Seven practices of Christian community have been for me both seed and fruit: seed to start my growth as a Christian, fruit produced over time to enjoy and be satisfied by. And as each piece of fruit contains within it more seeds to again sow, I find my life filled with more and more of these essential practices, growing and nourished by them.
1. Sharing Joys and Sorrows
When I stop to consider where and when I have experienced deep Christian community, I think first of my small group during my post-college years, composed of dear friends and former students from Boston and Cambridge. We never had a great name for the group — and that is also the case for a group of women I’ve been meeting with here in California for the last few years. With both these groups, we weren’t near neighbors, we weren’t at the same church, we weren’t even all friends at first. Yet somehow, ourdesire to get together regularly to share joys and sorrows as fellow believers and intercede for one another grew deep ties that bound us together. As a result, we felt cared for by God and his people; our burdens were lighter and our joys greater.
2. Sharing Mission
The next set of Christian communities that come to mind, where I sensed great kinship, were all centered around shared mission. The college fellowship I joined challenged me to embrace God’s mission on campus, and through that I co-led investigative Bible discussions — "Groups Investigating God" — and eventually the whole chapter in campus outreach. By design, we never did any of those activities alone; we always had co-leaders. As a result, we genuinely got to do the mission together: the preparation work, the dialogues with others, the thoughtful follow-up conversations, the overall strategy. Another small group of friends and I ran an “outreach house-church” a few years later that had a similar model. We gathered bi-weekly to lead evangelistic discussions about Jesus with our non-believing friends, but on the weeks in between, the six of us leaders would get together to decide what passages to cover, who would guide our time, we’d share personal prayer requests, and pray. Our embodied practice of Jesus’s model of shared mission reminded us that the mission itself was about collaborative partnership — between God’s people, and even more fundamentally, between us and the Lord of the harvest.
3. Sharing Meals
I can’t think of my love for the above two sets of Christian communities without thinking of my appreciation for a third practice that grows community: shared meals. Not shared food, but shared meals: delicious cuisine thoughtfully planned out of love. The leader of our outreach house-church would go to the fish market to bring us sushi-grade salmon. He beer-basted poultry for us, made fancy dishes from cuts of meat that had names I do not remember. The InterVarsity staffworker who led our fellowship in my student generation was Cuban and Dominican. She took us with her on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic where we ate plantains, rice and beans, deep-fried yucca, and fresh mango. Back home in Cambridge, she would cook Indian food and big pots of flavorful stews. With the sharing of meals, I came away not merely fed, but nourished and satisfied, in body and soul. I dream of someday hosting meals at our place, regularly, where we can invite anyone and everyone in — to both eat and find community.
4. Sharing Wisdom
That same InterVarsity staffworker was an invaluable mentor of mine during my college years, always willing to share wisdom. I have found older women, whether six years or 60 years older than me, to be life-or-death necessary in my experiences of Christian community. Without them, how would I have survived college? New motherhood? How could I have made sense of my relationship with my mom? Who would have taught me how to lift up (and not endlessly criticize) my husband? And in their decision to share wisdom, there was wisdom: the willingness to pass on life lessons learned through trial and pain, the decision to be vulnerable in order to teach and instruct others. They have shown me I am not alone; there is wisdom out there, wisdom to be had, wisdom that I, too, have to share with others.
5. Shared Space
Shared space characterizes two very different yet wonderful facets of Christian community that I am so glad to have had in recent years. The first dimension of shared space was spent living in physical Christian community: nine of us, all Christians, living in three separate units in one large house just off Harvard Square. We shared the same front door, the main foyer (with too many pairs of shoes in the entryway), wintertime shoveling, and monthly rent. Since some of us worked together and some of us were in other small-group communities, we didn’t aspire for great depth — but sharing space meant we’d have conversations that would make me smile, give fresh perspective, and (as the first floor housed guys) give and receive the occasional dating advice. Shared space meant using each other’s living rooms when hosting larger gatherings, watching movies together, and co-hosting the occasional party.
But the idea of “shared space” for me is also evocative of how my spiritual director would share space with me — contemplative, quiet, holy space — to hear from God. The art and practice of spiritual direction is becoming more central to my existence within Christian community. I have found that I cannot easily hold this type of space myself, at least not yet. In harried, busy times, I think back to these moments of stillness and waiting, usually at the start of a spiritual direction session, and I am nurtured by even the recollection of those moments. Somehow, the sharing of both physical space and contemplative quiet space for me has borne these significant fruits: one has given me literal space within which to live, eat, and sleep affordably and enjoyably. The other has given me the mental, emotional, and spiritual space in which to reflect, cry, grieve, and understand.
6. Shared resources, contacts, and knowledge
The next practice is relationally interwoven into Christian community; it is the practice of sharing resources, contacts, and knowledge. This involves everything from carpooling, matchmaking, passing on a job-posting, making a counseling referral, or compiling a list of all the churches in town. Having and creating a network that works for, supports, and resources its members is a core part of Christian community for me. The outcome of this practice is that we are not without hope: when I have a need, or someone I am caring for has a need, I have a community upon which to rest — they are there for me and I am there for them. I can share what I have freely, without charge, competition, secrecy, manipulation, or pride — because of the trust that is shared within my community. These are gifts to be shared and gifts to be received; one need only ask.
7. Shared Word
My last practice is that of the shared word. The word of God — spoken aloud over a group large or small, heard and received — has power that transforms, enlivens, resurrects the dead, reveals truth. Whether it is inductive manuscript study or lectio divina, the book of Hebrews or Habakkuk, or simply the Word written on our heart, the shared word has been absolutely central to my experience of Christian community. These days, for the first time, I am experimenting with a poetry-reading and writing group with two friends of mine. I select poetry classics I haven’t read in years, we take turns reading them aloud, and then we let our discussions and our enjoyment of the craft inspire our own free-writing exercises at the end of our gatherings. In spite of myself, I cannot read these verses without the Spirit connecting them to other verses from Scripture. I find myself moved and touched by God in unexpected ways, through this practice. I suppose even these words I write here would not have come about if not for the word of God and the Word of God, shared with us.
Where would I or any of us be without these practices? Far more lonely, bereft, and hungry. I suppose one could attempt to be a Christian apart from Christian community, knowing the effort and work involved. But given the goodness of God, I encourage you to draw near, share yourself with others, and enjoy the delicious fruit that is produced.