Recently, standing with 35,000 others shouting and singing my heart out, I realised something. Here, in the cold, watching my football (soccer is a swear word in my country) team lose again, was a taste of something – something precious, something familiar yet foreign, a taste of something first dreamed of long ago. I only knew the name of one of my 35,000 companions, but we had the same purpose, the same heart and for those 90 minutes we were family; in all the joy and all the imperfection that image brings to mind.
Yet as I walked away, pondering once more the ineptitude of my chosen team, I realised that the community I experienced for 90 minutes ended all to abruptly and those I counted as friends for that hour and a half were just faces I avoided looking at on the train home.
So, a few days later I found myself again joining others, admittedly with less passion, in singing familiar songs. Again, that precious memory stirred again, as my voice joined in unison with others. However 90 minutes, and a few conversations later, we all went our own separate ways, back to the routine of our lives with varying degrees of gratefulness for the disruption.
So this is a tale of two communities. One community exists to say that our eleven footballers are better than yours. The other community is meant to be the message of faith, hope and love to a hurting world. The similarities between the two are a little painful to face. The world is longing for real community, indeed some of the most popular TV shows, from Cheers to Friends, echo the cry of humanity. That cry is for community – it is in our very DNA. The question is whether the church is responding to this cry.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us that even before the world was made God was determined to one day have a people, a community that were holy and blameless before Him. Community is at the very heartbeat of what God dreamed of for His bride, the church. Yet somewhere along the way we have become meeting orientated, more concerned with the style of worship and the entertainment factor of the teaching than with forging community, the road less travelled by. The little I know about true community is that it is primarily costly, involving individuals to lay down their lives for others. It can only be birthed in sacrifice. The other is that it is dangerous. The world is still trying to recover from 120 people who loved God and each other. In a time of famine in Jerusalem, among that large group, “there was no one in need.” That kind of a community is revolutionary.
We are living in an incredible part of the story, actors in the scene that involves the biggest risk God ever took – the risk of showing the world who He is by the means of His church, that is by me and you. It is the way we love each other that is going to show the world who our God is. John records Jesus’ prayer to His Father for those who will follow Him: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). However this will not come easily, it involves a fight.
Individualism is summed up on a particular website (www.individualistvoice.com) as a lone voice saying, “I am a man that does not exist for others.” Perhaps one of the greatest battles the church has to face today is against the individualism that is so evident in our society. John Donne’s famous statement “no man is an island” has perhaps met no more significant a test than in today’s society. It is far more common now to stare at a computer screen all day than it is to interact with people. Escapism seems to be the chosen form of entertainment, an anaesthetic to dull the senses. In as much as we are designed to need to eat and drink, we are designed to love others and be loved, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. I was shaken when recently I heard a respected teacher say that Paul would not understand the concept of an individual Christian. Such was Paul’s understanding of the church, of the community of believers.
The other fight we face is against consumerism. This is an ideology that puts its whole attention on what can be gained from any situation. When was the last time you asked someone about their church, and they replied along these lines: “I really enjoy the worship, but I don’t get much from the talks so I might look elsewhere.” There doesn’t seem to be too much wrong with that reply until we look at the thinking that underlines it. The understanding of church seems to be something that gives to me, something that fulfils my needs. However if church is primarily community, then it has to be based on giving rather than receiving, based on sacrifice rather than blessing. That is the love that is greater than faith and hope.
Those of us who have grown up in the west will find that we face a fight against individualism and consumerism in our own lives, it is how we have been brought up, it is part of the cultural glasses through which we see the world. Yet, I am flipping excited to see what would happen if we begin to forge real communities, with all the risk, cost and danger that it involves. But isn’t that what we signed up for?
[Mark Sampson is a Brit who works with the factory, a ministry of YWAM based out of Harpenden, England]