community

The Church: A Lasting Center for Community

BY Jay Smith
President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

June 2016 Inscribed

“Community” has become a catchword in today’s Western culture. We talk frequently about being a part of a particular “community” or we discuss the need to be in an “authentic community” and we bemoan the superficial communities with whose policies or politics we disagree. We discuss the nature of political communities, religious communities, racial communities, gender-oriented communities, age-designated communities, institutional communities, and activity-related communities. We talk about micro-communities and macro-communities. We talk about isolated communities and saturated communities. Indeed, some pundits suggest that the term “community” is so overused, or used so naively, that it ceases to hold meaning.

The need for community

Obviously, community is important. It is integral to the human impulse to form multiple relationships around common needs, interests, and geography. Although we are undeniably “individual” in constitution, we are also inherently social in orientation. As theologian Stanley Grenz affirmed consistently, we are “created for community.”

But how do communities become meaningful? How do communities cultivate life and longevity? How can our personal lives serve to create healthy, meaningful, and sustainable community?

Losing our “common” bonds

One of the problems that each community faces is the changing nature of what is “common.” The one constant in life is change. What is common to the lives of a variety of individuals changes constantly. At some point, individuals will drop out of one community and seek another, because the circumstances and conditions of existence for that individual change. What was once common is no longer a binding factor for one or another of the community members, and unity loses its binding force. This is a truth for all human communities. To live for a specific human community always comes with the probability of eventual failure. It is the nature of our temporal, transient existence.

The church’s “uncommon” bond

But there is one exception to the natural rule of human community: the church.

Jesus and his disciples formed a micro-community in first century Palestine. It was a κοινωνία (koinonia), a fellowship. This micro-community was formed around a network of relationships bound by an “uncommon” interest: the coming of the Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus.

The longevity of the community was, and continues to be, due to the strength of its center: Jesus the Christ. Jesus, as the commonality, consistently shines light and meaning into the human heart, regardless of the changes that heart and life experiences. In response to a question by one of his disciples, Thomas, Jesus said, “I, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, but through me.” It is the truth—as it is in Jesus—that transcends time and space and speaks to all of us. Jesus is the one common unity that can bind all together in the transcendent community—the church.