Community. When we hear that word, most of us have an certain idea or feeling or expectation that rises up more of less automatically…
Our unspoken assumption is that having a sense of “community” with others will feel warm and fuzzy. Community means that we will be “hanging out” with people we enjoy being with. Furthermore, planting a church should feel like this, and if we don’t have this sense of easy enjoyment, something is wrong.
But is this actually what we should be looking for? Is this what cultivating a community is all about? Looking for those we naturally get along with and spending time with them?
Community in church?
If you’ve spent more than a few minutes in church, you know that it’s not actually filled with people you naturally get along with. So what do we do when we are supposed to be a community with those we don’t really… like?
Being in a church together (especially a small church plant like The Table), brings us face to face with one of the hidden ways our culture trains us as consumers: we assume that “community” means being able to “hang out” with people we like.
In other words, we expect that we should be able to choose who and how we build “community” with others.
We all have affinity bias
Whether we’re part of a small church plant like The Table, or trying to get to know our neighbors, or just parenting our kids, we all wrestle with this.
We all carry around a built-in “affinity bias.” We are oriented toward that which we like. It’s normal and natural to gravitate toward people who are similar to us, people who enjoy the same kinds of experiences we do.
But affinity bias becomes a problem when we do it unreflectively. Any tendency we have that we don’t reflect on and ask questions about will end up running our lives.
So while it’s normal to want to hang out with people we like, should we expect that this is what building a community will feel like?
Are we really seeking to build a community that reflects the beautiful diversity of the Body of Christ, or are we treating “community” as a commodity that we try to obtain at the lowest relational price?
affinity affection for the churches
As I read through the Apostle Paul’s interactions with the churches he planted, I think there are some lessons here for us. Specifically, I’m struck by the exuberant, overflowing affection he expresses for the diverse, often troubled churches he planted.
Here are a few examples:
- “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:8).
- “We were gentle with you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess 2:7-8).
- “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19).
- “When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.” (Acts 20:36-38).
This breathtaking affection co-exists with the real, thorny problems Paul had to address in these churches. The affection Paul expresses is clearly something stronger and more robust than the mild feelings of enjoyment that come from spending time with people you like.
Paul isn’t expressing the easy “hanging out” of affinity, he’s expressing the hard-won affection that only comes from surrendering to the work of Spirit in the body of Christ.
From convenient affinity to cultivated affection
It would seem that if we’re going to cultivate an actual community (rather than the idealized community we often carry around in our minds), we’re going to have to shift from relying on a convenient affinity with one another to a cultivated affection for one another.
We have to move from what is inherent and natural (affinity) to that which is intentional and nurtured (affection).
This move, from affinity to affection, is at the heart of the kind of community we want to become at The Table.
Affinity takes your desires as they’ve already been shaped, affirms them and makes you feel good about them when you spend time with other people who have the same ones!
Affection calls you to cultivate new desires, to be with people you wouldn’t normally want to be with, for the sake of the gospel. It takes intentional investment for it to grow.
This is a major feature of God’s kingdom: he doesn’t honor our pre-existing affinities as normative. Instead he shatters them and calls us into love, naming our affinities for what they are: just preferences.
For consumers, preference is the law. An unalienable right. For the Body of Christ, preference is just preference, which is fine as far is it goes, but eventually it goes on the altar along with everything else as we participate in God’s kingdom.
The beautiful thing is that, as we burst the narrow, comfortable confines of affinity and begin exploring the wide open (and often scary) world of learning affection for those who aren’t like us, we grow! We actually learn to love as Jesus loves, and become, as Scot McKnight calls it, a “fellowship of differents.”
Learning to feel affection
The struggle is real, folks! As I’ve led churches, missional communities, and my own family, I never got to hand-pick my favorite people to be part of these groups. I’m usually surprised by who joins and sticks and who doesn’t.
And I’ve come to see it as a sign of God’s grace: if they’re here, they have grace to be part of our community. And if they’re part of our community, it means there’s grace for us to grow together in our love for one another, even if we’d never hang out if affinity were the boss.
And you know what? Our affection for one another grows! We learn to appreciate the personality quirks that would have separated us if we had only been pursuing affinity. God’s grace really does help us grow in our affection for those who aren’t like us.
A community worth becoming
This is the kind of community we want to cultivate at The Table. Rather than rely on dynamics that would help us grow quickly, we’d rather do the hard work of cultivate a community that can actually bear witness to the reconciling work of Christ.
We want to become a community that can move beyond the shallow expectations of convenient affinity and into the depths of a cultivated affection.
We do this through participating in our formative practices:
- Welcoming one another, making space for the other,
- Listening deeply and attentively to one another, honoring each other,
- Proclaiming good news to one another, and
- Moving toward the “other” in love.
Let’s continue to cultivate deep Christian affection for one another, trusting that God is at work in our midst!