Community is such a funny word. Not in its actual composition. It’s about as funny, in that way, as ledger or aspirin. It’s funny because it gets a heaping helping of baggage almost anytime it’s uttered. “I belong to a community of like-minded individuals whose sole purpose is…” And whatever you fill into that ellipses gets dicey, quick. Some of you even started cringing a little with the lead-up. Community. A group of folks gathered around an idea or a connection of one kind or another.
Community is an idea, though, that we didn’t invent. Like love, actually. Like marriage. We didn’t invent marriage or love or community. We didn’t invent them so we have to figure out where they came from and be informed, rather than grabbing a quiver full of ideas ready to lay waste to the world.
God created community. He defined it. He set its edges and borders and lines and themes and rhythms and patterns. But we, his current and former enemies, have put in solid work to redefine, reshape, revamp the whole thing. We don’t like what he built, as is the case so often (love and marriage). We want to make our own version.
The very core of the word, community, is the word common; what people might have in common. The church was established as a community. Your family, in a sense, is a community. You all share relatives. But God created the commonality. He created what’s good about community. He didn’t try lots of things and then eventually settle on an idea that worked pretty well for everybody.
Instead, He said in essence, “This is who I AM, be like this.”
And in families, the closest community we can conceive of, we fuck it up. Excuse me if that offends you, but it’s absolutely the harshest way I could think to put that and I’m done messing about with sensibilities. We do. We look at what God designed and we sin our way into its destruction. Through infidelity, through hatred, through violence, we undo and break what God created to be good. (If you’re still reading at this point, I trust it’s because you really want to hear what I have to say.)
And then in the church, we do more or less the exact same thing except it’s just much colder and suffers a much nicer kind of evil. In the church we establish shallowness and hobby connections and refuse to embody the truth of the gospel to one another. Because that’s uncomfortable.
Now, before I go further into this topic, I need to define the other side of my title: prophecy.
X, Y, and Z
When I was growing up in the Pentecostal/Charismatic church in the 80s and 90s, I saw the word prophecy attached to just about everything. No, really: every other gift mentioned by Paul really meant prophecy. Why? Because it was kooky, spooky, and neat to a world that was dry and parched and aching for some real and supernatural move of the Holy Spirit. So when I say, The Prophetic Community, there are people out there expecting silken purple banners, speaking in tongues, and gypsy-esque cold reads.
Prophecy is real. God sometimes grants His people glimpses into the future. That didn’t stop in the first century. And it has been abused. And it will continue to be. But that’s not the frame of reference I’m using here.
No, right here I am using a broader, healthier, and more robust use of the term prophetic than just having a supernatural foresight. Prophecy, throughout the Old and New Testaments of the bible, has a core to it that is so much bigger than the future. It is a klaxon that roars out over the din and says something. It says, “X is the way it was/is, Y is the way it should be, and Z will be the result of failing to repent.” This is a prophetic call from every major and minor prophet in the bible. It stands up and does so much more than just talk about the future. It talks about the God of the past, the God of the now, and the God of the future. It talks about our relationship to that God. All of God’s people are prophetic in nature. Just their very being says to the world, “I once was X, then I became Y, and I will be Z.” It encapsulates a whole person’s life.
We tend to think of community as a part of the church. This is wrong.
If I asked every person that goes to every church in Nashville, “What does community mean to your church?” I could get hundreds, possibly thousands of different versions. It would go from the absolutely shallow, “Community is the group at my church that most closely aligns to my age and interests (and if they were being brutally honest, race).” It could go confusingly deep, too, “Community is who we are.”
If you have been keeping up with me through this blog, you probably already know which side I err on. The church is God’s community. He established it, He builds it, He keeps it, He will see it through. But. He also has a standard for how it works and what its purpose is.
Golf, or hunting, or arts and crafts, or any number of other good and enjoyable things aren’t it. Why? Why can’t you just have a “small group,” “life group,” “connection group,” or, “camera obscura group” at your local church? Because the odds of a small group, divided from the larger group, actually representing and displaying a prophetic vision of God’s people are infinitesimally small.
“But Gabe, how could an average church display to the world the breadth of God’s rich and diverse community?”
I’m so glad you asked, voice in my head. Part of it comes down to the why. Why do we create smaller groups? Or do we ever stop to ask that question? I joined a smaller group the second week we joined Immanuel Nashville, so surely I’m either a hypocrite or, perhaps, I’m really serious about this subject. Either or. Maybe both.
The Western, American, Southern, Cultural Church creates small groups as a response to growth. Our churches expanded beyond the limits of our means. One man can preach to a hundred or a thousand and very little has to change about that man. But one man can’t care for, shepherd, protect, and disciple a thousand. Great shepherds have trouble with more than a hundred. So we said, “What if we had smaller versions of the church? Maybe they could study the bible together. Maybe there we could have leaders who would talk to them and reason with them and help them. Not shepherds, exactly, but at least deacons who could just talk with them one on one.” And then somebody clever took out the words deacon and bible, and that’s where most churches are, these days. (Sidebar: I once was in a small group training where the lead pastor said, and I quote, “You don’t have to read the bible or even pray. Just get together.”)
And the people of God, the people who comprise this community, further diluted it. They kept watering it down until eventually it was 22-26 year old, white, interested in baseball, and occasionally thinking about how to be better people.
See, people, and this goes for people of God or not, have this horrifying tendency to completely replace the invisible God with the visible comfort.
The Prophetic Community
I once had a friend and a pastor tell me this, “People in the south just don’t want community.” And he sort of said it as a question and a statement. Like, “Why is that? Why doesn’t it work?” And though I heard him say that earlier this year, that question has been on my mind since 2013. Four years I have been pondering this and I have, at least, a tentative answer. I have the shape of it in my head even if I can’t see all the particulars. And it’s one of the reasons I am not putting an upper word limit on this post. I want to get this all out. Harsh language and all. I want to see it. I want it to confront me. I want it to offend me:
We don’t want to be a prophetic community, God’s real community, because that means destroying ourselves.
The South is known for lots of things but I would say an underlying thread that runs through them, perhaps more than in other places, is our resistance to change. When something “works” we want to maintain that forever. Even if it doesn’t work. Because the idea of changing means losing something of ourselves. We in the south have been taught to identify, to the death, with our culture. That it’s who we are. There are numerous historical reasons to get into about the why, but that’s just a plain and simple reason. We don’t want to change. The Prophetic Community means change from beginning to end, top to bottom. It means, “This is who we were, this is who we are, and this is who we will be.”
It acknowledges the sins of the past. It doesn’t play with the putrid defenses of, “I wasn’t there for that particular sin,” or “It’s about heritage, not hate.” It doesn’t even gently lay those down. It bashes them against the rocks with tears in its eyes.
It takes up the discomfort of the present. We don’t spend our time saying that who we are at the moment is just “The Past Lite.” In other words, “I’m exactly who I was, except for slightly less public sin.” So going back to racism, it doesn’t say, “I’m going to segregate myself from other races, even if I say I love them.” No, it says, “I am going to try to help other races celebrate their culture, without clinging to some blind tradition/privilege.” It embraces. It redeems. It apologizes. It celebrates. It builds.
It isn’t built around age, race, income, hobbies, or even geography. When we build these groups in this way, or we tell people to choose the group they want to go with, we have immediately scratched the word Prophetic out. I would even argue that when we raise up leaders of these groups and tell them to form them, we end up with the exact same problem. Why? Because you, me, and everybody (e’rybody) will always do what makes us feel comfortable, first. We will, in fact, work hard to preserve what makes us most comfortable. We will sacrifice so many things on that altar and first among them is the posture of being a prophetic voice in our broader geographic community. Instead of humbly praying, asking God to build these communities, we build them like we’re picking teams for kickball. (I was great at kickball, for the record.)
The Prophetic Community is what every church should chase, regardless of how close they are to attaining it. The Prophetic Community is a message to the world about who God is, what God does, and it gets told with regularity and grace. If a small group divided from the large group, isn’t a Prophetic Community, why does it exist? We must begin asking why. We must make a conscious decision to be a Prophetic Community, not just a community. That is, of course, if we’d like to be the force of change that rocked the first century world from Palestine to the ends of the Earth.
I want to be a part of that Prophetic Community. I want to tell the Story to the world. To my neighbors. To my friends. To my family. And it means some really dangerous, really scandalous ways of living. And it means, in so many ways, destroying those parts of myself I’m most comfortable with.