Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi, PhD, is the pastor of the Geneva International Seventh-day Adventist Church in Switzerland.

The Christian church, since its inception, has long been characterized as a community of believers. Many members meet to discuss their faith, while others find the church to be a family to which they belong. Without a doubt, the church community has especially been a driving force in reaching out to individuals who need a family. That is how the church derives its social identity.

However, as with all other social units, today’s social dynamics are heavily influenced by individualism and the pervasive use of digital technologies.1 It has led to a shift in how people relate to each other, both in their personal lives and within communities. Individualism, the concept that emphasizes individual achievements and self-interests, has challenged the traditional sense of community that has been the backbone of many societies for years.2

The rise of individualism has created a sense of fragmentation and disconnection among people, making it difficult for individuals to maintain denominational loyalty.3 Furthermore, the advent of digital technologies has resulted in increased virtual communication and the creation of new social spaces. While it has enabled people to connect with others who share similar interests and beliefs, it has also produced a decline in face-to-face interactions, which are vital for building meaningful relationships. The use of digital technologies has led to a decrease in attendance at traditional worship services as people opt for virtual services or seek alternative ways to connect with the church.4 As a result, the question arises, How can the church position itself to meet the current social landscape?

Meaning of community

Community has been defined as a “self-organized network of people with common agenda, cause, or interest, who collaborate by sharing ideas, information, and other resources.”5 Such a definition presents three motives for establishing a community: (1) to be a self-organized network of people; (2) having a common agenda, cause, or interest; and (3) to collaborate by sharing ideas, information, and other resources.

Several studies have shown that human beings are inherently relational.6 We exist in relation to God the Creator and to each other as children of God. Genesis 2:18 contains a social identity theory that illustrates that life is a community rather than individual species: “The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ ”7 The fellowship we enjoy with each other is thus good in God’s sight.

Additionally, social interaction allows humanity to better appreciate the values of life. The degree to which individuals become conscious of such relationality determines the extent to which a harmonious relationship develops within a certain community and its impact on others.

The early church and community

Early Christians adopted many communal customs and themes, as detailed in Acts 4:32–35. The passage describes the church as united in “heart and mind,” with members sharing their possessions and no one experiencing need due to the distribution of funds from selling land and homes. The powerful testimony of the apostles regarding the resurrection of Jesus and the presence of God’s grace among them further strengthened the communal structure.

Although the first-century church faced its own obstacles, it strived to create a model church community that redistributed wealth among its members while addressing internal conflicts (Acts 6:1–7). The phrase “all the believers” (Acts 4:32) highlights their social capital and the fairness within the community. Those early Christian communal practices still serve as a blueprint for the ideal Christian community today.

The concept of community includes several key elements, such as communality and individuality.8 Communality refers to the level of harmony and cohesion within the community, such as a sense of belonging and an environment that encourages active participation. Individuality, on the other hand, is a divine endowment. People come together in groups with unique personalities, attitudes, manners, talents, and social needs. Their combined efforts contribute to the church’s growth, as it is written, “there are many parts, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:20). Individuality describes you as yourself, with your noncoerced convictions and adherence to the ideals of the community. While communities strive to achieve common goals, they should not neglect to improve the standard of quality that distinguishes their members.

Contrary to popular belief, community and individuality can sometimes conflict. We can see this from Joshua 7 in the story of Achan whose covetousness ultimately led to the defeat of Israel by their enemies. Similarly, in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), their deceitful actions threatened to disrupt the harmony of the early Christian community. It’s important to recognize that individuality should be valued and protected, but anomalies must be addressed to protect the community as a whole. As the book of Philippians advises, “Not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). Achieving a healthy balance between community and individuality is crucial for the growth and success of any group.

Community in communion

Now let’s focus on the community in communion. Communities thrive better in an atmosphere of common values. In the past, societies have used such shared concepts to justify nationalism, tribalism, and ethnocentrism. However, that is not supposed to be the case. Community in communion does not signify that people are more equal among themselves than toward others. Rather, it means that their shared values keep their aspirations and actions in alignment.

Existence does not occur in isolation, and interaction serves as a mechanism for individuals to reconcile with the larger group.9 Communication, information, relationship, and cooperation will foster communal ethics, thus promoting freedom of expression, a listening atmosphere, and concern for one another.

Jesus said, “ ‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ ” (John 13:34, 35). Love is the highest degree of Christianity’s identity, and genuine beauty can be found where there is perfect love. The psalmist says, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1).

Love is essential for building any human relationship. If we prioritize love in our marriages, homes, friendships, church communities, and all other social groups, it will leave little room for division, gossip, divorce, loneliness, individualism, insecurities, and cold-heartedness. Love gives human existence its meaning. A community united in love is a divine blessing, and the church should be a model for the rest of the world.

Ways to improve church community

Community ideologies play a significant role in shaping daily life in some regions, often affecting how church life is conducted. However, that is not always the case in other parts of the world. Regardless of one’s social background, actively working toward a stronger church community should be a deliberate and integral aspect of spiritual growth. Here are some effective strategies for achieving this:

Encourage a connection with Jesus. Church community begins with Jesus. He is the central cord that binds the church together. Christ’s presence in the heart is His presence in the church. We are to connect with His Word because He is the Word. Each day, we are to ask ourselves, “Is Christ still the life of the church?” A healthy connection with Christ will always shine through our interpersonal interactions.

Encourage community service. Help members get involved in church community outreach by participating in activities, events, and volunteer opportunities. Our congregations in Geneva have collaborated with ADRA to serve food to people experiencing homelessness every Sunday. Participation rotates among the churches, and members get the opportunity to serve others who are unlike them. Such events inspire them to overcome parochial self-centeredness, which frequently looms over us and is often the result of our inability to inspire service to others within the church and the wider community.

Encourage social activities. Plan regular events, such as potlucks, picnics, and get-togethers, to bring members together in a relaxed and informal setting. Our church community in Geneva organizes regular potlucks after the services. It provides an opportunity to interact with one another and get to know our visitors, and it encourages members to stay for afternoon programs. A group from our church organizes trips to visit tourist sites. Occasionally unchurched people have joined the outings. Look around you to find what suits your community. Every social event, small or big, can unite and encourage members to know each other better.

Encourage small group formation. Form small groups of 3 to 12 people within the church in which members can connect with others. Years back, we had a small group that began with a song service, then prayer, a passage for group discussion, and finally, a meal. Some members were non-Adventists. God used the group to convert two drug addicts who are now serving in different church capacities. Small groups enable members to connect and disciple others. Pray God to show where small group ministry can help your church connect, grow, and evangelize.

Encourage effective communication. Keep members informed about upcoming events and other important news through regular newsletters, emails, and social media updates. In today’s social media technologies, effective communication must use multichannel approaches: Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other social media. I have a WhatsApp broadcast list to communicate with my church members. With just the press of the send button, every member with a phone gets updates on upcoming events. Through our social media outlets, former church members can still connect with the church community.

Encourage church leadership care. Provide pastoral support and encouragement in times of need, such as through home or hospital visitation. Recently, a friend revealed to me his plan to switch Adventist congregations because he felt unsupported by his current one during a time of loss. I have heard similar stories. Our congregation has organized occasional Zoom bereavement services to provide a valuable resource during the difficult process of loss and grief. Effective pastoral care teams should provide a listening ear, comforting presence, and guidance through faith or spiritual practices to help individuals cope with their struggles and restore trust and confidence in the church community.

Encourage united prayer. Help members pray for one another and the church community as a whole. Prayer shows that the church is dependent upon God. At times hearts will fail, leading to a lack of involvement in the church community. The church must come together to pray for and with such persons. Once a quarter, members of our church join in a time of fasting and prayer to seek God’s guidance and blessings. And we have tried to maintain our midweek prayer meetings because prayer brings church members together and keeps them united.

Priorities

In conclusion, the church has long been a source of community and social identity for its members, providing a sense of family and connection. However, in the current social landscape, characterized by rampant individualism and digital technologies, the church must take steps to remain relevant and engaging to its members. To do this, it must focus on creating an environment conducive to fostering meaningful relationships and community.

Emphasize the importance of personal devotion to Christ, community outreach programs, pastoral care, and united prayer, and provide opportunities, such as small group gatherings and social events, for members to engage in meaningful conversations. Additionally, the church should also embrace digital technologies and use them to reach those who may not have access to the church itself. By embracing the current social landscape, the church can remain a vibrant source of community and social identity for every member.

  1. Daniel Miller et al., “Individualism,” How the World Changed Social Media, 1st ed. (UCL Press, 2016), 181–192.
  2. Yuriy Gorodnichenko and Gerard Roland, “Individualism, Innovation and Long-Run Growth,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, supplement 4 (2011): 21316–21319, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1101933108.
  3. Richard Rice, “The Challenge of Spiritual Individualism (And How to Meet It),” Andrews University Seminary Studies 43, no. 1 (2005): 113–131.
  4. Randall Koops, “Technology and Religious Decline,” The Banner, February 3, 2022, https://www.thebanner.org/columns/2022/02/technology-and-religious-decline.
  5. Business Dictionary online, s.v. “community,” accessed May 3, 2023, https://businessdictionary.info/definition/community/.
  6. Susan M. Andersen and Serena Chen, “The Relational Self: An Interpersonal Social-Cognitive Theory,” Psychological Review 109, no. 4 (Oct. 2002): 619–645; Susan Goldberg, Roy Muir, and John Kerr, eds., Attachment Theory: Social Developmental and Clinical Perspectives, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 2016).
  7. Scripture in this article is from the New International Version.
  8. Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 154.
  9. John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1969), 108.

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Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi, PhD, is the pastor of the Geneva International Seventh-day Adventist Church in Switzerland.

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