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For Such a Time: Community not Individual

August 11, 2010

Two conflicting and powerful forces are at work in each of us.  One is the force of togetherness and community.  This force leads us to a desire to belong.  The other is the force of individuality.  This force leads us to a desire to maintain personal uniqueness.  When we have community at the expense of individuality, we end up with dictatorship and loss of diversity.  When we have individuality at the expense of community, we discover isolation and self-centeredness.  

I am suggesting that our postmodern world promotes individuality at the expense of community to the degree that truth is defined by what is trueto “you.”  Truth is subjective to the individual.  You can be your own god, never having to submit or be challenged by others.  You can be a church of “one” so that you can always have your way.  You will not have to be considerate, flexible, compassionate, selfless or held accountable.  The mantra of this dynamic is “I don’t need church to be a Christian.” 

The result is that rampant individuality, even amongst Christians, has often killed community and left us with the diseases of loneliness, fear and defensiveness.  This is concerning because our individualistic culture longs for community.  In the cultural casserole of individualistic philosophies and religions, Christianity has an opportunity to articulate and embody a rich and transformative community –compelling to an isolated society. 

First, the community of faith is a place of empowerment.  Our culture resists community, because it is afraid that it will demand a loss of personal identity.  However, the Christian community finds its strength in a common mission, all the while valuing the diversity of it individuals.  In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul declares that we are the “body of Christ.”  The metaphor of the body leads us to conclude that, similar to the human body which has many parts, the church is a diverse group of individuals whose lives are empowered by the shared purpose of the community.  Simply put, it is only in community that individual believers find their full empowerment and destiny.  A hand ceases to be of any use if it is severed from the body.  Deep in the human soul is an ache to be significant to the world.  When we try to be significant on our own, we find that our impact is minimal.  It is only through community that our ache finds its outlet.  We can do so much more together than we could ever do a part.  This is a message that our isolated world longs to hear.

Second, the community of faith exists for “others.”  Few things have been as dangerous to the mission of the church as the language of membership.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with having membership in a church (we do at HWC).  However, it leads to a temptation to think of membership in terms of entitlement instead of mission.  Very subtly we begin to think that “membership has its privileges.”  We feel entitled to our way and expect personal catering if we give into this temptation.  We are highly aware of who is “in” as a member and who is “out” as a non-member.  The only way the community of faith becomes a compelling community is if it exists for others. 

We have a mantra at Heartland Worship Center that says, “Church does not exist for its members, but it exists through its members for the sake of a world in need.”  Our members are referred to as missionaries to emphasize that being in the community of faith is more like being on a team or an army than being a customer.  Philippians 2:3-4 says, “in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.  Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”  This simply follows the example of Jesus, who is the head of the church.  He did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28).  If the church is not a place that exists for others, then it is a communal camouflage that hides the entitlement that comes with rampant individualism.  

Third, the community of faith engages an eternal mission.  The individualism in our culture leads inevitably to a lack of significance.  If I am defined by what I am rather than what I can offer others, then my life will not matter.  If I live for myself, then all I have lived for will die when I die.  If I give my life away, thus following the example of Jesus, then my life has significance.  The church must be a community that is high-mission and not high-maintenance.  If the gospel is real and the harvest really does include 4.5 billion people who do not know Jesus, then why would we spend any time and resources on anything else.  Ephesians 3:10-11 (emphasis added) tells us, “the wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purposes which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  A community of mission will compel the individualists who long for their lives to matter.  

Fourth, the community of faith transforms individual believers.  We love individualism because it keeps others from being able to confront our lives.  However, when you are part of a vital community, you are forced to be considerate, flexible, sacrificial, caring, and selfless.  The community itself, through sharing our lives in fellowship and working together in mission, is a tool in the hands of God to transform us into the image of Jesus.

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