“God is love.”
If you’re a Christian, you believe that statement. It’s a beautiful truth, one that’s captured all of us. It’s a deep reality that conveys immense meaning and hope to those that follow God. We’ve fallen in love with Him because He first loved us.
But that phrase, “God is love,” is also key to seeing His intent for a shared community life in the church. The fact of God being love is impossible, unless there is someone to love. God, even before creation, expressed His idea of true community life—essentially, His life is the true community life. The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, communing together eternally.
When He created us in His image, He in essence created us with the intent of sharing that communal life, to expand His life into and among us, to inhabit us. You can find this intent all through the scriptures. Think of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for his disciples, and for “those who will believe in Me because of their word”: “That they would all be one, even as You, Father are in me…” He was asking that we would share that exact same life that He and the Father shared.
I believe that there is a hunger for that community that is part of our created being; we want it even without knowing. It seems that hunger even pricks us with dissatisfaction in the midst of our self-absorbed pursuits that are leading us further and further from living in His original intent.
Look at the culture of the world, which John says is under the control of the evil one (1 John 5:19), and being as such can be directly opposed to the intent and ways of God: it either teaches us to live independently, relying on no one but ourselves, or it offers up conterfeit community experiences that are ultimately shallow and unfulfilling.
It’s no wonder, then, that the idea of community seems to get fixed on with such a passion. “Let’s live in community!” we say, and we scheme of ways to bring that about, which largely focus on the logistics of community such as land purchases or co-housing, how to allocate resources, support the community, sharing costs and divvying up responsibilities.
The problem is that these are all constructs that we think will bring about a community life, but the most any of these things can do is to put in place a system—made by us—for living a life in close proximity to one another.
Proximity is not community life.
True Christian community is simply the life of King Jesus expressed in His people. It is a life founded on King Jesus, and it takes the form of people living in peace and joy with a tangible love and unity, being “one heart, one mind, intent on one thing.”
I submit to you that the proximity part of community, which we tend to think of as community, is really a byproduct of true community.
Can you find one place in the scriptures, especially in the letters from the Apostles, where they were instructing or encouraging people to live in proximity with each other? I can’t. Granted, their culture and time made proximity somewhat inevitable and necessary, and there are plenty of commands and encouragements to love one another, do good to one another, care for one another, etc. But I have never seen the command, “Live in close proximity to one another!”
Proximity does not make a community, except in a worldly, man-made sense.
I’m not saying that living close together shouldn’t be done (I actually think it should). What I am saying is that if you think you’re going to enter into true community with people by agreeing to move onto the same piece of land together, or into a neighborhood, apartment complex, or similar situation, where you can all be within walking distance of each other, to be “in each other’s lives every day”—you’re wrong. I am imploring you to not do this.
You should not attempt to live in close community (proximity) until you have the leading from the Lord—confirmed by the members of your local Church—and you are already living a life of true community that you find is being hampered by the local Church members not living in proximity.
In short, don’t live together until you can’t stand to be apart.
It is possible to live in the community life of God without living together. I’ve done it. Ultimately, we ended up moving to live together in physical community, but this came about because God had worked with us over a long period of time, builing us together into a real family with a love and unity that was so great that we hated to be apart. We had already been learning how to embrace the cross together, to be open and walk in the light together, to share all things, to speak the truth in love. We were committed. We knew that God had called us together, and we were watching Him work among and around us constantly.
But even that decision to move into proximity with each other came through simply following Him as He led us, as He built us into His body. The first pockets of community in our church were made through taking care of each other—my family took in a single mother, for instance, and another family did the same. One family had a couple single men living in their house. The first tries didn’t go all that well, though. People got fed up and moved away from each other, there were plenty of fights, some yelling and ugliness. But real love got worked out through all of those instances, and those that were serious about going on with the Lord stuck together and did go on. We experienced then a further revelation of what the Psalms say (Ps 133), “Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”
It seems like God eased us into a shared community life of close proximity. It was all very organic—and lasting, because our focus was never living in community, but simply following our King, and giving Him what He wanted.
Living in community requires the grace of God, every day. That community I described above is still together, almost 25 years later. Whenever I reminisce with the old fogies about the early days and ask questions like, “How did you stay together during all that?” I get the same answer from every one of them:
“It was the grace of God.”
There is only one reason a church should be in existence: To give God what He wants. If you make anything else the center and focus of the church, you will likely miss out on the abundant grace that He gives to support His purpose. If you make living in proximity the focus, and don’t let it happen through the leading of God, you’re liable to find Him not supporting your endeavors, and possibly opposing them. I have seen again and again how people pursuing their ideas of the Church—no matter how well-intentioned they are—not only get in the way of God having His idea of the Church, but cause damage to the work He’s doing.
The Psalms are true: living together in unity is a marvelous thing, and something I believe God greatly desires for His people. You should greatly desire it. But also see that we have to allow Him to take our ideas of the Church and community (our “wish dream” as Bonhoeffer says), and replace them with His idea, and then submit to being the building materials for His spiritual house.
He builds a much more lovely and lasting home than we could ever build.