by Rick Edwards
Longtime Christians are leaving the church and not planning to return. Sociologist Josh Packard dubbed such people the “Dones.” As Packard reports in the book Church Refugees and in his follow-up report, Exodus of the Religious Dones, roughly 30.5 million Americans once regularly attended church, but now do not—yet they still retain their faith in God and their Christian identity.
Packard found that the thing Dones missed most was the sense of community. To satisfy that need, some Dones meet in homes with other Dones for fellowship or shared meals or Bible studies. Others are engaged with local community groups with no religious affiliation or interfaith groups that serve others. Some Dones are involved with their children’s sports teams or personal hobby and interest groups.
Still other Dones report that they have not found a place to belong, even though they want to. They miss the church worship and rituals, but even more grieve the lost connection with God that came through their church communities. “What seems to matter most is not the specifics of the ritual, but doing it together, with people who are known and trusted…engaging in collective ritual is a fundamental part of the creation of society” (Church Refugees, p. 35).
This search for community is a critical issue today, and not only for people who have left the established church. Younger generations of Christians, as well as new Christians and people who are investigating Christianity, all place great importance on the presence and nature of community. So what are the marks of genuine Christian community?
“Doing Life Together” has been one popular way of describing the essence of community. Nothing creates a sense of belonging better than spending time with others in formal and informal settings. Deep community occurs when people practice hospitality, share meals, time, resources, childcare, even work and living space in some instances.
However, similar interests and common goals aren’t enough to qualify as Christian community. We have long known that belonging and a sense of “family” can be experienced just as much in outlaw gangs and organized crime syndicates as in a home Bible study group. Without some central focus, community and belonging become their own ends, demanding our loyalty. In short, the group becomes an idol.
“Doing Life Together…with Jesus” provides the missing focus that shapes the character of group members. The community rituals and practices are centered on Jesus rather than the abstract idea of community or any specific group leader. People feel connected to each other and to God, because belonging is the by-product of the process of becoming—in this case, becoming more like Jesus.
As attractive as this appears, a community centered on Jesus can easily become inwardly focused. Christians have a long history of being too concerned with our own piety, which leads us to put up walls and boundaries that isolate us from human needs.
“Doing Life Together…with Jesus…for the Sake of Others” is a good description of community that is Jesus-centered and outward-focused. This kind of community provides belonging and becoming, plus a common mission, such as outreach, evangelism, and social action.
Instead of sending individuals out to evangelize and serve, the community itself becomes the message as it lives out its identity in Jesus. People who respond to that message are welcomed into the community, where they learn the language, practices, and identity of being Christian. (This path into Christian community is what a Lifetree Café offers: a low barrier for entry, a safe place to explore one’s faith, and opportunities to know and serve others.)
How are you experiencing these aspects of Christian community? Is this description too narrow? Or have I neglected other elements or practices you think are essential to Christian community? What does the Refresh the Church community have to say about community?
“And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests…You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:5, 9)