by John D. Wilson
“You keep talking about community, but all we can think of is the neighborhood where we live,” is the response I got.
“You keep talking about community, but all we can think of is the neighborhood where we live,” is the response I got.
I had been talking enthusiastically about the church as community with individuals in my home church, but they neither caught my enthusiasm nor my meaning. For them, community meant something tangible—brick and mortar houses and the infrastructure of paved streets, transport systems, schools, libraries, churches and several stores. No one seemed to understand that being a member of a church means living in close-knit and interdependent relationships.
It took me a while to realize that people in the West generally do not have much experience of this kind of society. Since the emergence of the “autonomous individual” during the Enlightenment, rapid urbanization of the modern Western world, with its loss of rural communities, fragmentation of families and job mobility, have virtually left us without any tangible form of community. Urban-dwelling westerners have no paradigm by which to imagine the church as community.
THE YALI OF PAPUA
My own paradigm shift came as a result of two influences. The first was John Stott’s God’s New Society (1979; now published as The Message of Ephesians). In the preface, Stott comments that evangelicals have proclaimed an “individual salvation without moving on to the saved community.” Stott continues: “We think of ourselves more as ‘Christians’ than as ‘churchmen’ and our message is more good news of a new life than of a new society” (1979, 9).
That study in Ephesians, however, would not have penetrated my mind and heart except for the second influence. As a missionary, I was immersed in the life and culture of the Yali people of Papua, Indonesia.
Living with the Yali, learning their stories and becoming an adopted member of their society transformed me. Slowly, I began to understand and appreciate many aspects of their culture. This experience became an educational and exegetical tool for analyzing my own culture and opening my mind to scripture. I began to see beyond the Enlightenment and its elevation of the autonomous individual.
I began to understand the communal life of the people of Israel. From the orality of the Yali I learned the value of story and began to read the Bible as a grand narrative—the story of the people of God. From Yali religious practices I gained insights into the food laws, festivals, symbolism, rituals and sacrifices of the Old Testament period. This has opened my eyes to the amount of implicit Old Testament background material contained in the New Testament.
However, it was by understanding the Yali people as a community that I began to see the church as a community. I made an ethnographic study of the Yali and focused on three initiation rites which the people in our valley practiced. At the same time, I was studying Ephesians and saw that Ephesians 2 loosely paralleled the three phases of the initiation process: (1) separation from the past; (2) cleansing from past contaminations; and (3) incorporation into full participatory membership in society. The Yali society is male-dominated and when I used this process to teach on Ephesians, the old Yali men became excited. Some of them now understood the gospel.
One thing I never completely mastered, however, was the Yali kinship system. I still do not know what to call my brother’s childrens’ relationship to my granddaughter in English. I learned that the complexity of a different kinship system (which has four categories for incestuous relationships) is confusing. However, these kinship relationships are clearly defined and understood, and each has implications for how individuals relate to one another and what mutual obligations are implied.
All relationships are maintained through reciprocity in both formal and informal contexts over a lifetime. If kinship relationships are the building blocks of Yali society, then mutual obligation and accountability become the mortar that binds members together in a single network of interdependence.
Seeing society as an interdependent whole results in unity and solidarity. Each individual finds his or her identity through this unity. Simultaneously, each individual’s life and social contribution is an expression of the whole, and therefore valuable to the whole.
Westerners have not lost this sense of community entirely. We see glimpses of it during times of crisis, in team sports and in military units where organization, rank and mutual interdependence create almost a tribal mentality. Why do we not see it in the church, where it ought to be given its best and fullest human expression? It is hard to visualize the church as community because community is not a familiar paradigm.
UBUNTU: AN AFRICAN PARADIGM
Some people in Africa have been looking at the African concept of Ubuntu in the search for a paradigm of holistic worldview and the recovery of an integrated society.
Ubuntu is a Zulu word which encapsulates a unified vision of humanity as an interdependent community. It is expressed in the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which can be translated as “a person is a person through other persons” or “I am what I am because of you.” More clearly, the identity of each individual is only fully realized through his or her relationship with other people.
Within the concept of Ubuntu, respect for others is also respect for individuality. However, it is different from traditional Western concepts of individuality. The individual in Ubuntu is not solitary, but defined in terms of his or her relationship to others. As relationships change, so do individuals.
But do Africans adhere to Ubuntu (or at least aspire to do so)? For centuries racism and tribalism have plagued Africa. In the late 1800s, Muslim East Africans employed non-Muslim neighbors to enslave Africans from other tribes. In Congo, Belgian rubber traders found they could not use members of one African people to gather rubber due to pressure from their neighbors. More recently, we have seen the inter-tribal wars and brutal acts of genocide in Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan. We can also see Africa’s tribal problems in the West. One church planter in New York believes the greatest potential for disunity in his multicultural church comes from Africans—both those of different nationalities and those of different peoples.
When I was serving on the mission field, some German tourists hoping to learn about the culture came to tour some distant villages. They returned from their tour within a week, exhausted and disheveled. They wanted out. We helped them charter a mission plane. When they arrived, they noticed almost all of their money was missing—a large sum in Deutschmarks, US dollars, travelers’ checks and Indonesian rupiahs. They radioed us and we quickly tried to discern who had stolen the money, apprehend the thief and recover the money. Within an hour, we had it! When I asked why the young Yali man had stolen the money, he responded that because the Germans were not believers, they were not part of our (God’s) family. They were outside his community and he felt no obligation to care for them.
Despite the strong sense of interdependence and obligation in both Yali and Zulu communities, selfish and fallen humanity is still present in each society. Positively, these cultural models give us tangible paradigms of community, and essentially reflect a biblical reality of community where each individual is a person in relationship. Individuality is realized only in relationship to others in community because of one’s identity in Christ.
THE TRINITY: UNITY IN COMMUNITY
The biblical concept of community is being revived today, especially in the recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity. God is a God who exists as a loving community of three persons.
This is a doctrine which modern, post-Enlightenment Christians find difficult to understand. Our penchant for rationalism and either/or dichotomies has been part of the problem. Exacerbating this dilemma has been the birth of the idea of the autonomous individual, a person in isolation. How can three persons be one? How can there be unity in a Godhead which consists of three individuals?
The post-modern shift is helping us move towards a more integrated biblical theology. We are moving towards a renewed understanding of humanity in terms of social personhood rather than autonomous individuality. We are also moving towards understanding our need for a community in which individual personhood can be fully realized.
On a rational level, the Trinity is hard to grasp, but through scripture we understand that we have a relational God who reveals himself as Father—the father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the father from whom every family derives its true identity (Eph. 3:14-15). He also adopts (Eph. 1:5), calls (Eph. 1:18; 4:1) and creates access into the community of his family by his Spirit through Christ (Eph. 2:18-19).
The intimate nature of this familial relationship and communion is depicted in the Gospel of John. Baxter Kruger writes:
From all eternity God is Father, Son and Spirit, sharing a life of unchained fellowship and intimacy, fired by passionate, self-giving love and mutual delight. This is where John begins his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The preposition “with” is loaded. It reposes upon the ancient Hebraic idea of being turned towards another person, of being face to face. It is a profoundly intimate idea. John sets creation in the context of this intimate, face-to-face relationship between the Father and Son.
In fact, this intimacy between the Father and Son forms an inclusio for John’s prologue. He not only begins with this intimacy; he ends with it. “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained him” (1:18). It is difficult to imagine a more intimate image than dwelling in the bosom of another person. For John, the creator is not alone and solitary; the creator is the Father, Son and Spirit sharing all things in intimate, face-to-face fellowship. (2003, 3)
The Church is the community where the triune God dwells in unity. The Church must reflect that unity in intimate community (Eph. 4:1-3; 12-13; 25-32). This unity is as intimate as that between husband and wife and between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32).
HOW COMMUNITY HAPPENS
Community doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it. The following are suggestions for developing community:
1. Community needs to be centered on a common story that explains who we are and describes our shared values. For the Church, this story is the entire narrative of God’s redemptive grace from Genesis to Revelation. As we tell and understand this story in increasing measure, our biblical worldview and values emerge. We need to find and use appropriate means of telling the whole story.
2. Community needs development of kinship and fellowship. Diverse individuals who find their identity fulfilled in mutual relationships are the building blocks of community. There must be a sense of belonging and commitment to each other. This can be fostered in three ways:
(i) Recognize that each person has a part in the Church’s and community’s history with God. In Genesis we find Jacob telling his family in later years that he realized how God had been at work in his life. When he practiced his primitive genetic engineering with the sheep and goats, he was, in essence, practicing mimetic magic. He probably thought he had engineered the situation, but in hindsight he saw that his success had been God’s intervention (Gen. 31:7-9). We need to create a secure environment for telling our stories to each other.
(ii) Reciprocity, mutual care and cooperation are vital to community and a good place to start the “one anothering” found in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4, forbearing and forgiving are imperatives which encapsulate a number of fundamental principles which foster unity and community. These include speaking the truth and building up one another in love.
(iii) In community, people live, work and eat together. How can we cultivate community if our contact is fleeting and superficial? We need to create contexts of intimate communion through meals together, church picnics, retreats, camps, sporting activities and work projects.
3. Community needs good servant leadership and appropriate division of labor. Leaders are chosen because of their character, vision and gifting. Good servant leaders also identify, train and release new leaders into the community. Similarly, good leaders facilitate appropriate division of labor where the worth of each individual and their spiritual gifts are fully recognized, valued and employed.
In many ways, these characteristics of community are the marks of an effective team identified by Pat MacMillan (2001): a common purpose, clear roles, accepted leadership, effective team process, solid relationships and excellent communication. These are the very things that are necessary to community, and they are all biblical!
Kruger, Baxter. 2003. “Recovering the Apostolic Mind for the Third Christian Millennium.” From The Light of the Cosmos: Series 2. Jackson, Miss.: Perichoresis Press.
MacMillan, Pat. 2001. The Performance Factor: Unlocking the Secrets of Teamwork. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman.
Steffen, Tom. 1996. Reconnecting God’s Story to Ministry: Crosscultural Storytelling at Home and Abroad. La Habra, Calif.: Center for Organization and Ministry Development.
Stott, John. 1979. God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
John Wilson is a third generation missionary. He and his wife, Gloria, served for over twenty years among the Southern Yali of the Holuwon area of Papua (Irian Jaya), Indonesia, doing church planting, literacy and Bible translation. John has taught mission courses at several Bible colleges and has published articles in various mission journals.
The Church as Community
The Church is the universal community of God’s people:
• chosen, redeemed, sanctified and incorporated by grace in Christ
• marked as God’s own, enlightened and empowered by the Holy Spirit
• intended to display God’s glory locally and cosmically
• characterized by mutual love, fellowship, interdependence and edification
• created to display, live by and communicate the gospel in creation
This definition draws largely on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Community is a place where you belong, feel safe and experience mutual love and kinship in cooperation of a common task, based on shared beliefs and values and on commitment to interdependence.
Community exists when a group of people belong, live and work together in fellowship:
• centered on a common story (tradition/belief system)
• characterized by mutual love, commitment and interdependence
• contextualized in their culture and environment