should be a natural outflow of community and relationship. Jesus spent time in solitude with God, then called the disciples to Himself and formed community. Finally, they went out in ministry together (Luke 6:12-13; Matt. 11:7,8). In the same way, WMF is grounded on the foundation of a strong and deep sense of community.
Together with our communities, we seek to make our faith relevant in a life of service among the poor. As we give our lives on behalf of the poor, it is He who fills our cup and pours His life into us (Is. 58, Matt. 11:28, Mark 10:29).
We seek to not only be a Kingdom community that serves Jesus among the poor, but also a people who build community with the poor. This kind of community implies a mutual reciprocity in which we not only teach but also are taught, not only guide but also are guided and not only love but also let ourselves be loved. In many instances, the poor persons we live and work among unknowingly have become our teachers and mentors. They have taught us to love, taught us forgiveness and taught us to be compassionate. In other words, they have taught us to be true to ourselves, to be human beings.
The journey down this path of community and communion with the poor and with fellow Christians is very difficult. It is sometimes mixed with tears, setbacks, disappointments and disillusionment. But it is also a journey filled with joy, love, laughter and freedom. It is the path our Savior chose to walk. He willingly gave up His life so that He could take it up again and show us that sin and death do not have the last word, that we too can walk the same path with the hope of His resurrection.