Counterfeit Community





Are your small-group-coffee-shop-potluck gimmicks not resulting in authentic relationships? Here's why.
Cries for Christian unity have defined much of the public expression of the church in the last two decades. Calls, conferences and commitments to racial reconciliation have played a significant role in the current yearning for unity. Yet, genuine unity eludes us.

George Barna, in his book Virtual America, revealed some disturbing statistics: Fifty-five percent of non-Christian Americans believe it is becoming more difficult to make lasting friendships. Sixty-two percent of born-again Christians and 73 percent of evangelicals say the same. It would appear that the stronger the alleged commitment to scriptural authority, the more severe the problem of our relationships.

Church leaders are not exempt from this phenomenon. On my daily radio broadcast, Viewpoint, I interviewed H.B. London Jr., vice president of pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family, on the topic of “Pastors at Risk.” He disclosed that at least 70 percent of pastors in America claim they have no friends.

This fracture of community is also revealed in the widening chasm that divides our families. According to a study conducted by Hartford Seminary in 1995, the divorce rate among pastors (the second highest of all professions) equaled that of their congregations. A 1999 Rutgers University study revealed that divorce in the Bible Belt exceeded the nation at large by 50 percent.

In a recent discussion on Viewpoint, Exit Interviews author William D. Hendricks revealed that 53,000 people per week who remain committed to Christ are leaving through the “back door” of America's churches. Many of those Hendricks interviewed cited a lack of fellowship and community in the church as a key reason for their departure.

Organizational “unity” programs multiply, rhetorical unity abounds, but genuine relational substance is scarce. Why? Could it be that in our increasing pursuit of unity we have missed the community out of which unity is born?

CROWDED LONELINESS

It is said the best way to identify counterfeit currency is to study the real thing. This is true also of such prized commodities as unity and community. However, we have a tendency to stamp “unity” or “community” on relational coinage that lacks the spiritual or relational “metal” of true unity and community. Genuine unity is forged in community. It cannot be carved out of the cold rock of American hyper-individualism. Rather, it is hammered out in the intense heat of relationships being welded together “in Christ.”

Truth coupled with the warm wind of relationship in the Spirit is essential to Christian community that produces the fruit of biblical unity. That relationship is not just with the Father but revealed in our communion-common union-with one another. Just as truth and relationship are indispensable to our union in Christ, they are indispensable in common union with one another.

Without the fullness of both truth and relationship born of the Spirit, our faith becomes either a cold set of creeds or an orgy of conjured feelings. Compromised truth in pursuit of unity yields nothing but a cheap counterfeit-sentimentality. Similarly, conjured feelings of unity without genuine common union in real relationships mocks the costly currency of true unity expressed in community.

So, how did we come to so readily accept such tinny counterfeits? Is there an essential “metal” that has eluded us in producing the coinage of genuine community that gives rise to the glorious unity we so desire? There is, and it is called hospitality.

And there was a time when observers of the early church would remark, “Behold how they love one another.” They broke bread together “from house to house with gladness and singleness of heart,” and the church exploded (see Acts 2:41-47). Hospitality was the earthly expression of the eternal hope of believers.

Something dramatic has happened since those times, causing Christianity Today (May 22, 2000) to ask the headline question, “Whatever Happened to Hospitality?” There is a pervasive sense throughout our land that hospitality is becoming discouragingly scarce as an art and as an expression of the heart.

Even in the church, many people experience “crowded loneliness”-surrounded by people but lost in the crowd, and there is a growing absence of heart connectedness, a deep feeling that no one knows my name or even cares.

The collective effect is the collapse of community, a conclusion validated by both secular and spiritual observers. Even our church buildings are increasingly designed like shopping centers, breeding grounds for artificial relationships. We belong to the club of strangers yearning desperately for fellowship.

Often even our small-group efforts become more methodologies for organizational growth than for genuine biblical and kingdom relationships. Artificiality is becoming normative. And we are becoming virtually strangers ... in the crowd, yet lonely.

A DIVINE ANTIDOTE

Crowded loneliness is frightening. God well understood the implications of lack of relationship rooted in genuine community. He warned Israel from the moment of her deliverance from the bondage of Egypt to reach to the stranger.

Hospitality is at the heart of the gospel: God was not willing that we, who were estranged from Him by sin, should remain strangers. The Father sent forth His Son to extend an invitation to His home, welcoming those who would receive His invitation into a holy community called the church. His desire was that we be one in community with Him even as Christ was, that the world would be convinced of Christ and His mission.

Hospitality is to reach to strangers. In a very real and growing sense, we are all strangers here. We must grasp the God-breathed need for Christ-infused hospitality to reach the virtual strangers around us, beginning with those virtual strangers right in our midst in the household of faith.

Hospitality is not an artificial marketing tool but the Master's authentic method for birthing and maintaining relational community. It's so important, that the apostle Paul stated that anyone in a position of leadership in the church must first be “given to” hospitality and be a “lover” of hospitality. In describing the functional essence of Christian relationships, Paul made clear that all who follow Christ must be “given to” hospitality (see 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8).

Contrary to popular thinking and teaching, hospitality is not a gift I have, but a gift I must give. It is the practical handle God has given to implement agape love. It is the attitude of the heart that when expressed collectively among members of the body produces the authentic relational womb that births a community in which a people linked in truth are described as being in “unity.”

Unity is not the goal but rather the fruit that issues from the root. When either truth or community relationship fostered by hospitality are missing in whole or in part from our ministries, we seek gospel gimmicks to replace them. The result is not true unity but a counterfeit, requiring constant catering to fleshly interests demanding a conformity to compromise rather than to Christ.

As we see the day of our Lord's return rapidly approaching, the Holy Spirit is bringing rebirth to the holy heart of hospitality that graced the life of the early church, causing outsiders to desire becoming insiders as they observed the unity of truth displayed in holy community. I believe that a key to this is a recognition of the Hebraic roots of the church.

The church was born in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, a Jewish feast celebrated 50 days after the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of First Fruits. Pentecost was followed by the Feast of Trumpets and the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrated to display God's covenantal community before the nations. The “feasts of the Lord” were open to all who embraced the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel,” whether Jew or Gentile.

Into such a spiritual environment Yeshua (Christ) was presented as the “Word made flesh,” “tabernacled among us” (see John 1:14), welcoming all who would receive Him to His Father's eternal home. It was in this same Hebraic environment that the church was born.

As the church spread, invading Gentile realms, Gentile thinking and ways invaded the church. Predominant were Greek thinking and Roman organization. For the Greek, the mind mattered most, and relationship was of remote relevancy. Hellenistic influence rapidly replaced the Hebraic heart. God's truth became not a faith to be practiced but facts to be pondered.

For Gentile Christians, it became more “kosher” to think like a Greek than like a Jew. This eroded Hebraic practice. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, so did the Roman Empire spread its ways and practices among Christians. Roman structures and organizational ways replaced Hebraic synagogues and relational patterns of worship.

With radical changes of thought and practice among Christians came radical rejection of Hebraic practices and persecution of the Jews, severing our Hebraic roots while laying the foundation for 17 centuries of abandonment of the very heart and soul of first-century Christianity.

The Spirit of God is grieved. He is bringing course correction. It is part of the Holy Spirit's “preparing the way” for our Lord's return. Our future success will depend significantly on the degree to which we restore the Hebraic roots that open our hearts hospitably to others.

THE PASTORAL CONNECTION

Nowhere is the substitution of the Greek mind for the Hebraic heart more prevalent in practice than among pastors. The great gap between what we say we believe and how we really live opens our flocks and us to self-deception. In few places is this gap more apparent than in the practice of hospitality.

While statistics do not always tell the whole truth, the fact that 70 percent of pastors admit they have no friends reveals a significant disconnect between our sincere desire to practice agape love and our failure to practice hospitality.

When hospitality begins to invade and issue from a pastor's heart, new hope and healing flows from his ministry. His home becomes a revitalized haven for his family, the faithful and those who would enter the family of God. The spirit of true community comes alive. Genuine unity emerges naturally from the vibrancy of community.

If we truly want unity, we must restore community. Genuine community will flower with a fresh pursuit of truth and a rebirth of hospitality. To preach hospitality, I must practice hospitality (see “Leading by Example,” page 57). And if I would practice hospitality, I will soon preach hospitality. Hospitality must again become an essential of Christian discipleship.

If we would be touched with hospitality, we must teach hospitality. Hospitality gives us a “handle” on agape love. It requires not only teaching but also training, enveloping every aspect of our Christian walk. Once one gains a vision for the power of hospitality, forgiveness, reconciliation, fellowship and reaching the lost, virtually every other aspect of ministry and relationship take on new significance and meaning, including unity.

The heart of our faith is revealed in a heart of hospitality. Let's get serious about discipling the saints in this essential expression of God's grace to us. And may the power of hospitality give rebirth to genuine Christian community, causing a skeptical world to again declare, “Behold how they love one another,” thus extending a welcoming hand to those in a fractured and hyper-individualistic society who will embrace “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”


Charles Crismier, founder of Save America Ministries, is host of Viewpoint, a national radio broadcast “confronting the issues of America's heart and home.” This article is partially taken from a new release, The Power of Hospitality (Elijah Books) by Charles and Kathie Crismier.

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