Community: It's a noun, not a verb

church community

What’s the difference between church and bowling night?

Well… not as much as you might think. As we discussed in this blog post, the church evolved from Jesus’ words about building an assembly. If we remove all of the tradition and religious connotations from this simple idea, we can get a better understanding of what Jesus was trying to say. An assembly is defined as “a group of people gathered together in one place for a common purpose”. A church fits that definition just as much as your average bowling league.

If an assembly is simply a group of people coming together for a purpose they share, the only thing that separates Jesus’ assembly from the bowling assembly is who is gathered and for what purpose. These two criteria will be explored in future blog posts, but for now, let’s look at how much they have in common. Neither assembly could exist without people coming together. There is no such thing as an assembly of one. An assembly doesn’t just exist to further its purpose, but to further its purpose together. Any activity you do with your friends, whether bowling or something else, is done because you want to spend time together in community. The same is true for Jesus' assembly. An assembly is all about community.

A community is something we are but a church is something we do. Contrast the simple definition of an assembly with the definition of church: “Christian organization, hierarchy of clergy, institutionalized religion”. Many churches contradict this definition by claiming to be not a building, but a community of people above all else. Let’s put that to the test and substitute the word “community” for the word “church” in everyday language: “What time does community start?” “I’m volunteering at community today.” "The stained-glass windows on that community are beautiful!" “Attending membership class is required to join the community.” "I'm donating ten percent to community." It sounds ridiculous! If church really was a community of people, we wouldn’t talk about it like it was a place, program, activity, or institution. Many churches even broadcast video of their services live on the television or internet so that people can watch at home by themselves. That is not an assembly.

Since the assembly is a continuation of discipleship that started with Jesus (see this blog post), consider the lifestyle of the disciples. Being a disciple was not someplace they went. Being a disciple is not a weekly activity on Wednesday night or Sunday morning. It didn’t exist at a set time or place. It didn’t have a name. They did not become members of discipleship. There was no 501(c)3 tax exemption for discipleship. Their assembly wasn’t a tradition, routine, activity, place, nor system. Their community was not an institution or hierarchy. Their assembly wasn’t a part of their life. Rather, their life was part of the assembly. As their community grew, read what Acts says about their lifestyle:
“Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Many of us long for friends like this who would share all their possessions, meet every day in different houses, eat meals together, worship, and welcome other people in. If you long for that as I do, know that God is bringing this kind of lifestyle to the church. If you already have friends like that, your group of friends is much closer to the assembly Jesus was talking about than a typical church. No institution required! This is why when Paul wrote to the Corinthians and Ephesians, he called the assembly the body of Christ, saying “We are members of His body”. Just as a body is made up of many organs, an assembly is made up of many people. It’s the relationship between those people, the community, that binds us together. As disciples, we are a community. We are a family. We are friends. We are gathering for organic fellowship. We are a network of people. Our assembly is not something that we do, it is something that we are.

The average social group is about 150 people. This is Dunbar's Number, and this video gives a fascinating explanation on YouTube. It is difficult for any human to maintain meaningful friendships with more people due to limitations of time, emotional ability, and our brain. Many churches start with less than 150, but as they grow larger, it becomes more and more difficult for its members to have meaningful relationships each other. A church of more than 150 is not actually one community, but multiple communities in one, and therefore, multiple churches in one. Subcultures, clicks, and divisions easily start to form. Since science tells us that a community cannot be larger than 150, a gathering of more people in one place must occur for reasons other than community. In a church, perhaps its a charismatic preacher, stirring music, free coffee, or a nice environment. This other factor becomes the purpose of the church rather than organic fellowship in an assembly as Jesus intended. In an assembly that is fostering true relationships and community, growth is inevitable. When it gets to a certain size, it should then split, so that further growth along with meaningful relationships can continue.

Organic fellowship does not happen at a set time and place each week. It can happen anywhere, anytime. Sometimes gatherings are planned months in advance, sometimes they happen spontaneously. The early assembly met every day. Gathering once a week on Sunday is not biblical, but a human tradition that entered the church as it evolved. Paul wrote to the assembly in Rome, “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind”. The assembly should meet as often as the community wishes, perhaps more or less frequently. It doesn’t even need to be consistent, but can change according to the needs of the group. The assembly does not end when the gathering does. The gathering should simply foster real relationships that can continue as a way of life as we read in the Bible. Members of this assembly should be spending time together organically, enjoying each other’s company, ministering to each other and to people outside of the gathering.

Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another”. The relationship between believers is critical. It is our very identity as Jesus’ disciples.

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