One of the women helping us develop a new web site for our church (jokingly, I think) suggested this for a ‘tagline’:
COVENANT PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Trust us; you’re not too weird to fit in here.
There is a sense in which this works, or should work. Churches should be welcome places for those weary of trying to fit in a world that does not easily tolerate difference. No one should be too weird to fit in.
Our actual tagline is the far more sophisticated ‘Building Gospel Community.’ We believe that the church should be a community living out the truths of God’s kingdom in such a clear way that a world longing for shalom will be attracted to that kingdom and its King. Apparently we are not alone in this aspiration. Christine Pohl in her book Living into Community identified this as a trend.
For the past twenty-five years, scholars…have emphasized the importance of the church as a ‘contrast’ or alternative community, and have argued that Christians can challenge the beliefs and practices of the larger society by the beauty of their shared life. (8)
This, we are convinced, will have a far more long lasting and profound impact upon a struggling world than the failed attempt to shape culture by political power and verbal dominance. In a book tour for her book Absence of Mind, novelist Marilynne Robinson captures the hope for such intentional community:
Christianity should be itself. Christians acting like Christians would be the most effective possible evidence for the truth of what they profess.
A gospel community, a community where Christians, even weird ones, are being Christians, is what we are after, and what we think the world needs. The problem is that we may not be sure what such a community looks like. We know what ‘church’ looks like, but not such a clear-visioned intentional community. What will such community look like?
Should the church emulate monastic communities by sharing space and goods and vocation? Or should we rather aspire to be a community set apart by language, custom, and dress, like the Amish? Do we know? Are we saying, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said regarding pornography, “I know it when I see it”? Will we know community when we see it?
Conservative Jewish scholar Yuval Levin argues in his book The Fractured Republic that strong communities of faith are vital for the promotion of human flourishing in an age that feels gravely fragmented. He defines genuine community as
…a concrete, tangible grouping…that gives you a role, a place, and a set of relationships and responsibilities to other particular human beings. (181)
This is a useful starting place. Many others could be posited. But Levin reminds us why we need to ground our conceptions of community in reality. If community involves human beings, it will be hard. Christine Pohl pointedly observes that
The winsome and life-giving character of Christian community is often accompanied by profound difficulties arising from disagreements and betrayals…. The testimony of our shared life is crucial, but it is also fragile. (8, 9)
Community is crucial, but it is fragile. Community is critical, but people will hurt other people in the pursuit of it. That can’t be helped, but the pursuit of it cannot be abandoned. If we are aware of the difficulty, failure will not surprise us, and imperfection will not dissuade us. Community is fragile. Most beautiful things are.