Community v. Mission
When Corey and I left our long time church for good back in January of 2017 the Lord had already graciously provided a new community for us. The previous fall saw us on mission to explore the churches in and around Jasper. I had actually already had a sit down with the pastor of one of those churches, Chris Foglesong, from Mountain City Church. When it was time for us to step away from Ball Ground United Methodist and take some time to rest and recover (though I would not have said I needed that then), we stepped into this ready-made space God showed us.
The people were amazingly welcoming, gracious, joyful, even the ones who were almost as new as we were. They seemed to effortlessly achieve that state of hospitality that had been drilled into my brain, but which we never quite achieved, in the years I was at BGUMC. It was a place where everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there, genuinely happy to see you, and genuinely joyful to be in the Lord’s house. It took leaving when we moved to Virginia for me to finally understand the source of that atmosphere, and just how very vital, and largely missing, it is in the body of Christ and the world we are seeking to reach.
The Conflict : Community versus Mission
Early in conversations with Chris I remember him making a comment about the perceived conflict between mission and community in the church body. There’s the notion that we can either be inward focused – community – or outward focused – missional, but we can’t be both. The theory goes that if you shoot for community you’ll get it but you lose the mission. But, if you shoot for mission you’ll get it, and community in the bargain. Coming out of several years of deep involvement in the ministries of our church, I found myself agreeing with that notion. Agreeing to the point that several months later I recall bringing that conversation back to Chris when the word community kept popping up in services, conversations, and the newsletter for the church.
I was struggling at the time. I felt overwhelmed with the need to plug back into serving in some fashion. I felt, though I didn’t know it, broken over a sense of loss. All the training and work of several years to improve at church leadership seemed tossed on the trash heap. From my limited perspective, all the time, energy, and commitment I poured out for God appeared wasted, unfruitful, cast aside, with no new thing to be done in me on the horizon.
In short, I was feeling sorry for myself, and trying hard not to. I deeply wanted this new church home to give me something to do to feel useful again. So, I sat in the living room of my pastor, with he and his wife, both of whom had become friends. I railed against this focus on community, at the expense of being missional.
The Community Myth
The trouble was my frustration was misplaced, and I cannot express my gratitude that Chris and Clare didn’t give up on me. And my admiration for the fact that Chris went right on focusing where the Lord told him to, in spite of the fact that I, and I am sure others, railed at him. Because there’s a hole in our society right now that we seem to have missed, but that is filled by what infuses the life of Mountain City Church.
We all talk about community, inside and outside the church. There are community buildings, community events, community guidelines, planned communities, and community outreach. There are those who take pride in being part of this community or that community. We are all about the word community. But, in the infamous words from the Princess Bride, we keep using that word. I do not think it means what we think it means.
If we were a part of a community we would understand that we are all interdependent. As part of a community we would be surrounded by folks who know us, understand us, care about us, come alongside us. We would be inclined to know if our neighbor, or the person sitting next to us in the pews, was having money trouble and needed help, or was having health trouble and needed comfort, or had lost a loved one and needed us to grieve with them. We would be aware of the joys of those around us so we could celebrate with them. We would care. And we would not be alone.
But, here’s the reality. Over the last two decades or so suicides have increased by over 25%. Over the last several decades anxiety and depression diagnoses and treatment are at astronomical levels. According to studies, while there is not a single defining factor, loneliness and social isolation are major contributors to these increases.
For a number of years now I’ve been hearing people define themselves as introverts, and thus isolate themselves by design. Or I’ve been hearing people define themselves as extroverts, and thus keep themselves “on” at all times, never really relaxing into just being themselves with the people around them. For myself, the more I grew in our old church, the less people knew me. They knew I laughed a lot. They knew my joy. They distantly understood my husband was sick. But they did not know my faith, because they did not know my struggles, because there was very little space to ask.
The reality is we ask each other “How are you doing” in passing, but we rarely stop to hear the answer, nor want to most of the time. Even if someone did stop to hear, we’d be unlikely to answer with anything other than a mumbled, one word, generic response. We feel safer unknowing and unknown. There’s less chance our deepest fears will be exposed, our dirty secrets will be splashed across social media, or our weaknesses will be exploited. There’s less chance our parent, our spouse, our children, our friends will despise us because we failed at xyz. The truth is we don’t actually know how to do community, and it’s killing us.
The Resolution: Community is the Mission
Mountain City did a lot of things that focused on community. They made it a point to support local businesses by going out to do DNA groups in local coffee shops (Bible Study). Invitations filled the Facebook Group for folks to gather for local Karaoke, Trivia Night, celebrations downtown, or just a simple game night. There was a list every week of the local things to do in our community on the newsletters. They encouraged folks to connect to the local ministries the church supported like Young Life, the North Georgia Pregnancy Center and The Joy House.
But, they took it step further. When we first got there, Mountain City held something called City Groups. The idea was small groups of people getting together at someone’s home for dinner every other week. We all brought a dish, and spent the evening talking about what was happening in our lives. We shared areas where we needed prayer, areas where we had praises. We focused on how God was moving. Sometimes we’d talk about the service that week. Sometimes we’d talk about Scripture. We’d always talk about God.
But those conversations happened much more in the context of God in us. They happened in the context of how could we better come alongside one another, the people God had placed in our path, to encourage, to teach, to comfort, to grow. They happened with the focus of what was God calling us to engage, individually, as a group, as a church.
They didn’t happen in the context of mission. They didn’t happen because we were working toward a common goal. They didn’t happen because we were seeking to feed the hungry and cloth the naked. These groups were open to invite anyone we wanted to bring along. But, they were focused inward, on the group, to knit us together as a community. And they were critical, because they did something that focusing on seeking and saving the lost can’t do.
A look at Scripture
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
~ Acts 2:46-57
Jesus Himself set the mission of the church, most often quoted from Matthew. Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, to see what that looked like, we typically turn to Acts, where the original apostles lived out that commission. We see Peter going to the Temple, and elsewhere, preaching Christ crucified. Obviously evangelism and outreach are indeed important. We see Stephen and his six cohorts appointed to see to the physical needs of the widows. Again, the ministry of physical needs of people is present and important in the early church. But, here we see something different.
What do you do with the converted? Is it enough to feed the hungry and send them on their way? Is it enough to preach the Gospel? Lead people in a prayer, and dunk or sprinkle them in the name of the Triune God? Then cut them loose and tell them “Sin no more”? Or is there more to making disciples than baptism and prayer? Is there not the commands later to pick up your brother who stumbles? To mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice? To exhort, correct, teach, rebuke? How shall we do this crucial part of the work God calls us to? The part that leads to exponential spreading of the name of Christ and the glory of God as people grow up into the head of Christ?
How do we apply it?
According to Scripture, and less importantly personal experience, we do that by creating community to gather them in. We learn community to be the body. And we need to be the body if we’re going to meet the mission. We join together in the fellowship of believers, so much more than simply a pot luck after Sunday service. We enter into each other’s lives and learn each other’s pains, fears, sorrows, triumphs, and joys. We lay ourselves bare to one another and allow ourselves to be known. Why? Because that’s what Christ did with His disciples, and what they did with theirs. It gives space for the evangelized, baptized and converted to enter into.
It’s how the body builds itself up in love. It’s how the Holy Spirit moves among us to make us the body of Christ, given up, laid bare, and exposed so that a world dying in isolation, loneliness and darkness may come to know the Light.
To Chris, Clare, and all my MCC family back in Georgia, I cannot express how grateful I am that in the time when I felt lost in the dark, cut loose from the body, and isolated in my faith you taught me what it looks like to be in community. I pray we carry that lesson out here in our new home. For the rest of you, be blessed and be a blessing.