Nothing bands a community together more closely than sharing a common purpose bigger than any one member of the community or even the community itself. One powerful example of this phenomenon can be seen in Band of Brothers, the miniseries based on Stephen Ambrose’s non-fiction book by the same name set in WWII. The story follows the lives of the men who come together and to form “Easy Company,” an infantry battalion assigned to the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. The series begins by introducing individual characters from all walks of life coming together, like streams dumping into a river, having been called off their individual paths to walk together toward a common goal. By the end of the series these otherwise strangers had become brothers. What banded them together so closely was not what each had in common with the other, but rather the fact that they shared a common purpose that each held in higher regard than himself. Their mission had created community.
This is how precisely how the church was started, when Jesus began calling individuals from all walks of life, from blood thirsty zealots like Simon to tax collecting traitors like Levi (otherwise sworn enemies!), and giving them a higher purpose that could band them together, indeed, as brothers. And so it continued in the book of Acts (cf. Acts 1:8ff), but somehow since then it has become typical to try to work in just the opposite direction: form communities and then do mission. But this is always difficult, if even possible, because while mission requires community, community does not require mission.
When I was still the youth pastor at FAC I found myself bumping up against the limits of trying to nurture genuine Christian community among the students when I made no appeal to a common purpose that transcended the community itself and the walls of the church. It was really only when students began coming together for various outreach opportunities or training initiatives I offered that I began to see deep, Christ-centered relationships form. At some point it dawned on me that the only way to establish a missional community is by becoming a community on mission. Go figure…
One of the principles a community on mission is that people moving toward a common end need to be equipped with common means to achieving that end. Every soldier has to learn how to use the same basic weapons, use a common language, and learn how to respond in any number of situations as part of a strategic whole, just as everyone trained in medicine has to learn how to use the same basic instruments, understand a particular vocabulary, and be prepared to respond to any number of situations as a strategic whole. The more clearly everyone understands the mission and their role in it, the more confidence they will have for engagement. But if the mission appears fragmented and unclear, if I people feel like it is up to them to carry the burden alone, confidence will be deflated and engagement avoided. This is true of any organization, but it is especially true in an organization that does not (and should never try to!) enforce its members to do anything.
Having said that, the staff and leadership of First Alliance have begun asking the question What do we need to do to become a community on mission? Based on our common purpose, to be witnesses of Christ both locally and globally (Acts 1:8), what are the common means, tools, strategies that are equipping us and banding us together as we work toward that end?
Suffice it to say, we are excited about the developments thus far. At this point, it would be too early to begin talking details, but we certainly do want to get people talking. And perhaps the best way to do that is to introduce a mock-up of one of the three or four tools we are developing. The goal with these simple tools is to establish common points of reference throughout all the ministries of the church, across generations, that will get us speaking the same language and understanding basic and accessible strategies of engagement. In time, our hope is that we would be fully equipped to move seamlessly between our worship-based gatherings to our witness-based scatterings, to move indeed as a community on mission.
This diagram is a simple way of thinking about conversational evangelism as moving people from “Common Ground” to “Uncommon Ground.” Evangelism isn’t about having awkward conversations with people you don’t already know about a subject you never really talk about. It is more about a way of life through which we can become a living invitation for people to come into a space where brutal honesty can be met with radical grace in the name of Jesus. The world offers no such place. Our prayer is that First Alliance Church will become such a place, and become so well beyond the walls bound by bricks and mortar.
Level 4: Common Ground–Acquaintanceship This level describes the typical sphere of our social engagement, where we encounter one another through screens, whether the screens of social media or figurative screens of the facades we create. This level of encounter is simply based on proximity, but there is no personal depth of conversation. Nonetheless, this is an important ground to appreciate, since conversational evangelism moves with people in dialogue and respects their limits. This is where we begin listening and attending to the Spirit’s guidance, rather than charging ahead toward “Uncommon Ground”
Level 3: Uniting/Dividing Ground–Membership At this level we find people of like skin color, like political ideology, like socio-economic class, like opinions, etc. But these groups can only exist as an”us” so long as there is a “them.” They are inherently divisive and create ‘others’ who easily become enemies.While participating in groups on this level is unavoidable, and not necessarily bad, it should not determine the depth of our relationship, and will inevitably produces hostility, pride, and self-righteousness, often undetected. We should be aware of our participation in such groups and continually seek to ‘break new ground’ with people for the sake of the Gospel.
Level 2: Sharing Ground–Friendship This level describes the sphere of vulnerability, life-on-life, honest engagement and self-disclosure. There is a tendency for older generations to avoid this level (in preference for level 3) and for younger generations to wallow in it. There is nothing inherently good about this level, and it can often simply become a self-absorbed ring of hopelessness and angst. However, for a Christian this is the sphere we must continually try to steer our relationships toward for the possibility of sharing our testimony. If we don’t have a testimony to share (How has God changed me? When was the last time he changed me? What is he working on in me now? How is he encouraging me, healing me, convicting me, etc.?), then it would be a good idea to confide in someone who shows evidence of the fruit of the Spirit and be honest with them. Ultimately, we want to be intentional about bringing the name of Christ into moments in time by sharing our testimony, with an ultimately direction toward prayer and the Gospel.
Level 4: Uncommon Ground–Fellowship This is the level of genuine encounter. Truly loving a person ultimately seeks to bring them into an encounter with the living God. This doesn’t mean being a weirdo or pushy or whatever. It simply means that people need Jesus and Jesus wants to give himself to people. For unbelievers, we are just here introducing strangers. For fellow believers, we are gathering in Christ’s name to grow in our faith, seek God together, and to enjoy the fellowship afforded to the family of God. In so doing, we are also becoming equipped for our engagement with unbelievers.