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Being There For Each Other

The Church as a Genuine Community?

By Stanley J. Grenz

“I guess the bottom line is that, contrary to the name on the marquee, Mary and I haven’t sensed that this church is a genuine community.”

After speaking these words, Jack Smith stood and quietly exited Brad Jones’ office, leaving the recently installed pastor of Grandview Community Church alone with his thoughts. Why does this congregation find it difficult to retain younger people such as Jack and Mary Smith? Brad wondered. We seem to have the kind of programs that should meet their needs. So what am I missing here? Just what do people like Jack mean when they say that they are searching for “genuine community”?

One of the most popular tv programs of all time, the sit-com Friends, takes its story line from three single men who share an apartment across the hall from three single women. The weekly episodes present these friends laughing together, hurting for each other, and supporting one another through thick and thin, the good times and the bad. But above all, they gain their sense of personal identity and meaning from their shared friendship.

The central message of the series is encapsulated in the program’s theme song, “I’ll Be There for You.” Like the episodes, the lyrics of this song capture the imagination of its faithful viewing audience. After candidly voicing what many people believe — life isn’t all it is cracked up to be — the song offers the hope that genuine community can be experienced among true friends who promise to always be there for each other, because, to cite the last line of the song, “you’re there for me too.”

Friends offers a picture of the vision many people bring with them when they attend church. Many members of the Friends generation — if they find their way to church after all — desire above all that the church be a community — a group of friends who are there for each other. But they readily leave in dismay when they discover that the church is filled with warts.

The church is to be a group of people who are there for each other. Yet, we must not elevate Friends as the paradigm of the fundamental manner in which the church is to be a community. As much as being there for each other is central to the nature of the church, we dare not elevate this dimension as the essence of the church’s communal character. The church’s calling to be community and the paradigm of what it means to be a genuine community arise from a source that surpasses anything Hollywood can envision.

Genuine Community As Being Storied Together

To better understand this, let’s focus on conversion, the event that marks the entrance into a life of discipleship.

One of the crucial tasks that all people face throughout their lives is answering the question, Who am I? The basic way to understand who we are is to tell our story. The story we tell, however, is not simply a chronicle of every incident that has happened since we were born. Instead, we organize the diverse aspects of our lives and the many events through which we have journeyed into a meaningful whole. We bring the isolated bits of our lives together to form a plot that we believe tells our story.

Contrary to what we might initially surmise, we neither devise this plot nor does it come from within us. Instead, we borrow our sense of identity from the social group(s) or communities in which we participate. Thus, my sense of who I am is largely determined by the group(s) of which I am a member. This is one of the central themes of Friends.

Seen in this light, conversion is a radical reinterpretation of who we are. Conversion entails replacing the old plot of our personal story with a new one. Conversion involves reordering our story in accordance with one particular plot, the biblical story of God’s saving action toward us in Jesus.

Have you noticed that nearly every personal testimony sounds strangely similar? The details may vary from Christian to Christian, but the basic plot is the same. This plot speaks about past sins that have been forgiven through an encounter with Jesus Christ. When we become Christians, we begin to speak this same language. We talk about the old life and the new life in keeping with Paul’s statement, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We begin to resonate with the testimony of hymnist John Newton, who drew his lyrics from images found in the New Testament: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

By reinterpreting our story in this same manner we are accepting the story of the Christian community as our own. Becoming a Christian, then, means to share the shared plot — the shared story — of the Christian community. When we begin to tell our story in this shared manner, we become part of a new people, the Christian community. We are part of the Christian community — the church — whether we want to be or not.

This unbreakable link — this shared story — that connects our lives means we cannot help but pledge to each other, “I’ll be there for you.” It gives the assurance that you are there for me too. In short, the realization that we are storied together forms the basis for genuine community.

Genuine Community As Being In Love Together

The most foundational dimension of this matter has not yet been mentioned. Ultimately, the church’s essential nature as a genuine community arises out of the character of God and the connection to the triune God that Christians share. This connection means we are in love together.

To see this we must remember that God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is throughout all eternity the divine community of love. Furthermore, God’s goal for people is to bring them together in reconciled fellowship with others who reflect God’s loving character and thereby they become the image of God. From Pentecost to the return of Christ, the reconciled God-reflecting community is the Church. According to the New Testament, God wills the Church to be a loving community who reflects God’s character.

How does all this happen? The answer: through the Holy Spirit. The communal character of the Church is not something we produce. Rather, it arises out of the presence of the Spirit within us. Ultimately, true community comes from the communion in the Spirit we enjoy together as Christians and is with the Father in the Son.

Paul reminded us of this when he declared the Father has poured out the Spirit in our hearts and the Spirit’s presence within us means we are children of God (Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:6). Viewed from this perspective, conversion is becoming God’s children by the Spirit. Being God’s children means we are sisters and brothers of, and hence, coheirs with Christ. Christians share the filial relationship the Son enjoys with the Father and are the recipients of the perfect love the Father eternally lavishes on the Son. Communion in the Spirit means we participate in the love that lies at the heart of the triune God.

Christians do not enjoy the dynamic of Trinitarian love as individuals in isolation. Rather, believers share this glorious privilege together. The Spirit’s goal is to unite us so we may participate together in the love of God. Because we participate together in the Spirit who brings us into the divine community of love, the community we are called to be is no mere group of friends. Nor is our fellowship merely the result of some common religious experience, as important as such experiences might be. Instead, what forms us into a community and provides the basis for our fellowship is the Spirit’s presence among us. The Spirit enables us to participate togetheras God’s children in the eternal communion shared between the Father and the Son. Christians are a community because we are bound together by the Holy Spirit, who is God’s eternal love. We are in love together because we share in the divine love poured out on us by the Spirit.

Being in love together leads us to become a genuine community who are there for each other. The words of John Fawcett’s hymn may seem archaic, but they express well the benefit that being in love together produces among us: “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain; but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.”

Being There For Each Other As The Outworking Of Community

Jack is correct. Grandview Community Church had failed to live up to the name on its marquee. The primary failure, however, was not connected to the second word in the church’s name, but to the first. Grandview Community Church was not the kind of community Jack and Mary desired because the congregation did not share a sufficiently grand view of who they are in Christ. They did not sense strongly enough that they share a common story through which they can understand their personal identities. They also were not sufficiently aware that they are a fellowship, who by the Spirit, participate together in the love that characterizes the triune God.

The failure of churches today to be a community of believers who relate to each other in the way that people like Jack and Mary are seeking results from a fundamental failure in vision. As such, it cannot be fixed merely by adding another program to the church’s repertoire. What is required is a renewed vision of what being a genuine community entails. Only when we realize anew that we are storied together and in love together, can we understand what it means to be there for each other and for those whom the Holy Spirit sends across our path. Only when we seek to live out this fundamental vision can we hope to live up to the glorious names on our marquees — like Grandview Community Church.

The late Stanley J. Grenz was Pioneer McDonald professor of theology at Carey Theological College, Vancouver B.C. and professor of theological studies, Mars Hill Graduate School, Seattle, Washington.

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