“How can the church become what it is truly meant to be?”
I first heard this question from a religion professor while I was in college. In four-plus decades since, I have listened to it more times than I can number. The question varies in expression and often rings more sharply than the query I heard long ago.
“My heavens, how can we get some life back into our church?!”
“How can we cease snarling at one another?”
“Can’t we do something for Christ rather than perpetually talk about doing something?”
In whatever form the question comes, it acknowledges something fundamental in Christian understanding: the transformation offered us in Christ is not just personal; it is also corporate. If we are part of the community that bears his name, then we are part of a sacred fellowship that, by any measure, bears something essential for the whole human family. We are to be salt for the earth, light for a darkened world (Matt. 5:13-16).
In whatever form people ask it, the question, “How can the church become what it is meant to be?” arises out of faithful yearning. Those posing it sense that somehow the church has gotten off track. At least in their particular community of faith, love has gone flat. Its once zesty life has lost its flavor. The flame has declined to a flicker or even gone out. So how, then, can we become what we are meant to be?
I am convinced there exists no “one size fits all” answer to this question. I am, though, just as certain that the Scriptures offer us priceless guidance on the matter. Further, over many years I have seen that certain practices of mind and heart can open even the most hobbled faith community to genuine, grace-filled transformation. I offer here what I have witnessed, not as the answer, but as an encouragement to explore further the stunning changes Christ can bring to our communal life.
The Biblical Vision of Community in Christ
The New Testament offers a sweeping vision of the transformed community that bears Christ’s name. This vision forever challenges Jesus’ followers to show the world a quality of life formed in the image of the One they seek to follow. The key identifying mark of his community is mutual love (John 13:34-35). If we are a part of this community, we bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2); forgive one another as we have been forgiven (Col. 3:13); and treat one another with humility, gentleness, and patience (Eph. 4:2). We are to care steadily for the sick and the needy among us (Jas. 5:14).
In the New Testament picture, the community that bears Christ’s name turns steadily outward with its love. As part of that community, we are called to become ambassadors for Christ, messengers of reconciliation in a broken world (2 Cor. 5:17-20). We come to understand why, in the ancient biblical manuscripts, when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world,” he speaks the plural “you” (Matt. 5:13-16). Salt and light is what we are together. It is in community that we restore flavor to life that has gone bland. It is as a people that we bear light into the surrounding darkness (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
The biblical vision of community in Christ not only offers images of the inner and outward life of the Christian fellowship. It also pinpoints the transformative source of all life in the community. Again the Scriptures do this with rich, varied images. Paul writes to the Christians at Corinth, “You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). God is the nurturing soil, the ground from which communal life grows green and fresh. God is the architect, the builder.
Paul later instructs the Corinthians, “You are a letter of Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…” (2 Cor. 3:3). We are to be letters written not by our own hand, but shaped, fashioned, boldly articulated by God.[i] If we look to the church’s founding, we see that after the resurrection, at the very start of their new life together, Jesus’ followers waited for the Spirit to form them into what they could become (Acts 1, 2).
What is the source of authentic life in the community
of faith? What will transform us into the loving,
light-giving fellowship we are called to be?
What is the source of authentic life in the community of faith? What will transform us into the loving, light-giving fellowship we are called to be? The biblical vision makes the matter plain. The source lies not in ourselves. Transformation comes only from the living God. Thomas Merton had it right when he once quipped, “The ultimate thing is that we build community not on our love but on God’s love, because we do not really have that much love in ourselves.”[ii]
Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof community in post-World War I Germany, shared the same biblical perspective as Merton and offered pastoral words on any attempt to bring about transformation on our own: “Efforts to organize community artificially can only result in ugly, lifeless caricatures. Only when we are empty and open to the Living One—to the Spirit—can he bring about the same life among us as he did among the early Christians.”[iii] Our well-intentioned, often exhausting efforts to make Christian fellowship into something special won’t work. God alone can make the change. If communal transformation is to come, we don’t need more activities. We need ways of opening, together, to what God can truly do among us.
See and Give Thanks
Our first task in communal transformation is really not a task at all—not in the usual sense. Our job is simply to watch for what God is already doing. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21), and that surely applies to the community of faith. So we are to watch, be alert, and give thanks for even the smallest flickers of life that we see.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed this foundational truth in words I find particularly helpful. Writing for his underground seminary in Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer noted, “If we do not give thanks daily for the fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience… if on the contrary we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for all of us in Jesus Christ…. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”[iv]
Bonhoeffer understood that communal transformation is, for us, an impossible task. We will never achieve it on our own. The transformation we seek is, rather, a graced reality God pours forth. God does this in even the most meager circumstances. Our job is to embrace the reality wherever we see it, regardless of how fleeting that reality may be. We are to welcome it and to give thanks for it. If we do this, then again by grace, God will surely increase and grow the blessing.
I have watched Christian communities that heed Bonhoeffer’s counsel. Some do it naturally. It has been a part of their life for a long time. Members have a gift for spotting the simplest moments of God’s grace in the community’s midst. They openly give thanks for a kindness offered, a mutual celebration, a fresh glimpse of what the fellowship might do in response to needs surrounding it.
Other communities have learned to be intentional about looking for the emergence of God’s reign in their midst. At board or committee meetings they ask regularly, “Where have we seen God working among us in the life we share together?” They give prayerful time to the question, listen to one another’s answers, and offer thanks for what they hear. They go forth with spirits lifted by what God is doing and eyes ready to see more.
Other Christian fellowships find it helpful to focus their exploration even more precisely. They know that in certain areas of community life, transforming moments are particularly likely occur. These areas include times of illness or sorrow; tasks, when people draw together for a common effort; times of joy; conversations, when suddenly words move deeper than expected; crying needs, when the Christ beckons for the community’s response. On a retreat or during special time set aside in a meeting, members of the community reflect on each of these areas or others that occur to them. In quietness they consider, “How has God been working among us in these areas?” They speak what they see and give thanks.[vi] In the very act of pausing, looking, and offering thanks, they are formed into the community God calls them to be.
God’s gift of communal transformation comes not just as we grow sensitive to what God is already doing. Certain basic habits in community life can open us yet further to God’s continuous shaping of our life together.
During a decade of working regionally for my denomination, I repeatedly saw that healthy congregations followed certain basic practices. These churches varied greatly in size, setting, and even theological tendencies. All, however, were being transformed by the presence of the living Christ, and all shared the same set of habits in their communal life:[vii]
Prayer for one another. A church where members pray daily for one another draws on an eternal, ever-fresh channel of God’s transforming grace. Regular prayer for one another means taking time. For some of us (and as a card-carrying “forgetter,” I include myself here!), it means writing down names—the sick among us, the needy, the grieving, the searching, and certainly also the joyful and those seeking to lead us.
Some people find it helpful to pray for a whole long list at once. Others will take up one name to pray for and then, after some days, turn to another. Some simply hold the entire fellowship in God’s presence. Patterns vary, but however we pray for each other, God will steadily deepen our bonds in Christ as we do so.
Honest, face-to-face speaking. I once saw a cartoon where two goofy-looking fellows stood in a church parking lot. One said to the other, “I sure didn’t like what went on in that meeting, but I don’t want to cause trouble, so I didn’t say anything!” The wise cartoonist, of course, knew otherwise. Behind-the-back talk and parking-lot meetings wreak havoc in the church.
As Christians living in community, we are to be open, direct, and face to face in our dealings. We are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15-16). Anyone who has tried to do this knows it is demanding. “It takes prayer, and it never gets easy,” a friend told me. Yet I am repeatedly enriched by those who speak to my face rather than behind my back, even if they have something painful to say or the differences between us seem great. I have seen entire faith communities grow strong when they learned to talk prayerfully, directly with one another.
Encouragement and appreciation. Sr. Barbara Fiand, an expert in religious community life, made an observation that caught my eye as I explored what leads to health in Christ-centered fellowships. “Perhaps at the next mid-year or end-of-the-year evaluation we could resist discussing either the group’s or, for that matter, any individual’s failures or successes but concentrate instead on each other’s gifts.”[viii]
Fiand’s suggestion is helpful for conducting yearly evaluations, but it carries wider implications as well. Whenever Christians name the gifts they see in one another, the community grows stronger. Whenever they express appreciation for what another brings to the fellowship, the bonds of mutual caring glow more brightly with the light of God’s love. And sometimes the most taken-for-granted gifts invite our needed praise:
“Deb, I want you to know how much your patience lifts me.”
“Tom, your presence here week after week means more to me than I can tell you.”
Being Present. The appreciation for Tom’s presence noted immediately above highlights another essential practice in communities being transformed into what the Church truly can be. Its members make a discipline of being present. Present for worship. Present for play. Present for one another in their need. This clearly means physical presence. Yet, as a pastor, I have seen that some of those most present in a congregation’s life cannot physically be there. Through their prayers and the intentions of their hearts, they are as close as any familiar form bowed in the pew, as self-giving as anyone pounding nails on a service project. In whatever form it takes, presence is essential. It allows God further to strengthen our bonds in Christ.
In whatever form it takes, presence is essential.
It allows God further to strengthen our bonds in Christ.
Sensitivity to God’s Outward Call
Lecturing at Harvard on community in Christ, Jean Vanier noted that “as soon as [the] community is born, Jesus sends them….”[ix] Jesus immediately directs his fellowship outward. They are to heal the sick, mend the world’s broken places, and declare God’s love to the neglected. Communities that are being transformed by the living Christ allow themselves to be aimed outward. And wherever I have seen communities do this faithfully, I have again seen them follow basic habits in their life together.
Ask questions. “What is God inviting us to do beyond our doors?” Christian fellowships that become what the church is meant to be ask this question prayerfully. They ask other questions as well:
“What pain do we see in our neighborhood?”
“What brokenness in the world lays heavy claim on us?”
“What special gifts do we have that we can offer? What gifts of substance, talent, prayer?”
Such questions turn our gaze outward. They open us to Jesus’ fresh vision of what we can become in the world. The Christian community that is being transformed never stops asking such questions. For a while the answers become clear. Jesus gives us something truly special to do. With his aid, we seek to do it. Then, after a time, we realize he has whole new things to teach us and fresh ways to shape us. So again we ask, “What are we now invited to do?”
Respect varied gifts and responses. Jesus never seems to call wholly like-minded, similarly gifted persons into community. I suspect it would be wretchedly boring if he did. Those communities most shaped by the call to bear fruit for Christ in the world avoid the mentality that says, “We must all do the same thing.” Some members may have a passionate concern for the hungry or those living with the pain of mental illness. Others may feel a strong call to reach out to the young and those who have never experienced the gospel. Some in the group are called to act boldly and quite publicly. Others may be drawn into a deep, quiet ministry of prayer or presence with others in their need. Where communities respect such differences and rejoice in them, all learn.
And when communities practice mutual respect and reach out in the name of Christ, the church increasingly becomes what it is meant to be. This does not happen instantly. The Loving One molds us through time. This is as true for communities of faith as it is for us in our personal lives. Yet wherever we let ourselves be shaped in our bonds with one another and in the healing love we carry to the world, there, right at that very point, we become more and more the salt, the light we yearn to be.
• • •
“If we do not give thanks daily for the fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience… if on the contrary we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for all of us in Jesus Christ…. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, prayers, and writings are an amazing testimony to the power of Christ working through communities and individuals to effect lasting transformation. Instead of choosing a life of relative safety and ease in the United States when the Nazi regime threatened the very fabric of his home country, Bonhoeffer returned from the United States to Germany to offer a prophetic call to the churches and to Hitler’s regime. As a result of his actions and faith, he was arrested by the Gestapo and executed shortly before the end of the war in 1945. His Letters and Papers From Prison is a work of great Christian faith and courage, read by thousands. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer shares his experience of Christian community. As one reviewer writes, “This story of a unique fellowship in an underground seminary during the Nazi years reads like one of Paul’s letters. It gives practical advice on how life together in Christ can be sustained in families and groups. The role of personal prayer, worship in common, everyday work, and Christian service is treated in simple, almost biblical words. Life Together is bread for all who are hungry for the real life of Christian fellowship.”[v]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Doughty is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He served many years in the pastorate and also in denominational roles. The author of five books, he frequently leads retreats and conferences.
[i] For a full treatment of images of the Christian community, readers may turn to Paul S. Minear’s still wonderful work Images of the Church in the New Testament. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.
[ii] Thomas Merton in Eberhard Arnold, Why We Live in Community: With Two Interpretive Talks by Thomas Merton. Farmington: The Plough Publishing House, 1995, 51.
[iii] Ibid., 13.
[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. New York: Harper and Row, 1954, 29-30.
[vi] Stephen Doughty, Discovering Community. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1999, pp. 39-59.
[vii] Ibid., 61-80.
[viii] Barbara Fiand, Where Two or Three Are Gathered. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992, 92.
[ix] Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community. New York: Paulist Press, 1992, 30.