Three Signs of a Good Community

Listen to Kurt read the essay.

First let’s get this out of the way: You will never find a circle of perfect people to walk with. You will find, at best, a collective work in progress. You will find at best leaders who get it wrong half the time. (If the legends of baseball don’t get on base seven out of ten times, who are we to condemn our leaders’ batting average?) 

Nevertheless, you can find a community who wants to learn from its mistakes and accepts that all are on a journey whose hidden, essential element and final outcome are known to the eyes of our Lord, not our own myopic vision. One of the very best things therefore that we can do to help others on their journeys is to unilaterally forgive them. In this way we do our part to level the playing field for their best shot at freely choosing communion with the Lord.

Now that we have removed our pile of self-righteousness, what are some signs of a good community? Here are three suggestions:

  1. They speak the truth in love. 
  2. They walk in grace and truth.
  3. They worship in spirit and in truth. 

They speak the truth in love: In the same way I need a surgeon who will tell me the factual seriousness of my illness, I also need that surgeon to communicate, “I have lost sleep contacting my colleagues for advice about your condition. I am alongside you in this. I will take the utmost care to damage as little healthy tissue as possible. I want to heal you.” 

They walk in grace and truth: In the same way a harbor is the anchor point for ships, the truth of our Lord anchors us in reality. We center around Him and rely on Him in our endeavors. And yet, in the same way a harbor hosts a wide variety of ships, likewise we recognize that we differentiate from one another and must be anchored and maintained accordingly. We are each distinct not only in who the Lord made us to be, but in what He has called us to do. We abide with one another in our variety because of the common ocean of grace our Lord has baptized us in.

They worship in spirit and in truth: In the same way a sailing ship requires both wind and sails, a community should be structured in such a way as to work with the Holy Spirit rather than against Him or manufacture a man-made wind. These things are not exclusively churchy phenomena, although they include that. This dynamic is a universal one for any circle of people in any structure led or influenced by those who belong to the Lord. On a sailing ship, what perfects the working together of the wind and the sails is the working together of other things, namely the discernment of leaders and the health of the crew.

Note that all three suggestions pair one element with truth. And be it consciously or unconsciously, each community has a set of traditions whose intent is to preserve the truths they live by. So the question is never “Where can I find a tradition-free community?” for such a thing does not exist. Even the anarchists of Exarcheia, Athens, live by a set of hallowed traditions. Humans intuitively set up ways to live out their values in automated routines. It has always been that way and will always be. Rather, the question is: “What is the source of these traditions, and what is its fruit?” Three possible fruits — if the community is healthy — could be the suggestions I have listed above.

There is a certain blindness, however, that comes with the ways of our community and their attempted application of the truth. We clothe everything in culture. Therefore, when someone  expresses concern about your lack of alignment with the truth, you need to discern what they might actually mean, for sometimes without realizing it what they actually mean is that you lack alignment with the community’s culture. If such is the case, humbly find the seed of truth under the straw and own it as a precious gift for future bounty.

But when it comes to lining up with community culture and you cannot, courage is called for, courage to live by your own faith and conscience and not another’s. Just make sure that when you do so, you do the best you can to speak the truth in love, walk in grace and truth, and worship in spirit and in truth. You might not make new friends that way, but you will make fewer enemies.

So when you pray, ask the Lord to entrust you, your loved ones, and even your enemies to a community that has these three elements growing within it. Together they form a fourth thing that is the whole point of the Christian life: not better behavior, not superior theology, not useful programs, but communion in the Son of God. He is our healer, our harbor, and our blessed hope.

© Kurt Mähler

A Simple Three-verse Bible Study on Community

Gather as a group of two or more. Read each of these aloud slowly several times.

Ephesians 4:15 (New Living Translation) | “[W]e will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.”

John 1:14 (J.B. Phillips Translation) | “So the word of God became a human being and lived among us. We saw his splendour (the splendour as of a father’s only son), full of grace and truth.” 

John 4:21-24 (NLT) | “[S]alvation comes through the Jews.  But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” 

  1. After the scriptures are in your memory, verbally paraphrase them to one another without referring to a book or phone. Complete what is lacking in one another’s paraphrase until you have recalled all.
  2. Ask each other: What is one thing we learn about community in these words of the holy apostles?
  3. Ask each other: “What is one thing we each can do within the next 48 hours as an act of humble faith that we take these words seriously?” Consider small steps and mustard-seed actions that others could reproduce in their own lives. Decisions on new habits and long-term goals will require more structure than given here.
  4. Once each person has done what they have said they would do, gather again and debrief.
  5. Now search for three more verses on the matter of community. Conduct the same conversation again.

© Kurt Mähler

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