Connected Living: Levels of Community
The Triune God, of course, lives together in perfect unity, transparency and intimacy. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father. They are one (John 17:20-25). Their community is unbounded; it is infinite.
Living life as a human, however, Jesus learned to live in community in bounded ways; he lived as a finite human being. He could not be intimate with everyone; he could not share his day-to-day life with everyone; and he could not even speak to everyone. Rather, he lived out his humanity as we live out ours—he connected with others at different levels of community.
We may call these “circles of fellowship” or “levels of community.” Whatever we call them the Gospel narratives indicate that Jesus experienced communal life in various ways and at different times. His experience is a model for reflecting on our own experience as we seek to become fully and authentically human ourselves.
Solitude. Jesus took time to be alone with God—the Father and Spirit. This was foundational for everything else in his life. This time confirmed his identity and focused his mission. In this time we face our true selves and learn to love ourselves because we are loved by God.
Intimacy. Jesus shared life and feelings with Peter, James and John. They were his intimates with whom he could share experiences, burdens and fears that perhaps he could not share with others. We need people who know our secrets, to whom we confess our sins, and who will hold us accountable. We need people who know our stories, our true selves and before whom we are emotionally and spiritually “naked and unashamed.” Many have “covenant groups” but sometimes they are too large. Intimacy happens with three or four people, perhaps six, but rarely much larger than that.
Relationship. Jesus traveled with the twelve and a few female supporters. He ate with them, prayed with them, recreated with them, and served with them. They were his “small group” – a group of people which numbers between 10 and 20. These groups are not intimacy groups, but they are relationships which supply mutual support, social interaction, and even fun. These are the people who surround us with their love in times of tragedy and join us in celebration in times of joy. They share life with us. These are the people with whom we eat the “last suppers” or the “Passovers” of our life.
Community. Jesus also spent time with larger groups of disciples than the twelve. He gathered seventy disciples to send out two by two in Luke 10. In the setting of most of our congregations, these are the Bible classes we attend or the ministries in which we serve. They are twenty to a hundred people whose names we know and with whom we share a common interest or task. This level of community is generally task-oriented with less focus on inter-personal interaction.
Assembly. Jesus also went to the Temple to worship with the people of God, with the crowds and multitudes. He attended the festivals and synagogue assemblies. He stood in the congregation and praised the Father. Assemblies, of course, range in size from small communities (30-100 people) to crowds of people (thousands). But the focus of community here is not interpersonal interaction as much as the presence of God within the community. Here, together, we encounter God as one people; here we join the heavenly assembly of saints and angels to praise Father, Son and Spirit. And we are thereby encouraged and empowered as a community to embrace and pursue the mission of God in the world.
Living Community in Levels
At different times in our lives we emphasize different levels. Someone who has been hurt or abused by intimacy may only desire anonymity in the assembly for a period of time. Someone who has experienced loneliness in assembly may want to focus on developing intimacy with others. Someone who has for years focused on community tasks may discover a need to focus on solitude for a period of time.
There is no single way to slice this pie. Everyone is different and at different times has different needs. That is fine and leaders should have the patience to let people be where they are instead of forcing them into particular molds or church programs.
At the same time while community can happen naturally at all these levels, leaders may encourage believers to seek out community at every level in appropriate ways at appropriate times. Healthy congregations provide opportunities for the experience of community at every one of these levels. Leaders strategize how to best promote these experiences for their flock.
We cannot expect one form of community to supply the need for which another level is designed. We cannot expect a Bible class (community) to provide the intimacy that a group of three or four friends can. If we do expect it, then we will be sorely disappointed. Neither can an assembly be a “small group” where we know everyone. However, we can seek out each level of community so that our lives find balance, nurture and fulfillment just as Jesus found in his human relationships.
Questions for Discussion:
- Identify what you find most valuable and helpful about each level of community?
- What do you think makes each level of community different from the other? Why is it important to recognize those differences?
- On what level of community do you need to focus more of your attention at this moment in your life?
- How can the church guide people to or help them discover these different levels of community as part of body life?