Every week, people go to churches—some for the first time—hoping to find a community where they can find belonging, meaning, purpose, and care. And every week, people walk away from Church—sometimes permanently—disappointed that the community they sought was nowhere to be found.
One of the qualities we expect of Church is that it should be a community. And yet most churches seem to have traded community for congregation and belonging for doctrinal purity. The quest for growth and influence in the world has shifted our focus away from community building and toward the ABCs of Church: attendances, buildings, and cash. And our world is poorer for it.
But Church is not the only option when it comes to finding community. This episode of the EvoFaith Podcast explores alternatives to Church and how can build for ourselves the community we seek.
I’m not someone who looks back on the old days with nostalgia. My thinking and spirituality are rooted in evolutionary principles and so I am comfortable with the evolution of the world and of my own life. So what I’m about to say doesn’t come out of any nostalgic longing for the past.
Have you ever experienced the little old country church community? If we go back just a few decades, that was the normative expression of Church in most of the world. In many ways it still is for a lot people. In many small rural, village, or sometimes even suburban communities, the church is the heart of the community. It’s not just place for religion and worship. It’s a space where the people do life together. They celebrate and grieve. They work through issues that affect the whole community, not just the church. And the church contributes to the health and cohesion of the community. Usually the focus here is on the community as a whole, with the church just being one channel to bring the community together in meaningful ways—regardless of the faith of the people in that place.
But in the last quarter of the last century something shifted. Personally, I trace it back to what is known as the Church Growth Movement. Churches were taught that their job was to grow, to get decisions for Christ, and to ensure that people believed in Jesus so they could go to heaven when they died. And churches were taught to use the strategies and values of business marketing—segmentation, demographics, careful and clear, needs-based messaging, and constant measurement of what can be measured—which means the so-called ABCs of Church: attendances, buildings, and cash in the bank. And while there was some value to the Church Growth Movement for some churches—especially those that worked out how to win at the church growth game and become mega-churches—I feel that in some ways the Church as a whole lost its soul, to at least some extent.
We got drawn into a capitalistic pursuit of power, wealth, and influence which resulted in the Church getting into bed with political parties in many countries across the world. And nothing good ever comes of the Church forming alliances with the political forces of human empires.
The essential problem with the trajectory the Church set itself on when it embraced Church Growth uncritically, is that it lost a lot of its health. And well all know what growth without health is called—cancer! And part of what caused the loss of health in the Church was the loss of community.
If we go back to Jesus calling his disciples in the Gospels, we notice a few things happening here. Let’s begin by reading a passage from Mark’s Gospel:
Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”
One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him.
A little farther up the shore Jesus saw Zebedee’s sons, James and John, in a boat repairing their nets. He called them at once, and they also followed him, leaving their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired men.
(Mark 1:14-20 NLT)
Notice first, that Jesus calls his disciples immediately after announcing that God’s reign had arrived. God’s reign was mean to be the fulfilment of the calling of Israel to be blessed by God to be a blessing to the world. Jesus described God’s reign as a new way of being that was focussed on love and justice for all people. And he called twelve apostles, like the twelve patriarchs of Israel, to show that the reign of God was rooted in community. It was not an individualistic spiritual journey and it wasn’t just about what people believed, but about how people live and how they treat one another.
Then secondly, notice the kinds of people Jesus called to be his apostles. There were the fishermen, Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. Simple entrepreneurs trying to make a living. But then later he calls Matthew the tax-collector. Matthew would have been considered a traitor to his people because he collaborating with Rome. And tax-collectors were known for taking more tax than Rome required and pocketing the rest for themselves. So they were hated outcasts. The fishermen would not naturally have made friends with a tax collector. Then later on still, Jesus calls a guy called Simon the Zealot. Zealots were freedom fighters resisting the Roman occupation. Which means that Matthew would likely have been on Simon’s hit list as a Roman collaborator.
I could go on, but Jesus didn’t do psychometric testing to make sure that his team would fit together and work together well. He called a group of people who were totally unlikely to want to be in the same room together, let alone work together. And then he told them to love one another. He formed them into a community where they were all accepted, all welcomed, and all valued for their unique gifts, values, and personalities. This is the opposite of the demographic profiling and target market segmentation that we were taught to do in the Church Growth movement.
And that’s because the Church is not meant to be a religious organisation. It’s not meant to be known for its commercial and popular success. It is meant to be a community—a place where people can find belonging, meaning, purpose, and mutual care while caring for the world around the community as well. Unfortunately, though, too many churches have traded community for congregation and belonging for doctrinal purity.
It still amazes me that there is a debate in some sections of the Church about whether it is possible to be saved without being part of the Church. Now I won’t go into the question of what we mean by ‘being saved’ now, but the whole idea that you have to be part of a Church to be saved in anyway is crazy. To begin with, it’s not biblical and it doesn’t fit the fundamental idea that we are saved by grace and not through anything we do. But it also confuses the Church with God and God’s activity. It assumes that everything the Church does is motivated and inspired by God, which it isn’t. And it also assumes that God cannot work outside of the Church—which contradicts the whole idea of God by making God small enough to fit into a human organisation. So let’s let go of that silliness right now!
Our world is suffering from a pandemic of loneliness which the Covid pandemic has only made worse. And it is also suffering from a pandemic of polarisation in which we divide ourselves based on ideology, religion, and belief systems rather than recognising our connectedness and celebrating our commonalities. And the Church isn’t helping. All too often, it adds fuel to the fire and stokes the flames of conflict and dividedness. And in so doing, it reveals how far it has drifted from Jesus’ dream of a community that embodies God’s inclusive, welcoming reign.
So now many of us are left searching for the community that we hoped we would find in the Church but didn’t. And may people are now finding community outside of the Church, in all sorts of places, with all sorts of companions, centred around all sorts of common interests and needs. And this is a good thing.
Although it began before the pandemic locked us all down, online communities have exploded in the wake of Covid-19. And we are all discovering that we can build communities online, offline, or in some combination of both, when we start not from doctrine or religion, but from kindness, openness, and genuine mutual care.
We all long for this kind of community. So why shouldn’t we find ways to create it for ourselves—whether it includes a church in some way or not? If you’re wondering about how to find or build an open, caring community like this, here are a few thoughts that may help you:
Firstly, don’t get caught up on doctrine. Spirituality is far less about what we think and believe than about who we are, what we do, and how we live. Communities that are based on making sure we get every point of doctrine right almost always end up in conflict, judgement, and schism over some finer point of belief. So let it go. The communities that are the safest and most fun always welcome diversity of thinking, loving, living, and believing.
Secondly, don’t fall for the lie that you can only find Christ, salvation (however you might define that), and community in Church. Find it wherever you can, however you can, and with whomever you can. Church is optional and it does not have a monopoly on God’s presence.
Thirdly, you may want to think about where you’re already experiencing community without recognising it. Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered, there I am.” The Church may not recognise your family as a community, but it is. The Church may not see the gathering of your friends to support one another over your favourite beverage as a community, but it is. One of my favourite communities is the band I play and sing with. It’s just four guys who love music who practice together each week and play the odd gig, but we care for one another, support one another and enjoy real friendships. It’s a community!
And then, finally, I recommend avoiding communities that insist on conformity and uniformity—especially in thinking and belief. Diversity is where the strength, growth, connection and creativity is.
The truth is that much that is called community isn’t. Many churches claim to offer community, but don’t do anything close to authentic community. But much that is not recognised as community actually is. Groups of people coming together to help, support, learn from, and care for one another in deep and meaningful ways. So perhaps it’s time to focus on these communities, regardless of what they’re called or whether they fit into some religious box or not.
And if you would like to be part of a fledgling online group that is trying to work out what it means to be community in our world, then feel free to join us in the EvoFaith Tribe. We’re a group of people trying to learn to master our inner world, appreciate the sacredness within us and around us, and show up fully, authentically and courageously in our lives and relationships. We’d love to see you there.
In the next episode we’ll be exploring one more aspect of the Church’s life—being of service to the world. And we’ll talk about what it really means to be a church that exists for the sake of others. I hope you’ll join me for that conversation.
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