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The Case for Natural Community


The Loss of Natural Community

It’s clear from the teachings of Scripture that God’s design for humans is to be deeply connected in community with others. Yet, people today are finding it increasingly difficult to find community. Even with the rise of technology which enables us to be more connected, more informed, and more social than at any other time in history, more people than ever are reporting feelings of loneliness. There are many reasons why community is no longer natural under our present cultural conditions. However, my aim here is not to address all of the contributing factors to loss of natural community. But rather, I want to focus on just one cultural reality that is contributing to this — fragmentation in modern life that works against the maintenance of natural community. In doing so, I will argue that, from Scripture, not only may it be prudent to have a life centered on natural community, but that the Gospel empowers us to build natural community. In other words, Christians should aspire to build natural community. By natural community, I mean the kind of community where a person’s friends are their actual neighbors, and where their homes are in walking distance-ish from their church, school, and place of work. The two key defining features of natural community are geographical proximity and intentionality.


Fragmentation:


Natural community is valuable, and it’s lost in a highly global society. It’s lost because modern life is hostile to humans, and it creates all sorts of fragmentation. Fragmentation arises when there’s a lack of connection, commitment, and common purpose between people. For example, many of the common presenting issues in a church are actually symptoms of a more fundamentally unrecognized challenge of the loss of natural community. Nearly 200 years ago, people’s daily activities and regular interactions were all in walking distance of their homes. People didn’t have to say, “Who’s my community?” They’d look up at the horizon, wipe the sweat off their brow, and say, “Who can I see?” They worked with what they had and had to make it work. They didn’t look for community, they built it. But now you get to choose. So, you can have your work friends, school friends, church friends, social media friends, and then your real friends. You have all these friend groups (and they do too!). Life feels fragmented because you feel like you’re being pulled from all different directions. The modern structure of life is causing fragmentation, and being slightly invested everywhere is not community. It’s hard to build community when life is fragmented.


The reasons for fragmentation run deep and must not be simplistically offered up as a lack of geographical proximity. Reasons range from the challenge of cultural issues, to theological shallowness, to apologetic failure. As a result, people will often gripe at their pastors and church leaders on why the church isn’t doing more to help them find community. Foolish, but well-intentioned, pastors will try to dance to this tune and implement more church programs as a response. However, if they don’t address the underlying cause then they’ll run themselves ragged doing “trellis” work (i.e., the organizational structures, programs, activities) and fall short on doing “vine” work (i.e., the people).


The Gospel Breaks Barriers and Creates Community:

The Gospel is the solution to the hostility of modern life because the Gospel, by its very nature, breaks barriers and creates community. God is committed to make a people for Himself and ones who proclaim His name; the beauty of the Gospel is that God creates a new community of people bought by the blood of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul spells out the Gospel in regards to the new community of God by articulating that the cross of Christ reconciles Jews and Gentiles—those who share nothing in common except centuries of hatred towards one another—back to God and to each other (Eph. 2:15–16). Together, believing Jews and Gentiles become the eschatological temple of God because Christ has taken away the principal barrier of hostility and has created the conditions for peaceful coexistence (Eph. 2:14, 21–22). The Gospel is fully capable of breaking down barriers—the barriers of racism, nationalism, and even fragmentism.


The Gospel breaks the barrier of fragmentism because the gospel humbles believers to consider the needs of others and empowers to make disciples (cf. Phil. 2:3; Eph. 4:2; Matt. 28:18–20). People will often gravitate toward others in similar seasons of life and shared interests. There’s nothing inherently wrong with people’s gravitation towards familiarity. Yet, the Gospel challenges and propels us into socially uncomfortable situations and consider the needs of others for the sake of the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:19–23). God empowers us, by the Holy Spirit, to share the news of God who loved us and made a way for sinners to drink from the river of His delight through Jesus Christ to one another. Gospel-people do not passively wait for community to happen, but rather they are actively building communities in response to Christ’s finished work on the cross. This is because community is not found, but rather it is built. When Christians are intentional in living geographically close to their local church and fellow church members, being hospitable and cultivating relationships towards their actual neighbors; natural community begins to form.


Matter of Prudence:


Natural community is valuable. However, must a Christian move close to their fellow church members? Must a Christian try to condense their social circle to prevent a fragmented life? No, because this is not a command in the Bible. This is a matter of prudence. I’d argue that it’s just plain easier and more compelling for someone to integrate daily life when there’s geographic proximity. It’s honorable for people to intentionally seek after a natural community where the location of their local church, school, and workplace are in close proximity to where they live, and where their neighbors, colleagues, and coworkers are their friends. Deep and abiding relationships in the body flourish in this type of environment. However, natural community is not the goal. But rather the goal is to become increasingly like Christ. Paul expresses this aim as the attainment of “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). The goal of community is to build up the body for Christ conformity, and natural community is a sweet and compelling way to grow together in our affection towards one another and God.

 

Tuezong Xiong (BS, University of Northwestern–St. Paul) received his bachelors degree in Pastoral Ministry and Bible at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul. He is currently studying at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN for his Masters of Divinity. He is the husband of Pa Kou. He also blogs at www.tuezongxiong.wordpress.com.

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