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MAKE DISCIPLES of all nations

Discipleship Step Two: Community with One Another

The critical task to fulfill the Lord’s command to make disciples in North America at the very start of the twenty-first century must be grounded on a solid biblical, theological and historical foundation which has its roots firmly planted in the New Testament, its branches swaying in the last breezes of the Enlightenment and its topmost growth reaching out to the still uncertain air of postmodernism. Below is a short discussion which shows how the concept and practice of community has dramatically changed from New Testament times to our own.

The Community of the First Century

In the culture of the New Testament there was a very dynamic and well-developed sense of community. People did not see themselves as unique individuals but as integrated members of a very familiar and supportive group. On this furtile ground the gospel seed was sown and nurtured.

In New Testament Christianity the church was comprised primarily of small, intimate communities of believers who were actively engaged with the larger society. Urban areas were relatively small and tightly congested, linked by a network of roads which circulated a diversity of people and ideas.

The tight confines of the city became the breeding ground for an infectious type of new community which was based on a set of relationships influenced by the teachings of Jesus. Having entered and been transformed in community, disciples were sent forth by the community to transform those outside of the circle of fellowship. The conceptual, communal and missional were linked together in Acts. They defined the nature of the church and allowed it to expand into the natural families, groupings and households of the time.

The Individualism of Modernity

"Me, myself and I" pretty much summarizes the hyper-individualistic cultural dynamic of modern society. The extended family of traditional society was replaced by the nuclear family of modernity which is now itself being superceded by the broken family of the post-modern era.

The communal culture of the New Testament stands in stark contrast to the emergence of the autonomous individual in modern society where each person is encouraged to develop beliefs and practices independently from others. This individualism has profoundly affected the methods of discipleship today where personal meaning and fulfillment are often sought in isolation from a worshipping community.

This same force of individualism also hampers the church in its witness to the larger society because it often hinders the members in uniting for the common cause of mission. In order to counteract these influences, the church has at times borrowed from the mass marketing and consumer orientation in order to reach society without a critical evaluation of how these techniques correspond to the biblical nature of the church.

The Peripheral Church of Post-Modernity

Postmodernity has pushed the individualism of modernity deeper still into an even more intensive and subjective experience.

In addition to the influence of individualism, the thoroughgoing secularization of the postmodern age has pushed the church from the center to the periphery of society. If the church is to make disciples in this secular society then mission must move from the edge to the heart of the church’s concern. This can only be accomplished through a renewed study of the nature of the church as found in the New Testament. In this respect, the context can be a help instead of a hindrance to the making of disciples.
Meeting the Challenge of Community

In the past the main challenge that the church attempted to meet was to go forth and evangelize the masses in a high, task-oriented approach. This has often resulted in a dedicated few becoming burned out at the end of the process.

Given the current and ongoing weakness of the community aspect of discipleship, the church would do well to think through laying both a strong spiritual as well as communual foundation in the church before it can truly meet the challenge of winning others. True discipleship always flows out of and back to a worshipping community of believers.

While the theological study of the matter has obviously begun, the greater sociological challenge of creating community in our modern age needs to be recognized and addressed. In discussing this issue it is obvious that the clock cannot be turned back in order to re-initiate our modern society to the communal practices of more traditional societies. As our society is currently configured, the strong pull of individualism counters our every effort to leave the sanctify of our selves for the uncharted territory of community life.

That being said, it is also difficult to posit how the current course of the church will not result in an ever-decreasing role of organized religion in the life of modern people unless a thorough understanding of the New Testament model of discipleship-making is adapted to our modern way of life.

In this very aspect of cross-cultural adaptation, the New Testament has something to teach us. The challenge the early church faced in uniting the Jewish and Gentile believers into one community could be seen as somewhat analogous to our own efforts to understand and implement a New Testament Christianity in our postmodern world. The same Holy Spirit that was so instrumental in the formation, nurturing and expansion of Christ’s body the church is still available in our day to fulfill the Lord’s commission to make disciples in North America.