Finding God in Community
During the final night of an evangelistic conference that I, Jonny, was a part of, we discussed finding God in community. After breaking into small groups, we discussed the question “When have you experienced a community of faith true to God’s teachings and the story of Jesus?” I was fortunate to be in a group with a Hindu computer programmer who had sporadically attended our meetings. I was curious about how he would respond, and I was not disappointed.
When he had first attended the meetings, several people made a special effort to connect with him. I had talked to him about finding meaning in life. Then I invited him to join me at lunch later that week, and several days later, we walked through a park together. He had questions about the reasons behind certain painful aspects of his past. We discussed the overarching narrative of the war between God and Satan and how this world is not fair; but it will be one day. He kept attending the meetings when he could.
A couple weeks later we went out for dinner. Afterward, we continued our discussion, exploring the issue of evil and how God provides the willpower and opportunity to make a choice for eternity, regardless of the brokenness we may struggle with. We talked about how God does not allow any one of us to face more than we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13), but it varies as each of us is on our own unique journey. At the end of our time together, I prayed with him, and he shared how that prayer and the idea of finding meaning and purpose in relationship with God resonated deeply with him.
When asked about experiencing God, my new friend spoke about our little faith community. While he was with us, he explained, he felt a great sense of peace and joy. He talked about how nice and kind we were, how welcoming and loving. God had used us, despite our imperfections, to reveal Himself to a Hindu man searching for meaning and wholeness. As a result, he found God in community.
Twenty-first-century believers face the constant danger of slipping into the trap of an individualistic Christianity. God and our personal relationship with Him is a private matter. But, as our Hindu brother discovered, human relationship with God is also a matter of community. We who are in the church can easily miss this blessing. This article explores the biblical background for the God-community relationship and how the Christian community is God’s conduit to reveal Himself to us through personal correction, healing, and encouragement. God longs for us to find Him, and one vehicle that He has established to aid us in the quest is that of community.
God exists in community. Before the angels, before the universe, before perhaps time itself, the Father, Son, and Spirit shared a continuous love that can exist only in community.1 Community is God’s primal manifestation of existence and reality. When God created humanity, He intended for us to be able to relate to Him, so the Lord made us male and female (Gen. 1:27), counterparts equal but distinct in community. Jürgen Moltmann argues that truly knowing something involves being able to participate with that entity.2 For example, rather than learning physics merely to recite formulas and laws, I, Jonny, studied the subject in order to experience it, to glimpse both its beauty and that of the universe it reveals. All true understanding, then, requires ever-deepening participation with reality through the lens of the specific subject. God’s lens is one of community. When we participate actively in our human community, we develop the capacity to grasp God in even more basic ways. This scriptural picture of God and humanity reveals that our interaction with others is fundamental to conceptualizing God, and ultimately finding and experiencing Him.
The Bible demonstrates that God reveals Himself through human community. The priesthood in the sanctuary system represented God and His work to the people (Lev. 1:1–9; 10:10, 11; 16). When Naomi and Ruth returned to the faith community, God used Boaz as His representative to vindicate them and save them from a life of poverty (Ruth). Hosea married a prostitute to become a living illustration of God’s love for His people. In the New Testament, Paul calls the church “the body of Christ” and instructs it to live out its Holy Spirit–inaugurated responsibility to speak God’s truth and reconcile the world to Him (Rom. 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12:4–31; 2 Cor. 5:18, 19). Perhaps the best example of the community of faith revealing God to others appears in the book of Acts. It starts with a description of an ideal community as its members encouraged, ate, healed, prayed, and lived together, at the same time gaining the favor of those around them (Acts 2:42–47). Throughout the Bible, not only individuals but also whole tribes or communities demonstrated God to others.
Finding God through communal correction
One of the challenges that keep us from finding God in community is our aversion to giving or receiving correction from one another. “I do my thing. You do yours.” “It’s not my place to reprove them. The Holy Spirit will convict them if they’re doing something wrong.” The Holy Spirit will convict us, but we forget that He often works through humanity to plant those seeds of conviction. Jethro cor-rected Moses (Exod. 18:13–27). Nathan confronted David (2 Sam. 12:1–14), which is emblematic of the role the Old Testament prophets took with erring rulers (see Jonah, Jeremiah, etc.). We are not advocating a culture of criticism, but when correction is given with the Spirit’s leading, honest love, and meaningful relationship, God speaks to reorient us to His way of life.
The paradigmatic teachings on correction in the New Testament come from Paul. He told Timothy that Scripture is useful for correcting others (2 Tim. 3:16, 17) and instructed the Ephesians to practice “speaking the truth in love” for the good of the community (Eph. 4:15). Galatians exemplifies such correction. One church leader confronts another. Neither of them had rejected God or performed some heinous sin. Both were extremely influential (in fact they are the main characters of the book of Acts). Paul recounts in Galatians 2:11–14 an altercation between Peter and himself. Paul had been working in Antioch, and Peter came to visit. At first, Peter openly shared table fellowship with everyone, but then some believers arrived from Jerusalem who opposed eating with the uncircumcised. When Peter altered his behavior to please them, it influenced other members of the community as well, but Paul called him out. He charged Peter with being hypocritical and compromising the gospel. As a result, he needed someone to set him straight. If this were the end of the story, we would not know whether the confrontation was ultimately effective, but 2 Peter 3:15, 16, written years after the book of Galatians, clarifies the nature of Peter’s reaction to Paul. Peter calls Paul a “beloved brother,” and he says Paul’s letters have divine wisdom in them. Sometimes God corrects even the most sincerely converted believers through the voice of the faith community.
Here is a story to illustrate the point. In the tenth year of his pastoral ministry, Clarence’s conference assigned him to help set up camp meeting alongside one of its officials. As they worked, Clarence began to tell the leader how much he appreciated his work. As he offered some gushy compliments about how wonderful of a job the individual was doing, the conference official cut him off. “I don’t feel that what you’re saying is sincere,” the man said. “I feel as if you have a hidden agenda behind what you are saying.”
“No, I don’t have an ulterior motive.”
“Maybe you don’t, but what I would like for you to do is pray over it, see if maybe what I’m saying is true, and then, if it is, you can address it.”
At first, Clarence had a sense of hurt. He feared his superior was thinking horrible things about him. After all, he just wanted to do his job well and to be known for having a good character. Then his pain turned into anger. How could the leader judge him like that? He did not know him well enough to talk to him that way. Yet, as Clarence worked through his hurt and anger, he did pray about it, and God convicted him that the official was right.
He discovered that he did have an ulterior motive. Clarence wanted the leader to feel good so that he would like him and appreciate what he did. The younger pastor was operating from an “I accept you, so you should accept me” perspective. The conference official’s words of correction opened up a new and amazing phase of life for him. Able to grow so much with God and others, he became conscious of how he manipulated people, surrendered it to God, and allowed the Lord to transform him so that he could stop living in such a dysfunctional way. He still compliments people, but now he has entirely different motives because his correction experience was life-changing. One friend speaking the truth in love was God’s method to reveal Himself to Clarence and alter the entire trajectory of his life.
Finding God through communal healing
Each week one church had a practice of giving individuals time to share praises, thanksgivings, and requests after worship. Everything was going as usual; but then Jack, a middle-aged church member, nervously stood. “I love God and want to be fully devoted to Him, but I have an ugly aspect of my life that is keeping me from giving everything to Him.
“I have been addicted to pornography for years,” he continued, “and I want deliverance. I want to be right with God and honor Him in everything.”
Dead silence followed. Everyone knew what to do when someone shared praise or told about a grandmother dealing with illness; but here the silence stretched on and felt like an eternity. No one had any idea what to say.
Then the head elder came forward. Walking up to Jack, he put his arms around him and said, “We love you. You are special to us, and we are going to pray for you.” Then, taking a couple minutes to explain how God was the only One who could deliver him from his problem, he pledged, “We won’t just pray for you today. We are going to keep on praying for you. I am going to pray for you every day.” Next, he invited everyone to come forward and pray for Jack.
A month later, Jack stood up at the end of the prayer meeting and announced, “Praise the Lord! For this past month, I have been free from my addiction. God does answer prayers. He delivered me.”
Deliverance is one of God’s key functions, and it takes many forms. He frees us from our habits, situations, or ways of thinking. Acts 12 gives a wonderful example of another kind of divine deliverance. King Herod had imprisoned Peter because he saw how persecuting the church earned him favor with the Jewish leaders. The believers, on the other hand, gathered together to seek God’s favor through prayer (Acts 12:5). Late one night, Peter, shackled between two guards, fell asleep, but an angel appeared to him and led him out of prison. The apostle went straight to a safe house, where he found the believers still interceding for him.3 God worked through them in a mighty act of deliverance, manifesting His desire through, and because of, the community.
One additional point to remember regarding communal healing is that though deliverance is always supernatural, sometimes it feels less miraculous than depicted in the stories of Jack and Peter. God can work through community to communicate His grace and love as friends gather around a struggling individual and provide accountability, structure, and prayer.4 Whether explicitly or implicitly miraculous, God strengthens those in need of healing and deliverance directly through those around them. People find God through healing in community.
Finding God through communal encouragement
Esther needed God. In order to alter the royal edict condemning her people to death, Esther was contemplating an audacious act: to appear before the king when he did not request her. He had stripped the previous queen of her title for the reverse: failing to appear before the king when he did request her. Esther could be killed. How did she deal with such a high-stakes situation? Esther sought God in the context of community. To bolster her courage, she instructed Mordecai to gather as many Jews as possible to fast for her for three days while she did the same with her entourage (Esther 4:16, 17). After this intense gathering, Esther had the strength to stand up for God’s people in exile. Just as God used community as His conduit to encourage Esther, He does the same thing today.
William, a church leader who was discouraged about some issues in his life, felt that life was unfair. Overwhelmed by his work, he lacked the motivation to completely invest himself in it. His unresolved issues kept him from seeing any way out.
One day in the small Bible fellow-ship group he belonged to, he had the courage to share his discouragement and doubts about what God could do in his life. The group members surrounded him, shared encouraging Scripture promises, and prayed for him. One of them assured him that in spite of all William’s problems, God was still in control and was making all things work for good in his life. Another friend claimed the promise of Isaiah 43:1–3. He told William that God had a purpose in mind for him. No matter what the problems or the circumstances were, the Lord was with him. All this encouragement brought tremendous joy to William. He had come to the meeting feeling discouraged but left filled with hope and determination, like Esther, to do what God had called him to do. He found God in his small group that manifested the encouragement of community.
Divine encouragement through community is particularly important for Christian leaders. Sometimes in ministry, we become so used to being the one with the answers that we never open ourselves up like William to receive what God longs to give. Before the crucifixion, Jesus took three disciples to pray with and encourage Him. Instead, they fell asleep. Matthew 26:40, 41 depicts a Jesus who needed comfort from others in His darkest hours when God’s love and presence seemed far off. If Jesus longed for and sought out others, should we not do it as well?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, wrote about the richness of fellowship, which he, during the imprisonment leading up to his death, had lost. “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. . . .
. . . “[It is] a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. . . . How inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!”5 He adds, “Let him who . . . has had the privilege praise God’s grace. . . . Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”6 This is God working in community.
God has so much more for us than isolationist spirituality. Finding Him involves more than solitary experiences, more than what you do in your closet, at your desk, or on your knees by your bed. God has given us community so that we can understand who He is and what love is. He brings us back to the way of life by giving others words of correction for us. The Lord delivers us from all sorts of bondage through the prayers and support of our community. And He encourages us through the words and actions of others. May we open our hearts and minds and find God in community.
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1 Here are a few biblical texts supporting this point: Isaiah 57:15 contends that God inhabits eternity. Genesis 1 shows that He was active before Creation. James 1:17 and Hebrews 13:8 point out that the Lord does not change. First John 4:8 reveals that God is love. Texts such as Matthew 3:16, 17; 28:19; and
2 Corinthians 13:14 attest to the presence of Three Members in the Godhead. Ellen White also speaks to the nature of the Trinity. She states, “The Father is all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. . . .
“The Son is all the fulness of the Godhead manifested. . . .
“The Comforter that Christ promised . . . , is the Spirit in all the fulness of the Godhead, making manifest the power of divine grace to all who receive and believe in Christ as a personal Saviour. There are three living persons of the heavenly trio.” “Come Out and Be Separate,” Testimonies for the Church Containing Messages of Warning and Instruction to Seventh-day Adventists (1906), Special Testimonies series B, no. 7, 62, 63.
2 Jürgen Moltmann, Jürgen Moltmann: Collected Readings, ed. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN:Fortress Press, 2014), 73.
3 Though the content is not specified explicitly by the biblical text here, Ellen White clarifies that these prayers were requests for help and deliverance because of Peter’s importance to the church at that time. The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub.Assn., 1911), 145.
4 Henry Cloud and John Townsend, How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals About Personal Growth (GrandRapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 121–133.
5 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Brothers Pub., 1954), 19, 20.
6 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 20.
Sidebar: Five practical steps to help your church find God in community
1. Pray earnestly and daily for the ability to see God through the people around you. Also, pray that God will give this perspective to your congregation. Then take time regularly to recognize how God has answered those prayers. As you embrace this practice, you will begin to model this way of life for your faith community.
2. Teach the congregation about finding God in community. As you go through the process, unpack the tremendous spiritual value of actively engaging with others and help your members share their stories of finding God in each other with the rest of the church.
3. Develop safe and authentic small groups and Sabbath School classes that do more than talk about the lesson study. Explain to your leaders how safety, authenticity, and acceptance in small groups enable people to experience and extend grace. No sermon can accomplish the transformation in lives that can come from this experience.1
4. Model conflict resolution and forgiveness as the way to deal with interpersonal difficulties. Some of the greatest barriers to finding God in those around us come from the conflict we have with them. By your mediating and training members in conflict resolution and forgiveness, attitudes will begin to change, and barriers will come down.2
5. Remember time is a key ingredient in God’s recipe for growth. One of Jesus’ primary word pictures for working with people is that of plants in the field that grow during long stretches of time (Mark 4:26–29). As you implement these steps, instead of rushing, allow for change and transformation in God’s own timing.
1 For additional resources to foster small group discussions that go below the surface, we recommend How People Grow by Henry Cloud and John Townsend and Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby.
2 For additional resources, we recommend Peacemaker by Ken Sande, The Peacemaking Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict by Alfred Poirier,and Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care by Tara Klena Barthel and David V. Edling as great books on conflict resolution. Cleansing the Sanctuary of the Heart by David Sedlacek and Beverly Sedlacek has an excellent section on the forgiveness process, and Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness, the revised and updated edition by Jerry Cook and Stanley C. Baldwin, is another excellent work on forgiveness.