If Christian community is supposed to be compelling, why does it often suck?

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34f)

We were considering John 13:31-38 at Oldham Bethel Church on Sunday. We saw, in these verses, that God will ultimately glorify himself. The Father and the Son both glorify one another and we saw that we can do no glorifying of God apart from the Son. We saw that the very purpose of life was, as the Shorter Catechism tells us, to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But if the Son is the one who glorifies the Father, it means we can only glorify the Father – fulfilling the very purpose of our existence – if we are in the Son.

We also saw that the context of these verses was the going away of Jesus. As he is going, Jesus wants to leave his disciples clear instructions for when he has gone. This comes in the form of one simple, new commandment. The newness of the command isn’t in the loving of one another, which was commanded in Leviticus 19:18, but in the new standard set. Jesus did not simply say ‘love one another’ but rather qualified it with ‘as I have loved you’. The new command calls Jesus’ followers to the kind of humble service he has just exhibited in the washing of feet earlier in Chapter 13. Even more pointedly, a connection made in 13:37f, it is a call to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters as Christ laid down his life for us. It is a point John restates in his first letter: ‘ By this we know love, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers’ (1 John 3:16).

That is the kind of love that Jesus commands of his disciples. It is the kind of love that is prepared to lay down our own lives for our fellow disciples. Just as Tertullian recorded the pagans of his day speaking about the Christians: ‘see how the love one another… how they are even prepared to die for one another’. That is the kind of compelling love that will cause people looking on to come to Christ.

Given all of that, we are forced to ask why are our attempts at community often so rubbish? If the visible love between Christian believers is the compelling apologetic that Jesus insists most clearly marks out believers from unbelievers, why do our attempts at creating community often look like utter σκύβαλον?

We work in an area of Oldham replete with Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. We long for such people to come to know the Lord Jesus Christ personally. But we often fail to contend with what we are actually asking of people. Leave you family, your community, everything you have ever known in order to join us for a meeting on Sunday, where few people spend any time together in the week and half of us don’t know what is going on with each other. Is that the sort of community Jesus was talking about that would compel unbelievers to come to Christ? I highly doubt it. It’s just not good enough is it.

If this is the compelling basis on which unbelievers will come to Christ, let’s ask ourselves some diagnostic questions:

  1. Would the people in your area – your friends, neighbours and community – say of you and your church, ‘see how they love one another!… how they are ready even to die for one another’?
  2. If you think that might possibly be true of you, what visible ways have you demonstrated the love of Christ to your fellow brothers and sisters this last week?
  3. If you offer anything in respect to #2, does it come anywhere close to fulfilling #1?

Far too often churches content themselves with parroting some form of the lie that holding meetings amounts to fellowship and compelling Christian community. It simply doesn’t. Jesus did not say, ‘by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you attend a meeting together and are prepared to shake hands with people as they enter your building’. With all the will in the world, there is nothing inherently compelling about that. It is specifically our visible love for one another, expressed in real community, that compels people to consider Christ.

Larry David summed up our attitude most of the time:

I’d rather have thieves than neighbours – the thieves don’t impose. Thieves just want your things, neighbours want your time. I’d rather give them things than time.

Often, our love is no more distinct and no clearer than that of many unbelievers. Leave aside the laying down of our lives, we so regularly don’t bother to pray for each other and neither spend time together, share our money or things, and often don’t even eat with one another. Forget dying for one another, we don’t even live together in a particularly Christian way!

Jesus said this, of all things, would be that which shows the world we are his disciples. Not our meetings, not our evangelism, not our moralistic life choices, but our love for one another. Our visible, manifestly noticeable Christian community that expresses itself, not in loving feelings, but primarily in loving action even to the point of a willingness to lay our lives down for one another.

Can we be surprised when drug addicts don’t come into the church when they can get more community from their dealers? Can we expect Muslims to come to Christ when we are asking them to give up a close-knit community for a set of meetings where half of us don’t really know one another? Can we expect the world to come in and join us when we’re not even that bothered about spending time together with the people already in our midst?

Perhaps we need to take Jesus more seriously and contend with his words: ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’. They can’t know it if they don’t see it; they can’t see it if we’re never present for them to see it; and, if it doesn’t work itself out in visible ways, it would seem it doesn’t exist at all. Do we perhaps need to rethink altogether the nature of Christian community and what it truly means to love one another as Christ has loved us?

For more on this, you can listen to Sunday’s sermon at www.OldhamBethelChurch.org.uk

12 comments

  1. Ah I’m inclined to say “If Christian community is supposed to suck then why is it often compelling?” Maybe that’s part two and the other side of the coin? A long way to go and yet so many examples throughout my life in various churches of grace, forgiveness, and outpoured generosity.

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  2. That may indeed be a future part II.

    But I think the post is making a particular point, often what we call ‘community’ and ‘fellowship’ amounts to no such thing. We consider ourselves doing community by meeting together on a Sunday and maybe once midweek. I just don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.

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  3. Tim Chester’s “A meal with Jesus” is good on this 🙂 Agreed there’s that problem. I also think there’s a lot of genuine community and gospel partnership happening, often sacrificially and often by those we think are least able to do this

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  4. Yes, there are certainly individuals doing these things and often quietly. But I think there is a wider problem that’s hard to deny. I sense it is worse in middle class churches but it is not unique to them.

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  5. You know, skubalon happens. 🙂

    In all seriousness though, you’ve raised some compelling thoughts for all Christians to consider: does my life parallel what Jesus is describing here? First of all, do I even have the type of love for other believers in view here? Gut-level honesty: on many days, no. I’m grateful for you Steve for challenging us to stop & take seriously the words of our Lord. I needed to hear this this week. Keep ’em coming.

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  6. Great article! We need to address the community deficit in our churches. Acts 2 and 4 provide a great model for this, but it requires giving up your possessions and time. I would argue though that you get back far more than you give. http://www.bruderhof.com

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  7. Thanks for your comment.

    I do think this is an issue we need to look at seriously. Nonetheless, you might be interested in the follow up article, ‘if Christian community is supposed to suck, Why is it so often compelling?’

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  8. Thanks – just read that one as well. I am really interested in the topics you are writing about – a friend keeps sending me links to your site!

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  9. No problem – if you are ever down south, come and visit us. I would love to show you around our experiment in communal living.
    PS – sorry about the previous reply coming in under an old user name.

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