- “Is ‘going to church’ a necessary part of my life?” Individual Christians answer this question in a variety of ways and, increasingly, as evidenced by falling church attendance, say no.
- “Is church a necessary component of Christianity?” Perhaps individual ‘spirituality’ and a relationship with God is sufficient. Regardless of how individuals might ‘vote with their feet,’ thoughtful people in various Christian churches are wondering about what church has become over time and whether ‘church’ as we traditionally understand it is needed? Does church have to radically change?
I would like to explore the question of whether church is necessary by introducing a different word to describe ‘church’ — Christian ‘community.’ My belief is that, to the extent that any local church is a genuine Christian community, and it is not always easy to discern this, that church is a necessary part of its members’ life. They cannot live a truly Christian life without it. Why do I believe this?
Bernard Cooke in Christian Community: Response to Reality, justifies the necessity for Christian community with these statements: “Men will be human to the degree they are free; to be free they must know and love; to know and love they must be taught and loved — and this is what Christ does in and through his body which is the Church. . . Experience shows that love among men can come into being and develop only if people have the opportunity to deal with one another, share experiences together, develop common concerns — in short to live together in some form of community. God’s action in both Old Testament Israel and Christianity has been one of forming such a community, so that true freedom might be achieved.”
Accepting Cooke’s reasoning, we can begin to see some attributes of a genuine Christian community. Using these attributes, we can begin to prayerfully discern whether and to what extent our local church is a genuine Christian community. My assertion is that, just because a local church is part of some larger religious denomination, that does not guarantee that it is a genuine Christian community. Belonging to a religious denomination may be a prerequisite for forming a Christian community (and not every denomination would say that this is so) but it is the responsbility of the local church members — clergy and lay together — to create, in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, a genuine Christian community.
What are the attributes of a genuine Christian community?
- A genuine Christian community loves all men and women (Inclusive)
- A genuine Christian community teaches all men and women how to know and love, so that they can be truly free. (Nurturing)
- A genuine Christian community designs ways for its members to live together and find opportunities to engage, share experiences and develop common concerns. (Creative)
These attributes are a starting point for a local church to assess whether and to what extent it is a genuine Christian community. Whether Bernard Cooke’s logic, or my analysis of his reasoning is the right context for the discussion is not the issue. The real issue is whether we (members of a local church) reflect about and assess the health of our church community. And then, are we willing to take responsibility for transforming our local church into a genuine Christian community?