Lesson 1: The First Christian Community

A number of my friends are raising questions about Christian community. They are finding our present forms fail to enrich, nourish, or inspire their lives. Many are frustrated after having tried one congregation after another. Our conversations have convinced me that they are not antichurch. They are genuinely seeking to live with integrity in a society whose values are increasingly the exact opposite of the Gospel’s. And for the most part they know this involves participating in a community.

Their frustrations have led them in many directions. Some have made small intentional groups their primary focus, either as a supplement to their weekly worship or as their only support group. Some have joined new independent church bodies that better represent their understanding of the Gospel. Others have tried to bring changes to their congregations. Most of those I know who have tried this last one have found their pastors speak agreement but do nothing.

Obviously, the denominational structure that has characterized the Church since the 16th century has outlived its usefulness. All around us people are asking what the Church of the future will look like. All around us new forms of Church life are popping up, many of them pretty disturbing.

Because the power of the Gospel has always resided in embodied communities rather than a body of doctrines, we do well to seek answers to my friends’ questions. The search has to begin with the picture of the early church presented in Acts 2: 42-47 and 4: 32-37. Scholars have found four marks of Christian community in these passages. The first is paying attention to the apostles’ teaching that would correspond to studying the scriptures in our day. The second is fellowship in which believers genuinely share their lives. The third is breaking bread together that refers not only to the Eucharist, but also to really eating meals together. And the fourth is prayer that expresses remaining in ongoing conversation with the Father and the Christ.

Two of these essentials point to the shortcomings of our present community and to the direction we should take in its future reform. Acts spends a lot of time defining fellowship as holding all things in common. Believers share everything, so there are no poor among them. They clearly were trying to imitate the way of life practiced by Jesus’ small band of disciples. The Church tried to follow in some fashion for a long time. Tertullian, a third century church father not known for his humor, reported that Christians had all things in common except their wives.

The modern Church has great trouble even acknowledging this kind of fellowship, fearing they will be accused of being communists. The closest they come is asking their members to contribute finances so others can perform their ministries for them. As a result, they have to dismiss all of Jesus’ teaching about giving your possessions to the poor as the naive rants of a do-gooder.

The second significant mark for our quest is breaking bread together. It is evident this was eating meals together. Believers shared their food as a sign of their participation in the feast to come. Our present worship practice has reduced this to an institutional ceremony that takes on all the features of magic rather than persons expressing their community with each other as well as the Risen Christ. Any developing community must find ways to make this eating together real again.

I plan to present these lessons a little differently. After spending a few weeks looking further into the changing forms of community the Church has taken in her history, I am going to use Sister Joan Chittister’s book. Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today as background for examining some principles for possible contemporary forms. I plan to do the same in two of my weekly communities, so the lessons will reflect our discussions. You can participate if you want by reading the book, although you’ll find that is not necessary.

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  1. Paul Wildman says:

    I have found that the institutional ceremony you refer to below as a response to the institutionalisation of the Eucharist one church I went to (Unity – from the US) here in Brisbane is so upset at this that it has done away completely with any Eucharist ceremony. I found this a bit over the top – partly for the reasons you mention below.

    Another point for me from what you write is yes the advent of specialised jobs has ‘mechanised and stratified’ the ceremony in mainstream churches as indicated however in addition this is for me the splitting of the Jesus from the Christ and the church taking the latter with a cash register on it and the former re social justice etc being left to reformers and now being taken over in Australia by big business (often under the guise of the church) in hospitals, welfare and old age accommodation.

    The situation basically leaves no repeat NO room for the Christian Community we so much y/l/earn for. Rather the state has swallowed the church completely to the point where now it is has become an arm thereof.

    Ciao paul

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