When I became a believer, my faith was quite individualistic. I strove so diligently to please God that my sense of holiness lapsed into perfectionism. As a result, I became guilt-ridden and lonely. It was only through the resultant brokenness that I discovered the healing balm of community.
Young Life became my first real Christian community. This is ironic since, as a high school student, I had scorned the ministry as not being “spiritual” enough. However, while in college, after a prolonged period of wrestling with the faith, I agreed to serve as a volunteer leader. For the first time in my Christian life, I became vulnerable and, as a result, experienced a true sense of team. What joy to be accepted, warts and all. It was okay to be human after all.
Throughout InterVarsity, we prize community, holding that the Christian life cannot be lived alone. Our purpose is to “establish and advance at colleges and universities witnessing communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord . . .” As such, we seek to develop and nurture strong witnessing communities on campus. Student leaders play a pivotal role in this process.
Characteristics of Christian Community
True Christian community is distinguished by at least five shared qualities:
In making this statement, Jesus is not devaluing family relationships. To the contrary, he is using biological families as a benchmark. In essence, he is saying that as much as we belong to natural families, how much more so do we belong to the family of faith.
The church of Antioch—perhaps the most effective missionary church of all time—had a remarkably diverse leadership team of five members (Acts 13). Working through wide differences in religious backgrounds (three Jews and two Gentiles), political views (one had been a childhood friend of King Herod, another a diehard opponent) and ethnicity (African, Roman and Jewish), this team rocked their world.
Common Vision. The ultimate purpose of community is not to promote a feel-good sense of belonging. Rather, it is to help usher in the kingdom of God, to bring about his redemptive purposes. As we engage in evangelism, missions and the pursuit of justice, we all pull in the same direction. This common vision helps us surmount our differences. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted of Jesus’ first disciples, “No power in the world could have united these men for a common task, save the call of Jesus. But that call transcended all of their previous divisions.”
Authentic Relationships. While a student at Cambridge, author John Stott became estranged from his father due to their divergent views on pacifism. As a result, Stott’s college fellowship group became a “surrogate family,” and, he says, he “learned the significant part that Christian fellowship can play in the life of discipleship.” His experience echoed a passage found in Matthew’s gospel: “Pointing to his disciples, Jesus said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (12:46–50).
- Self-Sacrifice. When twisters destroyed the homes of 26 Amish farmers, none had insurance. Neither did they need any. As noted by the Associated Press, “In the self-help world of the Amish, insurance comes not in the form of written agreements, but in a spiritual covenant among friends.”
While I am not encouraging readers to shun insurance, I believe that this story illustrates a basic principle of mutual dependence. The early church cared for each other in tangible ways (Acts 2:43–47). Indeed, Paul admonished believers to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Authentic relationships contain an element of self-sacrifice and risk-sharing. As the writer of Ecclesiastes advises, “Divide your means seven ways, or even eight, for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth” (11:2).
- Diversity. Perhaps the best-known biblical image of Christian community is Paul’s metaphor of the human body (Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). Simply put, he points out that we are inadequate in ourselves and need each other. The resultant unity is all the more profound because of our many differences.
- Servant Leadership. Jesus taught that communities bearing his name should not be led autocratically. Rather, they should be led humbly, with a shared sense of authority (Matthew 20:25–27). True Christian community is characterized by valuing all voices. In this, Jesus echoes the writer of Proverbs who wisely notes that “in an abundance of counselors there is safety (11:14).”
We are not called to live our lives as Christians alone. Even the vast majority of monks, whom we often think of as living in isolation, have historically lived in intentional community. Our model for true community is the one Jesus established with his disciples. Marked by shared vision, authenticity, self-sacrifice, diversity and servant leadership, this ideal community shines brightly in the darkness. May the Lord grant us the determination and grace to pursue it.
—Alec D. Hill