Not Just Any Community!
We hear a lot of talk today about community. People long for it, value it, work towards it, and extol the advantages of it. We want an alternative to the individuality of a “me generation” (which seems to extend far beyond just one generation) and point to self-centeredness (mostly in others!) as the cause of a great deal of societal ills.
And this is not just some passing fancy. It doesn’t take long to look into the Bible and see admonitions to love, serve, bear the burdens of, forgive, provide for, pray for, and not forsake the assembling with one another. Quite a few helpful sermon series build upon the various “one another” passages in the New Testament.
Sociologist Rodney Stark, in his important work The Rise of Christianity, attributes much of the growth of the early church to their emphasis on community. He concludes toward the end of that book, “Christianity did not grow because of miracle working in the marketplaces (although there may have been much of that going on), or because Constantine said it should, or even because the martyrs gave it such credibility. It grew because Christians constituted an intense community…And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives and neighbors to share the ‘good news.’” (p. 208).
It would be easy to think Stark believes that community trumps all other factors, including doctrine. In fact, I have heard some dismiss doctrine as unimportant with pleas such as, “If we just love people and show them how welcoming we are, they’ll come to faith as new members of our community.”
Some secular and atheist groups attempt to form “caring communities” without any adherence to religious doctrine (except, I assume, that any doctrine about God or Jesus is not allowed). They say they can provide all the loving care of a church without the trappings of faith, dogma, or the supernatural.
But I think a closer reading of Stark would reject this downplay of doctrine. He disagrees with “historians today” who “are more than willing to discuss how social factors shaped religious doctrines” but “at the same time…have become somewhat reluctant to discuss how doctrines may have shaped social factors.” It isn’t just any community that provides the kind of acceptance, care, love, forgiveness, and grace that people long for and need. He says his “thesis” is that, “Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberation, and effective social relations and organizations.” (p. 211).
As an illustration, he dedicates an entire chapter exploring how the early church offered unparalleled care for people during epidemics. It wasn’t just that Christians valued health or the need for people to “die with dignity.” In contrast to others who did far less to care for the sick, the early church reached out (often risking or even sacrificing their own health and safety) because “Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of the future.” (p. 74).
The implications go far beyond medical care. A gospel-shaped community cares for the rejected because Christ was rejected in our place. We love the unlovely because the Messiah became unlovely for us so we could experience the greatest love. We are patient because we marvel at how patient God has been with us. We risk our earthly life in the service of others because we have the guarantee of another, better life. It’s not just any community that people need and long for. It’s one tied to and shaped by an eternal community.