Missing—a sense of community

It might pay you to consider what made your church a congregation.

Walter R. L. Scragg is president of the Northern Europe-West Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

If you want an interesting exercise in church dynamics, take a large map of your city and plot the daily paths of your congregation. Put a large, X where your church is located, pins where your families and individual members reside, and draw colored lines along the routes they follow to church each week.

Now use other pins to show where they work or study, and again draw lines along the routes they follow from home. With the map before you, think about what it means to preserve a Christian community in the secular city. You should now have a rather pretty map with colored lines crisscrossing in unrelated patterns. The scattering of your members, the long spaces between Christian homes, the lines of travel sprawling and stretching in random confusion, show how strong the forces that push the members apart are and how much a miracle it is that the church survives at all.

It might pay you to consider what made your church a congregation. It may have a long history, with members tracing family membership back through generations. It may represent the outcome of an evangelistic campaign or a deliberate at tempt of a larger church to develop a new church in an unentered suburb. There may be ethnic roots. What ever the church's origins, proximity will most likely be the key factor in its continued existence. Many of your members attend your church because it is the most convenient.

Spiritual forces, however, rein force this community within the larger community. Conversion and commitment to Christ lie at the bases of all true Christian societies. Doctrines loop the bands of Scripture around the believers. Distinctive attitudes and practices glue them together. Seventh-day Adventists, because of their holistic philosophy, abstain from alcohol, addictive drugs, and tobacco, are diet-conscious, and are conservative in dress and behavior. A rather strict observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, an historical interpretation of prophecy, and a Second Coming awareness escalate the differentiation. Such differences strengthen the bonds of community between small groups of believers even though they live in large centers.

Think of the first-century Christians who lived in relatively small cities and towns. They could know one another intimately. Their abode, their education, family history, skills, employment—all were open to public scrutiny. To say, "Come and see where I live," was to invite a stroll with you around the corner. Thus the early Christian church formed a tightly knit group. "They met constantly to hear the apostles teach, and to share the common life, to break bread, and to pray" (Acts 2:42, N.E.B.).*

Many churches in less-developed countries are like this today. Matthew Bediako, president of the Central Ghana Conference, reports that church members in large cities in his country rise early each morning, long before sunrise, and walk to their local church for prayer and Bible study. From there they go to the daily market or to work. In addition, the very flow of city life in Ghana ensures frequent contact among members.

In New Guinea, Christian believers sometimes build new, separate villages to start their different life. They are distinguishable from non-Christians by visible signs, such as the absence of raising pigs. Members form strong links with one an other as they eat and work together, discuss their common faith, and share their knowledge on standards and doctrines. For many, their faith represents the largest single factor in their cohesion as a community. They police one another for signs of apostasy or deviation. They achieve purpose and direction through the church.

These church members from Ghana and New Guinea can appreciate the spirit of the apostolic church. "With one mind they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and, breaking bread in private houses, shared their meals with un affected joy, as they praised God and enjoyed the favour of the whole people" (verses 46, 47, N.E.B.).

In the early church

In practice, early Christians knew one another well enough to contribute to the success of the new faith. Their skills and abilities were known. What each needed, they understood. They were not dependent on weekly sermons for their sense of community. Their meeting place was around the corner, or, as in the case of Priscilla and Aquila, "in their house" (Rom. 16:5). They stood frequently in each other's presence. Pastors came by daily. Leaders fostered frequent communication, encouraging sharing of experience and goods. A strong sense of community developed.

Paul, viewing the Corinthian church members living in proximity to one another, called them the body of Christ. "God has combined the various parts of the body, giving special honor to the humbler parts, so that there might be no sense of division in the body, but that all its organs might feel the same concern for one another" (1 Cor. 12:24, 25, N.E.B.). Paul saw the gifts of the Spirit as manifest in each church body, as well as in the larger universal church. As the people at Corinth read Paul's letter, they may well have recognized themselves in his description.

All this may seem far removed from the smoothly operating church of today with its boards and committees, its goals and commitments, its visiting and resident pastors, and its weekly congregating of members. Can we call one such congregation the body of Christ, a "building fitly framed together" (Eph. 2:21), or do we have to look at many Christian congregations to consider a church to be "whole"?

A strong sense of community ought to flow within Christian groups. How can local church groups develop the apostolic sense of community that can make each a house for the Spirit?

Look at that map again. Why should not those church members find a sense of community with those who believe as they do? Why must they see one another and rein force one another's faith only once a week? Our practices have failed us here.

In my early youth, the church community fed my social life continually. There were weekly socials, occasional hikes and picnics, church working bees, and joint missionary endeavors that made me feel part of a growing, active group. Are we pastors today promoting the idea of horizontal communication among members outside of worship services? We may gather our members to the church center for other occasions than Sabbath-morning worship, but do they have interface with one another in casual, unstructured meetings related to their work or study or residential area?

Back to that map and its squiggly lines and colored pins. Look at the proximity patterns. Could a group meet for lunch once or twice a week in a downtown restaurant or hotel? Can students meet on that secular campus to share lunches and talk? Could housewives in areas A and B meet for daytime prayer and Bible study? What would happen if you charted your church members ac cording to occupation? Could a professional group meet some evening together or share their expertise with other "lay" members? Could you get some out for a prayer breakfast or a singles club or a family camp?

Not that you will want activity for its own sake. These functions are to share community or Christian faith and witness, not gossip or business information. The sense of community instilled by them might well keep the"back door" of the church from swinging open quite so often.

Developing cell structures

In his book Nation of Strangers, Vance Packard predicts that Christian churches may survive into the future only by developing cell structures somewhat like political parties. Such cells would have as their prime purpose the support of each member in the Christian life and his or her witness to the pagan world.

It isn't such a far-out picture. In some of our cities, the need for structure is upon us. In countries with limited liberties, such cell-units of Christians exist right now, not only keeping the church alive but making it grow.

Once more look at that map. What if all the pastors in a city with several Adventist churches were to conduct the same exercise and create a master map? Think of the possibilities for enriching their members' faith through facilitating their contact with members of other congregations. They might begin to see the church as being constantly with them to support their life style and faith as it was in Jerusalem after Pentecost.

As these times work their obstructive influences in our urban societies, the "ties that bind" fray and snap. We need new thread to weave into the bonds of Christian faith and expectation. Such might come through a studied and intelligent development of community opportunities still available today in as many forms as our imagination and common sense can structure.

The payoff would come in many ways. Not the least would be the expansion of our Christian communities. The togetherness of the day of Pentecost helped to make them fit vehicles for the outpouring of the Spirit. The efficacy of this togetherness in witnessing followed: "And day by day the Lord added to their number those whom he was saving" (Acts 2:47, N.E.B.).

Texts credited to N.E.B. are from The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.

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Walter R. L. Scragg is president of the Northern Europe-West Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

February 1978

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