“When They Will Not Come” – Community: The anti-attractional process of beginning a church with community


When They Will Not Come” (WTWNC) names the social dilemma of the church in post Christendom when we can no longer assume non-Christians will come to church even when they are seeking God. This new cultural condition forces us to change the way we think about every aspect of the church. WTWNC is a series of posts that reflect on the ways the practice of being Christ’s church/church planting must change because of this new cultural dilemma.

Illustration by Ben Sternke of http://benjaminsternke.typepad.com.

Here’s the first of many more posts on the subject of “When They Will Not Come”: Church -planting, church-pastoring and church-life as it is AFTER the “attractional” nature of the church has disappeared in society. Please … join in with me on this conversation.
“Community” is an overused word in American churches. It is used to describe any number of ideas that all seem so elusive. And no one really knows what “it” means. Has anyone every seen community? Even with all this baggage, I firmly believe “community” is a non-negotiable essential defining the very heart of what it means to be church in the world. We therefore must push for definition and concrete practices when it comes to community. “Community” should be that much of a defining issue for we who seek to follow Christ and His Mission in the world.

Why is community so central? When we born into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ we are not just born into a community. We are born into a very specific kind of association with one another. We are members of the Body of Christ. The forgiveness we have received is not just a personal pardon in a verticalized relationship with God. It is also inextricably a new relationship with one another (See Scot McKnight’s Community of Atonement on this) Just as we have been forgiven, renewed and live in relationship with God, we forgive, renew, and live in reconciled relationships with one another. This is why Anabaptist Menno Simons declared “unfeigned brotherly love” to be an indispensible mark of the church.

Such community is the foundation for all we are as the church. It is what makes possible discipleship, the raising of our children, a corporate worship which sustains us as people in our orientation to Christ’s Lordship. Indeed it is what makes possible a culture that in turn makes the gospel intelligible to those outside. It is the foundation for God’s Mission in the world (on this read Gerhard Lohfink’s Does God Need the Church?).

Acts 2:42-47 is a manifesto of sorts for this kind of community. The apostle Peter had just preached his sermon at Pentecost and many had been baptized. An amazing communal life then burst forth. The words “together,” “held in common,” “eating” and “fellowship” are smattered throughout the prose Luke uses to describe this new way of being socially alive. The text describes all this as directly flowing from the forgiveness and the Holy Spirit (vs 38) received by these new converts in Christ. Evangelicalism has always done well in explicating the power of these twin pillars of personal conversion: a.) the forgiveness we have in Christ and b.) the renewal we have in the filling of the Holy Spirit. But often in my evangelical heritage, these two doctrines have been taught as individual appropriations. This account in Acts however makes it clear that this forgiveness and the Holy Spirit are gifts to the community that shape a way of life together. They are not only to be received as individuals. Rather something incredibly social is birthed. In receiving forgiveness of sins we in turn become forgivers, ministers of reconciliation. In receiving of the Holy Spirit we trust that the Holy Spirit is working in, among and around us for His purposes. We give up control and begin to seek God and his work among us and around us. The community incarnates these realities in a social dynamic that can be described as truly missional. As a result, as verse 47 tells us, “they had favor with all the people … And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Such a text describes the missional “strategy”(I don’t like to use this term unless in scare quotes) – nurture a community in the redeemed life of Christ and Mission (including conversions) will follow.

I believe a host of problems in American evangelicalism originate in our disregard for community. Indeed, our hyped up attractional approach to church has put the individual first in such a way that community becomes an afterthought which creates problems for discipleship, catechesis of our children, as well as evangelism. We seek to draw the individual in, sell him/her a message, and then provide communities. Community by definition becomes commodified. Instead of an individual being grafted into the Body of Christ as the very foundation of his/her salvation, this individual becomes a consumer of what kind of community best suits the kind of Christianity he or she can fit into her life. The ramifications for discipleship are disasterous.

Acknowledging all of this however still leaves us with the problem: if community is prior to mission (not theologically but practically), i.e. if community is a necessity from which we engage Mission and evangelism, where do we start?

As church planters and pastors, we are ever tempted to sell something. We could try this with community. “Come to our church and you will find authentic community.” We could put “community” in our values-mission statement. We have done market surveys and discovered people long for community. Let us then offer community! But this inevitably fails. People come seeking an instantaneous community (feeling of some sort?) and there simply is no such thing.

The problem of post Christendom is how do we develop community when people will not come to our church in a way that makes such community possible. It used to be that people would come to come to church for community. People in the fifties actually came to church for the fellowship. Churches would advertise regularly in the fifties, sixties that they were “ABC church – the friendly church.” Everyone needed a local church for the kind of community formation that took place inside the four walls of the church. This was Christendom at its finest. Today however, “communitizing” is fragmented in society in many ways including the internet. And people are shaped for easy solutions. The church holds no special place as a community. It is but another social services agency or distributor of spiritual goods and services. As a result, there is nothing more oxymoronic than to try to “attract people to our church for its community.”

The question then is this, in a post Christendom context, with something so essential to the church as community, where do we start? How can we begin a community without first attracting people into it?

What do you think?

I’ll be picking up this question on my next post on “When They Will Not Come?”

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