July/August 2010 - Vol. 41.

Community and the Nature of the Church

by Bob Tedesco

Well, I certainly feel like a lightweight defending a heavyweight title! I am not a church structure expert (ecclesiologist), nor am I an ordained pastor or priest. My professional training has been in engineering, but I do have 35 years of community-building experience which includes my membership in the People of God community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. 

Over the years, I have received a lot of training in support of this work. That experience and training notwithstanding, I believe that every layman has some credible right to comment on the state of things based on his church membership and on the full responsibility of that membership. As study after study shows a decline of the influence of the church in people’s lives and decisions, it is clear that we need more than just a small set of experts to give input into the nature and expressions of church.

I find it at least mildly encouraging that Jesus chose his apostles from among those who were least qualified to be built into the foundation of his church, which is now in its third millennium. In light of scripture, we all need to question; we all need to contribute; we all need to take a concern for the life of the church. Hopefully, this effort will be a useful contribution.

New Testament “Growth Plates”
A “growth plate” is a section or location in a bone from which all future growth and development takes place. If it is removed or seriously damaged when you’re young, it can freeze or inhibit further development of the size (length and thickness) of that bone. In the New Testament there are several scripture verses which are like these growth plates: sources of life for Christian life and its renewal.

One such scriptural growth plate is John 3:16: 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 
In such a short statement, we can learn a number of key things: 1) God loves the world; 2) He sent His Son Jesus; 3) we need to believe in Jesus to have life; 4) life is everlasting (not confined to this earth); and 5) He saves us from perishing, death, and hell. This verse is seen as seminal for Christianity.

Another such growth plate is John 3:3: 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 
These two scriptures could be said to be the wellspring of the evangelical movement. Indeed, they could be said to be the wellspring of Christianity.

The Great Commandments
Another New Testament growth plate is in Matthew 22; it presupposes the two already mentioned.

“But when the Pharisees heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees, they came together.  And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:34-40

Again, there is much to be learned from these verses: 1) the Lord is after your heart; 2) the Lord is after your mind; 3) the Lord is after your soul; 4) He can be loved by us at all three of those levels; 5) the second is “like it”, which could mean that you could love your neighbor with your heart, mind, and/or soul; 6) these are commandments and therefore demand a response; and 7) “on these two depend all the law and the prophets.” (Not to be taken lightly; much of the Old Testament is summarized here).

I have always been struck by number seven above: “ALL the law and the prophets.” I believe Jesus is saying that all of the Old Testament is summed up in these two commandments. At the transfiguration (Matthew 17), we know that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets. Moses and Elijah together represent the Old Testament. Jesus completes this picture as being the full manifestation of the law and the prophets. It is He who gets the Father’s attention. The Father says, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him.” And what does Jesus say?  “Love God...love your neighbor...on these two...depend all...” So Moses represents the law, Elijah the prophets, and Jesus the commandments of love.

Finally, these two are summaries of the two tables of the Ten Commandments. The first table (Commandments 1-3 in the Catholic tradition) has to do with how we love God; the second table (Commandments 7-10) has to do with how we love our brothers and sisters.

Relational at its Core
Christianity, at its core, is relational: love of God and love of neighbor. These two bring light and standards to all of the Old Testament, all of the New Testament, the Christian life, and the Christian churches. Virtually every direction and teaching of the New Testament is a reflection of our love of God and love of neighbor.

Christianity is doctrinal, institutional, ceremonial, etc., but at its core it is relational: the Lord and his bride.

The second...
Jesus said, “the second commandment is like the first” so church can’t be just worship, it can’t be just ceremony, and it can’t be just vertical (the first commandment). It must also be horizontal (the second  commandment).  As modern church life becomes increasingly de-personalized or more of a “me and Jesus” experience, a progressive draining of the church’s life and heart is happening. So a community that worships God is the nature of church. Not just a worshiping community, but a community that is relational by intention: a community that worships God together. One pastor declared that much of modern church experience is fellowshipping with the back of the head of the “brother” in the pew ahead of you!
“What ever happened to Agnes?”
Many years ago, I read an article by a Catholic bishop, “Whatever happened to Agnes?” He wrote about a personal experience that rattled him a bit. He was fully aware of his church’s new emphasis on community, and he assumed that the closest thing to that was the collection of folks who attended daily morning liturgy together: a small group who saw each other each morning at Mass. One day he noticed that one of the women was missing, and had been for several days. After a few more days, he began to ask the others. Some didn’t know her name. He eventually found out that she had become ill, was hospitalized and was now recuperating. He summarized his experience by questioning our understanding, our reality of community. He was clearly disappointed. He recognized that something was wrong; something was missing. He did not offer a solution. I would say that his worshipping community was not a community; it was a set of people who worshipped together but lived separate lives and separate ways of life. Any one of them might move to the other side of the state (perhaps unnoticed) and slip into a similar group (perhaps unnoticed).

Who gets to move Heather?
Another story that gets at the relational side of Christian community is that of Heather. The People of God is an ecumenical community and we have members from several denominations. Heather was a member of one of the area’s “mega-churches.” For a number of personal reasons (courtship, etc.) she decided to move out of one of the community “clusters” (neighborhoods) to another part of town, closer to her church, and to leave our community. When she moved, on her last day in the People of God, it was community brothers and sisters who carried the furniture, and helped to clean and prepare the old and new apartments.

This is not meant to be a criticism or observation about a particular local church as much as it is meant to be a call to the broader Christian church: we don’t know how to love each other within the church. We leave to families the needs which are increasingly unmet at the family level. Churches usually are not organized into small groupings that promote relationships; and in some churches that do have small group structures, they tend to be “study” groups rather than “life” groups where we care for each other, grow in social relationships, and seek a common way of life together.

How did we get here?
How did we get from the early church model of Christianity to where we are today in the third millennium of Christianity? For both individuals and groups, the ongoing need for renewal, restoration, and reform could be a never-ending list of things that could and should work better. It’s easy to criticize; it’s easy for me to see where you could improve and for you to see where I could improve. For much of Christianity though, it is a “code blue”1 situation. There are too many indicators of the declining influence of religion and the rising influence of secularism.

We see in this “snapshot” of the early church from Acts 2:42-47, that real community was put in place after Pentecost. They “spent time” together (v. 42) learning, praying, having fellowship, and having meals together. They spent time together “in their homes” (v. 46). They had committed fellowship (v. 44) and cared for one another’s physical needs (v. 45).  “Day by day” (v. 46) they met as a group. It wasn’t just a Sunday worship community; their pattern was a life together, a life of community.

So, how did we get to where we are today, where so many Christians are looking for a minimal answer to the nature of the church? I believe the answers to that are very, very complex and have components at every level of humanity: spiritual, psychological, sociological, economic, etc. I’d like to propose a few for us to consider.

A few centuries ago, there was a certain natural community in place; many lived in villages, and towns were small. Making a living necessitated certain relational realities. People needed each other and looked out for each other. Families worked together in the family business or trade. Many villages and towns had a marketplace where people met and the church was central to community. When the Industrial Revolution took place, it set off a migration by which more and more people left rural regions to come into the bigger towns and cities. This was one beginning of a pattern that was destructive to natural community at the local level and at the family level. It was less and less the case that families worked together, or that fathers worked with their sons. Today it is common for a father to go to his job, a mother to go to her job, and the children to go off to school. These were all done together or in close proximity in earlier times.

With the growth of large cities, and the divisions and isolation of family members, we are less relational or less tied to one another. Today, it is often considered a virtue if you need no one. In past times it was a given that you needed others; life was corporate.

There are many other factors that contribute at many different levels: the isolating effects of TV, video games and modern entertainment, etc. Suffice it to say that we are very, very isolated and very, very different from the New Testament church. (Another snapshot is seen in Acts 4:32-35.)

What to do?
Again there are many and varied answers to this question. I suppose you could just say, “Try something! Try anything! And do it quickly!” We in the Sword of the Spirit are not the first to notice the serious spiritual and natural differences between New Testament and modern expressions of Christianity. Dehumanizing modern life patterns have been noticed by Christians and non-Christians alike. You have to love and appreciate those who are at least trying to make a change.

For Christian renewal and reform, we should first understand that Christianity is relational. It is not emphasizing independent isolation, but inter-dependent relationships. I would say churches and large Christian groups should reorganize into small groups, after identifying and training a small set of leaders who are truly converted and dedicated to Christ. Again, the small groups are “life groups” not just study groups: life is shared; some accountability is in place; a contribution to the mission is made.

Additionally, I would say, “Get help.” Wading into these waters unprepared will cause unnecessary casualties. Remember this: different people have different capacities for failure. One strikeout can cause some young boys to never pick up a bat again. Others will not leave the plate until they hit the ball. Wise approaches on the part of leadership can reduce the number of casualties as we grow into a Christian family.

The rest of this book will present some elements of Christian community in an attempt to make some contributions to our understanding of the nature of church and our experience of the models of church. These elements and approaches have been developed in our life together and are, hopefully, part of the solution. But first, let’s begin to close this chapter remembering these verses...

  •  John 3:16 tells us that God loves the world and sent his son Jesus.
  • John 3:3 tells us that we can see the kingdom of God if we are born again.
  • Matthew 22:37-40 tells us the laws of love.
So, it is a fact that God loves us and has sent his son to redeem us. Our initial response is to be born again. The Christian life, our lived-out response, is to love God and neighbor with all that we have...and that is the quintessential nature of church.

[This article is excerpted from  Essyas on Christian Community, copyright  © Bob Tedesco 2010, published by Tabor House. Used with permission.]

Bob Tedesco is past President of the North American Region of the Sword of the Spirit, a founder of the People of God community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, and has been one of its key leaders for the past 36 years. 
Essays on Christian Community: Do covenant communities have something to contribute to our models of church? written by Bob Tedesco, and published by Tabor House, Lansing, Michigan, 2010, 
157 pages.

Excerpts from the Introduction 

Words of the Lord to the Broader Church
 In the past one hundred years, the Lord has spoken at least three major “words” to the church. These three words have been modeled and developed in movements that have involved millions of Christians, many of them new converts. The three words that I would highlight are:

  1. Evangelical: the call to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and a personal commitment to him.
  2. Pentecostal: the call to be baptized in the Holy Spirit and to accept the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Community: the call to committed relationships in a discipling environment that builds the Kingdom of God.
This latest word to the church, “community,” has produced hundreds, perhaps thousands of communities, many of them in networks together.

All three of these words challenge the nature of the church and call it to new realities and new expressions that could further equip it to be effective in the modern world.

Sword of the Spirit
 My own network, The Sword of the Spirit (SOS), is a “community of communities” that has regions all around the world: North America, Europe, Asia, South Pacific, and Ibero-Americana (Latin America, Mexico, Portugal and Spain.).

 The Sword of the Spirit has grown out of several renewal movements that preceded it. As of this writing, we have 67 communities located in 23 countries that are in various stages of commitment, and many others exploring a relationship. We have several community initiatives in formerly communist countries and the Middle East. We are ecumenical in nature and our members are from many different denominations. This ecumenical heart is one of the key works of the Lord in our midst, and it is also one of the richest fruits of our life together.

 Each community has its own name and is autonomous. It is represented on the regional council by its senior coordinator. The benefits of regional and international participation are numerous, but a few should be mentioned here.

First, we seek and develop together a common way of life. We benefit from elements developed in other regions and communities. 

Second, building community in a healthy way often exceeds the resources present locally, especially in smaller groups. We can get help at the regional level when we need it. 

Third, each community benefits from a “visitation” every five years. A team of experienced community leaders is assembled and they visit a local community for a 3-4 day stay. They provide the local members and leadership with an outside, objective view of how things are going. They give a report that recommends areas that could be improved with suggestions for implementation. Fourth, and finally, we benefit greatly from the regional youth program where youth from all of the communities have conferences, mission trips, and summer internships together.

 With all of this said, we see ourselves as a small part of what the Lord is doing today.

 The Sword of the Spirit is an ecumenical network of communities. My background is Roman Catholic and much of my thinking and resources are informed from that perspective. I have tried to use sources from across the Christian traditions to serve a broader spectrum of readers. Sources are mainly scriptural, both Catholic and Protestant, but fall woefully short from the Orthodox perspective. Appendices at the back of this book offer additional resources: definitions, other tools, and examples.
 Some of our local communities are all from a single church, but are supportive of the international ecumenical vision. My local community, the People of God in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is ecumenical by intention: we have a mixture of Catholic, Protestant and Free Church members.1

 My intentions for writing this book are: 1) to present some key lessons learned over 35 years of local community and Sword of the Spirit leadership; 2) to share scriptural references and insights about community; and 3) to identify some additional resources that others could personally research in support of the topic.2 This book is not intended to be an official document, but a reflection on my own experiences and lessons learned. Most chapters are “stand alone” and can be read and used in discussion groups.



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