Of One Heart and Mind
“Community” is a word that we often hear, especially in Christian circles. But what do we mean by “community?” One definition of “community” given by Dictionary.com is: “a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.” I think that gives us a good place to start. As Christians, we do see our community as being one that shares the common characteristic of being followers of Jesus and we are distinct from the larger society in which we exist. This is a basic definition to which I believe most Christians can agree. But beyond this basic definition, as we get into how community is viewed by Christians among various groups, there seems to be far less common ground.
For most in white evangelical churches, “community” often entails a group of people who participate in events, specifically religious events, together. The idea is that those who are members of the church you are a part of would be your community. And if you want to go deeper into community, you attend smaller group events. One of the “metrics,” if you will, that is often used to determine the depth of community is how personal the information we share about ourselves is. The word we use for that is “vulnerability.”
Please hear me. I am not suggesting that community does not include those things. Without these things, Christian community can’t really function. You need to do things together and you have to grow to be a safe place for each other to be vulnerable. And yet, you can have all of these things and still just be a group of individuals who meet together, and never really be a genuine community. And the heartbreaking part is that many, if not most, white evangelical churches peak at this level of relationship. And here is how you know it. When minorities, particularly those from societies that function within a much more collectivist mentality, begin to engage in these circles, they will hear praise for the depth of community. So, they have a certain expectation for what that means. But when they begin to engage, they find that it isn’t anywhere near “community” as they know it. And by that, they don’t even mean “Christian community,” but just community in general.
The disconnect is incredibly difficult to explain. And I think the reason it is so difficult to explain is that what white evangelicals do often appears to be similar in nature to what minorities mean when they discuss community. But there are some fundamental differences that are rooted in culture and motivations. Look for a second at this passage from Acts 4:23-35:
After they were released, they went to their own people and reported everything the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Master, you are the one who made the heaven, the earth, and the sea, and everything in them. You said through the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of our father David your servant:
Why do the Gentiles rage
and the peoples plot futile things?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers assemble together
against the Lord and against his Messiah.
“For, in fact, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your will had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, consider their threats, and grant that your servants may speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand for healing, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God boldly.
Now the entire group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. For there was not a needy person among them because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of what was sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed to each person as any had need.
When we talk about community, it is really easy to get bogged down in the part of this passage that deals with possessions. We often get uncomfortable with that part and will give all kinds of caveats to that to relieve that tension. But that part of the passage is really just a result of everything else going on.
This passage is outlining the response of the church after Peter and John were arrested and questioned by Annas, Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and all the members of the high-priestly family. They were released and went back to give report as to what happened. The church gathered together to welcome them, hear their testimony, and pray together. But pay attention to this phrase: “Now the entire group of those who believed were of one heart and mind…”
Let’s take a step back and think about what is going on here. This was happening within the Roman Empire shortly after Jesus had been crucified. And it was the religious leaders that urged Rome to crucify Jesus. And now, what was seen as a splinter sect of Judaism was forming. These early followers of Christ we marginalized people among marginalized people. That plays no small role in their view of community.
Here’s the reality. Marginalized people tend to stick close to those who are similarly marginalized. You can watch this begin to happen, unprompted on playgrounds. Those with minority backgrounds will often gravitate toward others with minority backgrounds. And the closer the cultural background, the more closely they will remain attached. This is just human nature. When someone has experienced similar things and can relate to you, you feel safer with them.
That is what is happening here in Acts. An understanding of mutual need even for basic survival was a core element of the early Christian community. But it isn’t just basic survival. And this gets into the willingness to share everything in common. The early church didn’t just desire survival; they desired to flourish. But here is something that is different from most of our white Western version of community. The desire to flourish wasn’t individual. It wasn’t just about me flourishing. And it wasn’t just about you flourishing. It was about us flourishing together. It was about remaining faithful to the call of Jesus to be his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Community was bigger than the sum of its parts. And the vision for the community wasn’t just about community as an end in itself. It was a confession that we need each other because Jesus told us this was going to be hard, and we just saw what they did to him! We believe what he said and so we have to stick together.
And as they looked around, compelled by the love of Jesus, they loved each other. It was by their love for one another that the world knew that they were Jesus’ disciples, but the world hated and killed Jesus. Stop and think about that for a second. Would the world look at our communities and associate us with Jesus by the way we love one another? Is our love for one another really that much different from the way friends in the world care for each other? What about our community screams, “We belong to Jesus?”
So, what does all this mean? What do we do with it? We live in America and in American culture everything is so structured that we can’t really do this the same way. We have to go to work and all of these other scheduled events. This kind of community just doesn’t fit here. Can I offer to you as a counter example the communities of minorities in our society? Can I suggest we take some cues from “front porch culture?” What about “barber shop culture?” What about China town? Little India? All of those exist within our society.
Consider the fact that many collectivist cultures are “drop-in cultures.” By that, I mean people can just drop by your house, and it is normal for you to invite them over for tea and snacks. Engaging with people from these contexts can be an eye-opening experience for those who are from more individualistic cultures. I can remember going with a friend to an Iraqi friend’s house for dinner. I was thinking at that time that it was just going to be us and them. But what we soon discovered is that their door was opened to any of their friends. People from their community that we had never met before began dropping in, and they joined us for tea and dinner. It was an incredible experience that immediately engaged us in an entire community.
That feels way too invasive for us. We need our space, and we are troubled by how easily that could eat up all our time. We think that if we begin to open our house for anyone to drop by, then everyone is just going to be dropping in all the time. That seems incredibly overwhelming and even financially cumbersome for us. But this betrays something that has become ingrained into our culture. We don’t really expect community. It is something that is risky for us, and we expect that efforts to engage in deep community will likely not be reciprocated. Within the body of Christ, that creates a problem.
In many of the more collective cultures, having the problem of too many people wanting to come to your house and drink tea or eat with you would be a sign of great relational wealth and status. But in our context, we rarely have that many relationships. So, it isn’t likely that we will really run into that kind of problem. Also, when an entire community is doing engaging in this type of hospitality, it is not so overwhelming for one or two people. Everyone is dropping into each other’s house; it isn’t just one person who is always having to welcome everyone. It becomes a beautiful thing when you can exhibit hospitality to others and also share the blessing as you are a guest and drop into other people’s houses to experience their hospitality as well!
Now, I am anticipating an objection here. “But that isn’t our culture…” That is a fair point. Those things aren’t a part of mainstream, predominantly white culture. But isn’t that the whole point? Christianity was never meant to be mainstream culture. It was always going to be counter cultural. It was always going to be an alternative society. That is why Jesus prayed that we would be in the world but not of it. Christianity has been most attractive in places where the Christian community is most marginalized. Why is that? Because the distinction between the church and the world is most readily visible. People long for inclusion and belonging. But inclusion and belonging doesn’t mean being allowed to come to events. It means being a part of a community that is seeking the flourishing of the community. It means having others value your presence and your contribution to the community because you are unique and uniquely gifted. It means knowing that your presence matters because we are all trying to live in a way that is counter to everything the world wants us to be.
So, what might it look like to begin to pursue this kind of community even within our current cultural context? I’ll admit…it’s hard. But what if it started with a simple invite. What if it started by gathering a group from your local church and inviting them to do a potluck together? I’m not talking about dinner out at a restaurant. I mean inside homes. And then what if you suggested that you rotated locations and made this a regular gathering? Sure, that’s not exactly the same as “drop-in culture,” but it’s a step away from what is normal for us and toward a more communal direction. We can always explain why it is too hard. We can always explain why our culture and schedules don’t allow for this. But what if we didn’t? What if we began to make this a priority? What if we realized that actually investing in each other’s lives is a path toward a deeper, richer, fuller life?
When the Christian community bears no distinction from the mainstream community and still puts the name of Jesus on it, we are misrepresenting the love of Jesus to the world. When we want community, but our primary motivator is what we can get out of it personally, we are misrepresenting the love of Jesus to the world. When we finish with our events and programs, yet never truly show concern for the flourishing of our community, at least not beyond ourselves and our circle of friends, we are misrepresenting the love of Jesus to the world. Why did the early church share everything? Because they owed a debt of love to one another. And love means to lay down ourselves for on another. That is community. And this is why those of us who are among the majority must begin to listen to our brothers and sisters among the minority cultures around us. We have much to learn.
-By Tyler Campbell