The way the Spirit leads us and uses us will vary, but we can all participate in gospel communities on mission.
When our missional community was just Mirela and me, mission was pretty simple. We shopped, ate, and recreated locally within our neighborhood and began making friends. We invited co-workers over to hang out and life moved along as we made friends and shared the gospel. We both worked flexible jobs and didn’t have many friends or family in the city. We lived in a tight nit walkable community. We added some good friends to our house and community. We lived together, and it was simple and easy. We were part of the large population of young people in Portland without kids and without typical careers. We were 100% available to the opportunities and challenges of everyday mission. Those were the “good ole days” and this was the ideal, at least in our minds. I arrogantly wondered: “Why can’t everybody else do this? It’s not hard. Living the ‘Acts 2‘ community isn’t rocket science.”
Then, life taught me the lesson that our initial missional community was a very unique season of life and a unique situation. We now have three children, I work full-time, my wife works remotely part-time as a translator, and we travel regularly. The people we began to welcome into community had similar life altering situations and unique challenges, too. We didn’t have much time to get to know each other. Finding time to have people over for dinner became an issue. Having the energy to do it all was even more of a problem. Most of our days were spent getting up early to prepare our families for the day, then working all day to return home racing to the finish line that is bed-time. All the while fitting friendships, family, and meaningful times with spouses into the margins.
Furthermore, the people we were training to lead missional communities were discouraged because our stories weren’t even close to possible for them and their circumstances (they weren’t even for us anymore). We realized the way we began was not the way we could continue.
I stopped being arrogant. I humbly and desperately, began asking this question: “Who can intentionally live a life in community and on mission?”
- Can a young family with small kids?
- Can an older family with kids in activities across the city?
- Can an empty nest couple?
- Can a traveling business person?
- Can a person with a career they are deeply called to?
- Can a person who works grave-yard shifts?
- Can a working-class family who doesn’t have the budget to shop, eat, drink, and hang out in bars?
The big question was this: Is the missional community life only possible for the young college student or young professional with a flexible schedule?
Reality Check on Expectations
We don’t live in Jerusalem, 30 AD
My first realization was simple: this isn’t Jerusalem, 30AD. We don’t live in an ancient middle-eastern culture. We don’t live in an agricultural-based economy. We live in Western Cities based on cultural and creative capital. The work week is at least 60 hours over 6 days. Parents work separately from their children. When we finish school, we move out of the homes we grew up in to make a new home for ourselves hours away. Extended families are scattered across time-zones. We are blessed with an increased access to education and elevated hopes for our vocations. We don’t live in large estates with many families under one roof. Most of us don’t live, work, and trade within the same space.
Our cultural, economic, and familial context is almost entirely different from the churches we find in the New Testament. This is the reality. You may want to lament this truth. I know I have. However, this is one of Christianity’s biggest strengths to celebrate: it isn’t bound by a cultural, economic, or familial context. I’ve come to find this incredibly exciting. We don’t have to long for the way things used to be, we get to discover the gospel’s impact, influence, and transformation of the way things are today.
This frees us to see the power of the gospel in the Scriptures. We are able to see how the gospel influence culture and community.
For example, instead of looking at Acts 2 to force our communities to spend every day together, we might instead see the significance of their motivation behind it. The two key words in the Acts 2 description are “devotion” and “together.” Devotion means to persist with closely or serve personally. Or in other words, attach yourself to the service of another. Here we see a glimpse of the early church, a community of people who were devoted not only to Jesus but also to one another. We see a beautiful picture of the results of a community of people who were so devoted to the gospel that they were devoted to one another. There isn’t even a taste of self-focused consuming of relationships or the desperate seeking of fulfillment from others. Instead, they were a people secure in God’s grace and salvation who engaged community as people full and ready to give.
Connected to this devotion is their togetherness or their finding all things in common—unity. Their devotion to Jesus and one another resulted in unity. They lived more like a tight family than a loose collection of individuals. They didn’t consume each other. They clung to the gospel. You don’t get unity by being nice, tolerant, or experts in conflict resolution strategies. Paul describes the cause of our unity in Ephesians 4:1-6:
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Paul connects his charge for their unity, love, caring, and patience to their common Lord. Paul says, you are one (unified) because you have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God. You achieve unity not through rules of engagement but through a shared ruler over all life. We live as family because we all belong to “one God and Father.” This is why we are eager to maintain unity…not so we can share “all of life” and live a communal idea.
The church in Acts 2 expresses their devotion and unity in activity. Community is not simply an idea we think about but requires action and obedience. This community prayed together and they ate together. They shared the gospel teachings, and they shared their possessions to meet needs! They welcomed others into their homes and they received from one another with generous hearts. They did not live in a holy huddle or commune, but they did share moments of life in meals and in their homes. More importantly, they shared the struggles of life and the joys of life. Therefore the ideal community is one growing in devotion and unity. This the biblical pattern. We have to hold strongly to this biblical pattern and creatively discover how it can take shape within our culture today.
People are Scattered in Life
God has actually placed us in a variety of places and in varying schedules. God has scattered his throughout businesses, culture centers, schools, hospitals, governments, neighborhoods, and non-profits. This is a good thing. The majority of the Christian life is lived physically apart from our Christian community. We don’t find ourselves in communes like M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village“. In fact, one of the best way to uphold our Christian faith is by pursuing the vocations God has given us regardless of the industry or setting.
This means we change our expectations of an ideal we imagine in the past to gospel-centered imagination for discipleship today. What does it look like to bare one another’s burdens and be devoted to one another in our culture? What logistic decisions and sacrifices must we make to ensure an environment where we grow in our love for one another? How do we share life when life is scattered and full? How will we communicate and share burdens? If we don’t have much time, how will we make the most the time we do have? How do we exist in spiritual unity and physical separation?
Christian Community Health is not Measured by Scheduled Activities
The last reality check is this: community health is not a function of quantity time but of quality time. The quality of the community’s love for one another not the quantity of time together. In fact, we must come alive to the reality that our pursuit in leading Christian community is to foster spiritual growth, namely that we would know Christ and the power of his resurrected life. In this way, our ideal community must be, not simply include, one that presents every man and woman complete in Christ. Our ideal community is one that does this. That takes the disciplines of grace as life-giving alternatives to the idol ridden chaos of our self-made empires. This means we cherish the moments together as Spirit inspired and filled breaths to know Christ together. It means, our pursuit of one another throughout the week is to know the Father and share his love with one another as adopted sons.
What Does that Mean for Mission and Community?
For leaders, it means we have to focus our times together and our times apart. Our times growing in gospel understanding and our times scattered in our various lives. This means we must intentionally plan and build a liturgy that elevates Christ when we get together. It means we must consider how our months and seasons will work out in shaping a discipleship community.
Further, it has to discover ways to celebrate our lives on mission in different spheres. This means our work not only matters but is crucial. It means raising children matters. It means yard-work, errands, doctors appointments, and grocery shopping are all arenas where God is present and speaking to us, for us, and through us.
Lastly, the implication and shift of an ideal community is trusting the roles of the whole. In other words, everyone has a part to play in being a missional community. And, everyone’s role will be unique.
- Can a young family live an intentional life in community and on mission? Yes!
- Can an older family with kids in activities across the city live an intentional life in community and on mission? Yes!
- Can an empty nest couple? Yes!
- Can a traveling business person? Yes!
- Can a person with a career they are deeply called to? Yes!
- Can a person who works grave-yard shifts or swing shifts? Yes!
- Can a working-class family who doesn’t have the budget to shop, eat, drink, and hang out in bars? Yes!
The answers to all these questions are “yes”, because the Holy Spirit empowers us to live a life on mission regardless of our circumstances. The presence of God is with us regardless of where we are and what type of neighborhood we live in. The call to be a disciple and make disciples is just as clear to the parents of young kids as it is to the retired couple. The way the Spirit leads us and uses us will vary, but we can all participate in gospel communities on mission. In fact, it’s exciting to see the plethora of ways God leads communities not only through their challenges but into great opportunities.
Rethink Your Stories of Success
Initially, our success stories looked only like my stories. But, what does a successful missional community look like? We’ve begun to ask this question not through the lens of activities done and accomplishments but trajectory. Essentially our question has become: is this community growing in the gospel? We see this growth evidenced by an increased love for Jesus, an increased love for one another, and lastly a growing love for their city and neighbors. If this is the benchmark: growing in faithfulness to the command of God to love, our stories of ideal community will be varied.
We have learned to celebrate missional communities and leaders that don’t fit the paradigm of 100% flexibility. For example, we have a community lead by someone who works night shifts on a rotating basis. Their community plans monthly, and maps out the moments they can share (at kid sporting games, meals, prayer times, helping with neighbors, caring for foster children, etc.). They might have two “structured” meetings a month, but they are growing in their love for God, neighbor, and one another. And they are sharing in a gospel-saturated life together.
Is your community growing in increased love for Jesus and for one another?
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