Summary: Two characteristics of a community based on God’s grace.
One of the more troubling books I’ve read recently is a book called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. Bowling Alone isn’t a Christian book, but it’s an analysis of the health of our sense of community in American culture. The author of Bowling Alone observes that since the 1950s membership in voluntary community groups has been steadily declining. He traces membership in groups like labor unions, the PTA, professional groups, grass roots political groups, civic groups, churches and synagogues, philanthropic groups like the Rotary, and so forth. He observes that in every single case, involvement in these groups has been steadily declining for 50 years. As a result of this our neighborhoods are filled with people who feel disconnected and isolated from each other. Although we hunger and thirst to be part of authentic community, for some reason we avoid actually making the kind of personal investment in the kinds of groups that produce that kind of community.
Even here at Life Bible Fellowship Church we see this erosion of community community, especially as we continue to grow. Last Sunday we had 975 people at our church, which makes this need for community even more urgent. Each month we tell participants in our Meet Life Bible Fellowship Church seminar that if you want to truly feel connected at this church, you need to be part of some kind of small group. Authentic relationships and a sense of belonging come from being part of a smaller group of people, where you pray together, care for each other, and seek to grow in the spiritual journey together. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a home Bible study like our Share & Care Groups, or a discussion group in Mom to Mom, or an informal accountability group, or a Bible study here at the church, or whatever. A sense of belonging is directly tied to our involvement in a smaller group of people we share with as a community. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, we had as many as 80% of our people involved in these kinds of groups. Yet as hard as we try to get people into these kinds of groups, our level of involvement hovers at about 50% of our adults being in some sort of small group.
We hunger for community, yet it seems to elude our grasp. As we look around, we find that lots of groups in our culture are based on merit. Groups thrive on created an "in" crowd that excludes the "out" crowd. We all experienced it in high school. There were the jocks who excelled in sports, the "socials" who were popular, the "brains" who did well academically, and there were people like me who they called the "stoners," who excelled at getting into trouble. And you remember what it was like; very rarely did people cross between their group because the lines were so well defined.
Then in college it was the honor societies or the fraternities, again where involvement was based on merit. With all these groups based on merit, most of us go through life feeling like we don’t quite fit in. I was at a pastors conference in San Diego all week this week with 1700 other pastors, and even in the midst of ministry colleagues I constantly fought a sneaking suspicion that if these people really knew me they’d kick me out. We constantly compare what we do know about ourselves to what we don’t know about each other. Or as they taught me in AA, we compare our "inside" to other people’s "outside."
Then we come to the Christian community, what the Bible calls the Church. And in the Church we’re supposed to find a community based on God’s grace. But sometimes in the church what we find is just a mirror image of what we find in our culture. We often find cliques and divisions, insiders and outsiders just like other places. Yet I think every Christian would agree that the Christian Church is supposed to be a community of grace.
But what does a community based on God’s grace look like? As I close my eyes I try to picture a community based on God’s grace, and I don’t see anything. What does a community based on grace look like?
Now we’ve been in a series through the New Testament book of Romans called "Good News For Our Times." In this series we’ve been looking at the "Good News About God’s Faithfulness" in Romans 9 for the last two weeks. We’ve been grappling with why the Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus as their Messiah. If the New Testament is true in claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jewish people, then why do the vast majority of Jewish people reject Jesus as their Messiah? Does Israel’s rejection of Jesus mean that God failed to keep his promises to Israel? Has the nation of Israel inadvertently derailed God’s plan with their refusal to believe in Jesus? In Romans 9 Paul rejects these conclusions as he grapples with these questions. In this chapter Paul claims that for now the nation of Israel is on the back burner of God’s strategy for the world, and for the time being the Christian Church is front and center. God’s not done with Israel (we’ll hear more about that in chapter 11) but for now the Christian Church is the object of mercy God is using to further his purposes for the human race.