// radical community, community radical

Have you ever been out for dinner with a bunch of people who it’s clear just don’t get you? They don’t get your sense of humour or your priorities or whatever, and it ends up being agonising, you sat there like a third (or fifth, or seventh) wheel while conversation goes on around you. It feels like the problem is you, and it’s easy to be put off by that and to see it as a reflection on you personally, to allow it to dictate the way in which you relate to people.

Oh, I know that we are supposed to find our identity in Christ first and foremost, and I know too that this is often a struggle for many of us, as in fact Christ told us it would be. I also know that people who do truly know their identity in Christ tend to be better participants in their communities anyway, less ego-driven or self-obsessed or hyper-critical or neurotic. But that is a learning process for all of us, after all, and sometimes I do wonder if the way that we ask people to go about working out that identity (on their own, in silence, through bible study) can even end up being counter-productive.

We can almost give the impression that you’ve got to be ready to be a part of our community before we’ll let you in. You’ve got to know you’ve received grace before you receive grace from us, got to have done the requisite preparation before you get through the door. Do you know what I mean? Honestly, maybe it’s just me, but that seems like an awful lot of hoops to jump through before you get to be friends with someone.

Maybe it comes from not knowing who we’re made to be.

Last week I had dinner with a bunch of good friends with whom I was a part of a cell group up until June of this year. The aim behind the group had been to talk about a Christian response to topics like injustice and poverty, and it worked brilliantly, but a couple of us were reflecting lately that we couldn’t remember much of what we’d done as a group. So over lunch the guy who’d been leading it explained that whilst the group had started out as a place to discuss strategies, what it ended up being instead was a place where people didn’t need to be convinced of the need to do something about poverty – they came together agreed on this aim and were empowered to talk about how this viewpoint affected other things.

Over our dinner table we started discussing community, and what it was that made it work. And we agreed that community was only possible when there was a shared sense of purpose, when all the members came together looking towards one aim.

“That’s what the church should be,” another guy round the table suggested matter-of-factly. “Community with purpose.” It was a quiet, understated moment of brilliance.

Because he’s right. When your community has a focus, everything is orientated towards that; and people coming into it often don’t need to have that orientation explained, as it is so obvious. It is on your lips, it underpins your conversations, it is in the way you move, the way you relate, even the way you carry yourself. If your community is setting out to be, say, a community of grace, then graciousness will seep into all that you do – whether eating together, making conversation, or apologising to someone for the way you’ve treated them.

It is in places like that you are challenged most about your attitudes. If you go into a community where it is blindingly obvious that the members love God – not doctrine, not good management, not a cool worship sound, not the social benefits, but God – then you will realise that you either do too, or you’ll realise that you don’t. If you claim to be gracious and then you see grace in action, that will test just how deep your grace goes, make no mistake.

Those kinds of communities are the places that make us who we are, and arguably we need them to live as God made us to. Without them, it is all too easy to forget what you know to be true – whether that is about identity, purpose, or about God Himself. In my case, lots of my crucial communities have left Oxford this year, and if I’m honest, I’m lonely without them. Because when you’re surrounded by others who are obviously (and visibly) living for God and going where He called them, you start to see just what Christianity can and should be. On your own, though, it’s easy to feel like all you do is fruitless.

Perhaps, really honestly, if we try and do it apart from community – all of it is.

Tim Keller says that our longing for community is the only true ache in history, because God says that it is not good for man to be alone before Adam and Eve fall. And I think he’s right, too. All of us crave community, whether we’re extrovert or introvert, no matter where we are – we crave community with family, with close friends, with the people who we love – with those people who see us for who we are, where we are going, and partner with us in that. That was who we were created to be, at the very beginning.

Community doesn’t just happen, though. We need to be around people who are orientated and headed in the same direction as we are, even if their expression of it is different. And so today I’m going to end with a simple question:

Is it like that in your church? Do you know where you are headed, and is it towards a good aim?

Or, somewhere, did your focus shift from knowing God, seeking to know Him more and empowering others to do the same?

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