“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Helen Keller
Have you ever wondered why Jesus gathered his followers into a learning, serving, worshiping community? Didn’t Jesus know how difficult people are to get along with and how unappealing church communities would be, with all the deeply flawed and highly opinionated people out there? Didn’t he know that he could be much more successful preaching a more private type of religion, something along the lines of, “Go out into nature and worship God. Be nice to people. The end.” Instead, Jesus pulled together a mishmash of followers and set about trying to make them fishers of people and to embody God’s kingdom reign.
The early church struggled mightily with this same challenge: forming a community comprised of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, women and men, educated and uneducated. This unifying task turned out to be very difficult indeed. How much easier if those early missionaries had focused on converting people to a personal relationship with God and left the whole corporate, communal thing out of it.
So why community? Why, for 2000 years, have Christians insisted on gathering together, breaking bread together, serving together, bearing witness together, suffering together, worshiping together, and sharing together? Here’s my attempt at a thumbnail response.
First, we humans are intrinsically wired for community. Children can’t survive long on their own. Neither can the sick, the aged, or the physically challenged. Even the “strong” find they don’t like living in isolation. Jesus’ call to community is simply his acknowledgement that God has created us as social creatures. Life is better together, despite the inevitable conflicts we experience with each other. There is strength in community.
Second, Jesus understood that in order for us to grow more like him, we have to live in environments that would cause us to be less self-centered and more engaged with others. Community is perfect for revealing to us how often we demand our own way instead of yielding to the preferences of others, how often we want to keep for ourselves rather than share with others, how often we focus on our own interests rather than being considerate of others. Marriage is one highly-focused example of a community that reveals all our self-centered flaws. We need community because we’ll never grow up into the godly people Jesus wants us to be if the only person we ever have to care for is ourself
Years ago, there was a person in our small group that was deeply annoying to me. This person pressed all my buttons, and I sometimes wondered why God sent that person to our group. One day, I realized that this person was in our group because I needed to mature more, to become more generous-hearted and less “annoyable.” Over time, this person became a true friend and beloved fellow Christian.
There are more answers to the question, “Why community?” But these two offer an important reminder of why we embrace the challenging but meaningful practice of being a community of faith together.