Thursday, October 15, 2015

Speaking of Community: Dever's New Book on Gospel-Shaped Community

I just happened to see that Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and one of his co-pastors Jamie Dunlop have a new book called The Compelling CommunityThey shared a chapter excerpt from their book on World Magazine's website, and I hope you find it useful. I included a shorter section of it below. It makes some other good points about why the Gospel should make a Christian community different from any other type of gathering or community.

(And Tim Challies has a review of the book if you're curious.)
In gospel-revealing community, many relationships would never exist but for the truth and power of the gospel—either because of the depth of care for each other or because two people in relationship have little in common but Christ. 
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be with people of similar life experience. It’s entirely natural and can be spiritually beneficial. But if this is the sum total of what we call “church community,” I’m afraid we’ve built something that would exist even if God didn’t.

My goal in writing this book is not for us to feel guilty whenever we enjoy a friendship that would probably exist even if the gospel wasn’t true. My goal is not to encourage churches to aim at some entirely unrealistic model of relationship where we never share anything in common but Christ. Rather, my goal is twofold:
  1. To recognize that building community purely through natural bonds has a cost as well as a benefit. Often, we look at tools like the single moms small group and see only positive. But there is a cost as well: if groups like this come to characterize community in our churches, then our community ceases to be remarkable to the world around us.
  2. To adjust our aspiration. Many relationships that naturally form in our churches would exist even if the gospel weren’t true. That’s good, right, and helpful. But in addition, we should aspire for many relationships that exist only because of the gospel. So often, we aim at nothing more than community built on similarity; I want us to aim at community characterized by relationships that are obviously supernatural. And by supernatural I don’t imply the mystical, vaguely spiritual sense in which pop culture uses the term. I mean the very biblical idea of a sovereign God working in space and time to do what confounds the natural laws of our world.

Two Types of Community

In this book, I’ll contrast two types of community that exist in gospel-preaching, evangelical churches. Let’s call one “gospel-plus” community. In gospel-plus community, nearly every relationship is founded on the gospel plus something else. Sam and Joe are both Christians, but the real reason they’re friends is that they’re both singles in their 40s, or share a passion to combat illiteracy, or work as doctors. In gospel-plus community, church leaders enthusiastically use similarity to build community. But as a whole, this community says little about the power of the gospel.

Contrast this with “gospel-revealing” community. In gospel-revealing community, many relationships would never exist but for the truth and power of the gospel—either because of the depth of care for each other or because two people in relationship have little in common but Christ. While affinity-based relationships also thrive in this church, they’re not the focus. Instead, church leaders focus on helping people out of their comfort zones to cultivate relationships that would not be possible apart from the supernatural. And so this community reveals the power of the gospel.
You can’t physically see the gospel; it’s simply truth. But when we encourage community that is obviously supernatural, it makes the gospel visible. Think of a kid rubbing a balloon against his shirt to charge it with static electricity. When he holds it over someone’s head with thin, wispy hair, what happens? The hair reaches for the balloon. You can’t see the static electricity. But its effect—the unnatural reaction of the hair—is unmistakable. The same goes for gospel-revealing community.

Here's why Dever and his co-author Jamie Dunlop  believe this is crucial:
"It does matter. When Christians unite around something other than the gospel, they create community that would likely exist even if God didn’t. As a modern-day tower of Babel, that community glorifies their strength instead of God’s. And the very earnest things they do to create this type of community actually undermine God’s purposes for it. Gospel-plus community may result in the inclusive relationships we’re looking for. But it says little about the truth and power of the gospel." 

The chapter excerpt on World Magazine's site goes much further and provides a lot to reflect upon. Just one example is the point that the Gospel compels us to be united and live in harmony regardless of how vast our differences in personality, tradition, taste, style, social circles, hobbies, or priorities. Gospel-revealing community shows that what unites us is Christ, not some common human interests or social circles. Which means that as long as we have Christ in common, we should be holding to unity even if we differ on a lot of other things.

The implications of that are powerful: it means that whether we stay together and whether we care about each other should not depend on whether we're getting along at the moment or whether we enjoy spending time together. We come together because Christ purchased our souls from the condemnation of sin, and therefore we minister to one another out of love for Christ - not because we started by liking each other so much. When we practice that, the extraordinary result is that we often develop very deep love and affection with people who are so different from us that we would never try to get to know them in other social circles. That's the transformative power of the Gospel to produce love. That's what our churches are supposed to demonstrate. Let's welcome it.

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