Why do you say churches don’t have the deep community they should have?

Churches want community, but there are larger social or cultural issues that prevent that from happening that the church needs to look at. Over the last 50 years, most churches have either moved or been planted into an American suburb, which is where two-thirds of all Americans now live.

However, research is now coming in and back to us on the kind of life that we have crafted for ourselves by building suburban living, which, by the way, was not built because we had a vision for it, but rather, we were really running from urban living — it’s called “White flight.” Suburban living, along with the rise of highway systems and superhighway systems, and technology, like the automobile, or cable, or satellite TV has produced at least three negatives as a result in the American people, which is what I talk about in this book.

The first one is individualism, which is to suggest that suburban life has created us into not just individuals, but a mode of individualism where we’re not really a community committed to a purpose larger than ourselves, but rather, a collection of individuals who gather to have our own needs met as the highest priority.

The second negative impact that we must do church in is with a group of people that are really isolated. We are detached from one another, tucked away inside our air-conditioned cars and homes for most of the time.

And the final negative impact is consumerism. America’s wealth has enabled us to use our discretionary money to buy and run here and there to get our needs met, and it hasn’t worked. But unfortunately, the consumerism continues to enable us to do this. The challenge for the church is best summarized by the words of Lyle Schaller: “How is the ultimate ‘we’ organization, the church, going to effectively minister to the ultimate ‘me’ generation?” The Christian mission cannot be achieved apart from authentic community, but authentic community is not really accessible in the suburbs — that’s a big problem that we address in the book that I’m inviting church leaders to consider.

Describe what you mean when you say community should be built around common purpose, place and possessions.

I’m recommending a solution to each of these three obstacles or problems that have emerged in suburban life and have become a major problem in accomplishing the mission of the church.

For individualism, I’m suggesting that the church present to the body of believers a common purpose; that we define a biblical purpose we can commit to as a community that is larger than the needs of any single individual: making disciples of ourselves and others, or as Dallas Willard has said, “Teaching people to do everything that Jesus commanded.” That’s the first thing, and I think that if we were to analyze the nature of our churches, oftentimes our people do not have a collective understanding of what that common purpose is about, nor can they talk about it in a substantial way that would give us a cause for putting down our individual rights or our individual needs for the larger purpose of the church. So we need to visit that.

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The second solution is for isolation, and this is probably the most significant proposal of the book in light of that it’s counter cultural. We’re recommending that a solution to isolation is a common place; that authentic community cannot be experienced without neighborhood, that is, a geographical boundary where people can frequently and spontaneously flow in and out of each other’s lives. The suggestion of the rediscovery of neighborhood, which I talk about in the book, is shocking to the average American suburban and seemingly unrealistic as a scenario or a solution for the suburban way of life. But we are experiencing it at our church, and I talk about that in the book. So as we look at effective places of community in the present or throughout history, which I note in the book, you will observe that they share a tight sense of common place. Whether you look at the people of Israel, Jesus, an Israeli Kibbutz, the community of L’Arche under Henri Nouwen, gangs, a college campus or dormitory. That’s probably one of the most culturally shocking suggestions of the book, but I think very much built on conviction.

And then finally, for consumerism we’re recommending common possessions, not to be understood as communism or anything like that, but my book calls for Christians to see that everything that they are and own as belongs to God. God would not have us impound all of our resources back upon ourselves but to make it a priority to offer our resources to the good of Christ’s purposes: the community. And that goes beyond our personal finances and introduces to us things like hospitality and the use of our possessions.

How is your book going to be a paradigm shift for other churches?

There are two really significant shifts in the way we need to think about church and the way we need to think about the Christian life that are going to be challenging in this book.

Number one, small groups in America do not produce enough authentic Christian community to really work. Now there are isolated scenarios where good leadership has been able to overcome the lack of clear common purpose, common place, common possessions, but by and large, I am inviting church leaders to ask the question about the real, genuine, authentic Christian community that is being developed through their small group ministry. Others, like Robert Wuthnow in Sharing the Journey and John Locke in The De-Voicing of Society have given us facts from research that suggest that we need to really look at the effectiveness of small groups. What we’re learning is that small groups detached from a common purpose, a common place, and common possessions typically do not produce the authentic community necessary to get the biblical mission accomplished in our lives.

The second major, significant shift in the way we must think is going to be for the individuals, not just the church leaders. To live in authentic community will require a radical overhaul in the way the average American suburban lives. The end result I think, however, will be worth it, since authentic community is something we were designed from day one to live with and not to live without.

Copyright © 2005 by Zondervan Church Source, used with permission.

Randy Frazee is senior pastor at Pantego Bible Church in Arlington, Texas (www.pantego.org). An emerging leader and innovator in biblical community and spiritual formation, he has collaborated with George Gallup Jr. on a spiritual assessment and development project and is a regular speaker at Willow Creek Association conferences. A graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, Frazee has published several articles in Leadership Journal, and. he has developed the Christian Life Profile, a practical tool to measure a person’s spiritual development in thirty specific areas. More information can be found at www.TheConnectingChurch.com.