Scripture describes how God brings into being communities that take forward his mission. For example:
God instructed the man and the woman together to rule over creation
They were to work as a tiny community, which was to multiply and eventually spread across the globe (Genesis 1.28-30).
God chose to be revealed through a national community
He called Israel to be a 'kingdom of priests' (Exodus 19.6). One of the tasks of a priest was to show the people what God was like and what he wanted. Israel was to be a priest to the surrounding nations. Through the quality of its corporate life, other people were to get a picture of God. God would be displayed through community.
Jesus formed his disciples into a travelling community
It is remarkable how many of Jesus' one-to-one dealings with people occurred in the context of this community, as he and his close followers journeyed from place to place.
After Pentecost, this community spawned a plethora of new Christian communities
Members of these communities ate together, learnt together and shared their lives. Baptism is about entering God's community, in which relationships have the quality of a family at its best.
The modern church has identified too closely with the centralised temple worship of the Jerusalem church rather than with the household basis of the Pauline model of church. The household was not simply a domestic unit in the first century... (It) included, in addition to the extended family, slaves, the clientele who regularly traded with the family, and friends of the family.
In the light of this background, a first-century Christian would have been puzzled by the question, "Where do you go to church?" for church was a network of people to which one belonged. It was not a once- or twice-a-week association but rather a community of continuous interaction that included a range of activities related to every aspect of life. The community supplied a circle of people who provided both identity and security
Eddie Gibbs & Ryan K Bolger, Emerging Churches, SPCK, 2006, pp99-100
Many fresh expressions seek to recapture a sense of community
They recognise that inherited churches can provide forms of community that are appropriate for their members, but these congregations are often too formal, structured and hierarchical for many people today.
Fresh expressions aim to provide different community experiences – experiences that feel more authentic to those involved. Many seek to respond to the widespread longing today for healthy friendships and forms of belonging.
These types of church tend to be informal, relaxed, participative and with a strong emphasis on personal relationships. Many meet around food, or at least include a meal in their main events. Sometimes the distinction between fellowship, worship and outreach becomes blurred; fellowship permeates everything.
As one member of a fresh expression put it,
Eat together, talk together, pray together.
The Bridge in a Leicestershire town is just one example. Over the past eleven years, The Bridge has discovered that being church involves spending time together in lots of ways: through Bible study, worship, sport, games, and, just as importantly, drinking tea. Community happens all through the week.
Community is at the heart of salvation
The essence of salvation is men and women being reconciled to God, to each other and to creation. When individuals are saved, they become members of a restored community - God's family. They are baptised into a set of relationships centred on Christ.
The gospel is about the gift of eternal life, but this is life lived in community. No individual on their own can express salvation; only grace-filled communities can do so.
This means that the gospel of salvation must be communicated through a community of salvation. (Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, SCM, 1953, p141).
For many people, it is not enough to hear the gospel; they need also to see it - 'seeing is believing'. Relationships in which individuals are forgiven, accepted and helped to flourish reveal something of God's grace and can provide a magnet to others.
'See how they love each other' was a powerful dynamic in the spread of the early church.
So community needs to be at the heart of mission
If individuals cannot fully express salvation on their own, we should not expect them to bring salvation on their own to their networks, neighbourhoods or workplaces. This would be asking too much of any one person.
How can friends and colleagues catch the vision of salvation when they can't see it? And how can Christians reveal the community nature of salvation when they are on their own?
Fresh expressions potentially address this problem by encouraging individuals to form grace-bearing communities at work, in networks or among neighbours.
Instead of 'Sunday' church being about sending individuals into the world from Monday to Saturday, fresh expressions can be understood as the sending of tiny communities into the world.
Two or three Christians might form the nucleus of a small community in the office, among friends or on a housing estate. As others are drawn in, they can begin to experience the love of God.
Might this radically change how you view mission?
Will new Christian communities be organised or disorganised?
People's lives have been getting more and more organised. (See Gili S Drori, John W Meyer & Hokyu Hwang [eds.], Globalization and Organization, OUP, 2006, pp2-7).
- The number of organisations has leapt dramatically, whether it is NGOs - non-governmental organisations - in Uganda (3,500 registered in 2000 alone) or companies in California (which expanded five-fold between 1960 and 2001).
- Organisations are reaching into the informal parts of everyday life, such as childcare. Pre-school children are more likely to attend nursery than be looked after by their parents.
- Organisations themselves feel more organised - more regulations, more targets, more standardised ways of doing things and more accountability.
As so much of life becomes more organised, individuals crave space in which they can feel free. They enjoy the greater fluidity of personal life - 'We'll decide whether to go to the party at the last minute.'
This creates a challenge for new Christian communities. On the one hand, people who are 'organised-out' at work and in the rest of their lives will value communities that are fluid, unstructured and spontaneous. 'Community' will mean being free from organisation.
On the other hand, as discussed in God seeks to transform society, fresh expressions have a purpose: to join God's Spirit in the task of transforming society. Accomplishing that needs organisation. If individuals aren't organised, it's very hard to achieve a common goal.
Will new Christian communities find it possible to be structured enough to serve other people, yet at the same time be welcoming to individuals who are tired of being part of a system?