Community: Formed by Grace and Effort

(Formational Practices: Community Sermon)

The Problem with "Community"

If you asked 10 strangers to define community, it's likely you'd get 10 different responses. Are we talking about friendship? Or perhaps a physical neighborhood? Is it how we describe the people we see on a regular basis? Or is it reserved for the people that we share our most sacred stories? But our ubiquitous use of the word isn't nearly as problematic as our posture towards the concept.

As our world has grown increasingly individualistic, our relationship with community has shifted with it. When "self" becomes the highest priority, our motivation to invest in others will inevitably start to wane. When you remember that meaningful community also takes effort and usually gets messy, it's no surprise that we default to investing in ourselves more than others. Community has become a "take-it-or-leave-it" commodity that we'll invest in as long as it fits into the life we're already building.

But what if we are designed for more? What if community is designed to positively form us?

"Our exchanges with one another desperately need to change — because we all are exhausted with the ache of loneliness."

Ann Voskamp

The Gift of Motivation

In a previous article on Generous Friendship, we explored how the concept of community is embedded into our design. We're designed to thrive in community that's tangibly committed to the good of one another because we're made in the image of the communal God that's invested in its shared, communal work. But simply recognizing our design doesn't fix our motivation problem. Thankfully, for Christians, the motivation to invest in community isn't self-formed or self-found, it's gifted to us.

Grace as Gift

In Ephesians 2, Paul paints a jarringly hopeful picture. In our natural state, we're "dead" in sin. We're separated from God and we're at odds with one another. But God's love is so grand that he didn't leave us in that separation. Through his generous grace, God has brought us to life: moving us from enemy to friend, outsider to insider. Paul describes this generous, redeeming grace as gift. It's not something we earn, it's not something we find within ourselves, it's the kindness of God freely given to us through faith in Jesus Christ. And it doesn't run out.

Grace as Motivator

Grace changes us. It forms us. Even more, grace motivates us. In a different letter (Philippians 2), Paul is reminding a young church to give away what they've so generously received from Jesus. Notice how the one naturally leads to the other: Jesus has invested in you with his grace, therefore, invest in one another with a like degree of love. Grace is a gift for you, that does not end with you — it's the gift of motivation to work with our design and invest in community.

TRY IT ON: If you're struggling with the motivation to invest in community, meditate on your divine design and the gift of grace you've generously received from Jesus

"Good communities and life-giving congregations emerge at the intersection of divine grace and steady human effort."

Christine Pohl

The Need for Tension

Throughout much of our physical world, stress and tension lead to growth. Tree roots grow deeper when the tree is under stress, muscles multiply under sustained tension. But when it comes to community, we often associate tension with inhibiting growth. This explains the growing trend of sorting ourselves into communities that only affirm what we affirm. What if the solution was to navigate tension in life-giving ways, rather than avoid investing in communities that'll get messy?

The 1st century church was a new community — and it had all the expected growing pains! This is why the New Testament spends so much time talking about how to live alongside one another with grace and truth. One example is Colossians 3, where Paul is urging a young church community to embody the same grace and truth they've received from Jesus in two formational ways:

  • Embody courageous love: Putting on kindness, patience, humility, and forgiveness are not simply good things, they are the embodiment of courageous love. A community marked by these grace-motivated practices is positively formed to look more like Jesus, the grace-giver.
  • Choose thankfulness: On the surface, it seems a little odd to have thankfulness thrown into this list of grace-motivated practices. But Paul understood that thankfulness counters the corrosive nature of criticism in community (that we more often think than say).

Notice that courageous love and thankfulness have a "moving towards" orientation. This is perhaps the most succinct way to describe a grace-motivated, grace-formed community: always seeking ways to move towards one another with the grace you've generously received. Grace working through you, within your community, is formational. It reminds you of your design, it assures you of what's good and true, and it's compelling!

TRY IT ON: Where do you avoid community because of tension? How can you tangibly practice thankfulness and embody courageous love in ways that move you towards community?

"The character of our shared life — as congregations, communities, and families — has the power to draw people to the kingdom or push them away. How we live together is the most persuasive sermon we’ll ever get to preach…When folks enjoy being together, share celebrations, and walk through hard times with grace and love, the beauty of their shared life is deeply compelling.”

Christine Pohl


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