The call to community. This is more than a just a call to participate in a group. Every small group book I have on my shelf speaks of this experience. In addition, it has become quite popular to talk about how God is community. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit share life in eternal perfect community. Father, Son and Spirit are one and the call of the church is to be in unity just as Jesus prayed in John 17. The vision for community has been put out in the church. It has been announced repeatedly over the last 25 years but while the call to community is great, vision alone will not produce life together.
Call to Community + Call to Community + Call to Community ≠ Life Together
Most of these small group books also refer to the reality that most in Western society don't experience much community. We have lost of sense of family. We no longer think in terms of putting down roots. Friendships are expendable. We have are steeped in a culture of individualism. When we try to connect our individualism with others to form a community, we ask questions like What's in this for me? or How can this benefit my life? or What's this going to cost me? Let me put it this way:
Individualist + Individualist + Individualist ≠ Life Together
Too often our groups try to combine a set of ten individualists and hope that they come up with community. But the result is a gathering of disparate parts. We have groups of individualists who are trying to connect on regular basis, but they are not relating in a way that expresses the life of unity that manifests what Jesus prayed about in John 17. It's almost as if we are trying to join the way of Western individualism with the call to community and hold on to them both. It's like trying to mix oil and water. You can try but as soon as you stop stirring the two will separate. Individualism is based on a certain set of life practices that stands in contradiction to the practices of community. Could we put it this way?
Call To Community + Individualism ≠ Life Together
Some try to combat individualism with some form of communalism. But the problem is that the individual is lost. The body parts become absorbed into the body. Unity gets transformed into uniformity. Personal identity melds into group identity, which usually means that the group takes on the shape of it's leader. But this is not life together.
Call to Community + Uniform Group Life ≠ Life Together
We need a new imagination that moves beyond grouping individualists in a way that is just a sum of its parts. The Russian Orthodox pastor Saraphim Sigrist can help with this. His view of life together was forged in an underground church during Soviet rule. Life together was not an option for him. It was the only way for church life. He writes: "Community life is a journey toward, and an entering into, a space that is immensely greater than the combination of all personal spaces, and into a life that is far more than that of all our separate lives taken together" (A Life Together, 52).
In other words, when we move into life together, our shared life becomes more than a sum of our individual parts. This is a new space where who we are as a group are far more than what we add up to be as group members. When we experience this new space, we realize the reality that my "I" is grounded in our "we". In other words, who I am is shaped by who we are together. I become far more in the midst of this we than I am when I'm trying to hold on to my individualism.
Now let me clarify. This does not mean that we give up our individuality. Instead our individuality is allowed to flourish when we experience life together. Russian theologians have used the word "sobornost" to describe this. This is a word that is hard to translate into English. Its meaning includes the idea of "united" but it goes beyond our typical ways of talking about united. While it involves unity around shared vision and beliefs, it has more to do with actually sharing life that lines up with the vision and beliefs. Sigrist writes that at the heart of Sobornost is "sharing life together without any loss of your true self, we are no longer isolated from each other and no longer isolated from the whole of God's creation" (49-50). It might be something like this:
Call to Community + (Individuality + Individuality + Individuality ...) = Life Together
On my journey with Jesus, I've found that a focus on individualism focuses on myself so that I try to find who I am independent of others. With a focus on some form of communalism we lose our identity in the group or in the personality of a strong leader. Life together is about finding who we are in the midst of community. It's one of the paradoxes of life where I find my life by investing in others.