Of all the Christian buzzwords, I think community is my favorite. I can definitely say I was created for community. I thrive when I feel at home in a tight-knit group, and I find it hard to change friends or let go of people once I’ve begun to care about them. In high school I was anything but a floater; my solid group of eight girlfriends did everything together. I was that girl crying after graduation because she loved her class so much and was scared to death to move somewhere she didn’t have a built-in support system. During my freshman year at Penn I stuck to that pattern, finding one or two very solid communities and heavily investing in them.
Community and relationships are from where I draw a lot of my strength, encouragement, and joy. And in those ways they are excellent reflections of the goodness of God. While God is the source of all of those attributes, He did not create us to live out our faith alone. We are made in the image of God, and God Himself lives in community within the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this way God is the ultimate model of community based on perfect sacrificial love and dying of self. Therefore, in our lives, placing heavy importance on community is not a sign of sin or even weakness, but reflects our very nature.
However, just as community is a space for God’s goodness to thrive, it is also a place where we see many of the most damaging effects of sin. The community built on perfect harmony and respect, both among humans and between humans and God, was arguably the first and most prominent casualty of The Fall. Adam and Eve immediately lost their sense of intimacy and comfort with one another, scrambling to hide their naked bodies. Then, realizing their disobedience in eating from the forbidden tree, they hid in shame from God rather than coming to Him and walking with Him through the garden.1 Two of the greatest consequences of The Fall deal with brokenness in community: in separating us from God, and in disrupting the harmony and sense of equality between husbands and wives.
This attitude continues even beyond Biblical times and throughout church history in the examples of the Catholic Church selling indulgences and Protestants waging “Holy Wars.” Even within the church, relationships were broken as different groups splintered off to form separate denominations. This theme of broken community is still relevant to our lives today. Rather than being an inclusive space for fellowship, community becomes an exclusive “in group” meant to elevate one’s own status, opinions, and practices. And unfortunately, this mindset of exclusivity still manifests itself in the church. Christian community can become a space of moral supremacy where those with similar beliefs congregate and together condemn outsiders. This happens quietly at social gatherings and within the walls of the church, and also publicly, as we have seen through numerous demonstrations on our own campus in the last couple of months.
To some degree I find Christian community on Penn’s campus to be exclusive, even if unintentionally. We often forget the ideas of sacrificial love and dying to self and instead self-segregate by seeking out only the spaces for friendship and activities where we are most comfortable. It is easiest to be friends with those who share our belief systems, so we tend not to develop meaningful community with people of different faith backgrounds. Even Christian fellowships tend to be organized into groups of people who are most similar to each other, whether it be by race, attitude, or even style of dress. And while the fellowships often overlap and have good relationships with each other, it is easy to develop an attitude of superiority regarding one’s own group and its unique rituals. How do we begin to move closer to perfect community, and what does that community even look like?
As cliche as it sounds, the Church is truly ordained to be the light of the world. We are meant to build each other up and encourage one another towards faith and love. In First Corinthians, Paul appeals to the city of Corinth, expressing his wish that they would not be divided amongst themselves but would be “united in mind and thought.”2 While Christians will never agree on every scriptural and denominational particular, we as the Church are meant to embody the love of Christ and live it out for unbelievers. We cannot do this if we are constantly fighting amongst ourselves and alienating anyone who is different from us. Acts 4 gives us an example of near perfect community where believers came from many diverse backgrounds, yet were united in perfect harmony by their belief in Christ. This extended to practical actions, such as sharing their belongings with each other. The church should be looking to attract the different, the excluded, and the sinners just as Jesus did throughout his ministry. We should welcome newcomers into our fellowships and inner circles, not hold them at arm's length and treat them as distant service projects. The Christian community is one body based off of one religion, one savior, and one God; with the hope of showing the love of that God to the rest of the world.
On Penn’s campus, restoring community could be as simple as abandoning the club consumerist mindset where we want every extracurricular to become a leadership opportunity for our resumes. Instead, we could look for activities we can join more casually for opportunities to interact with people who are different from us. On a larger scale, community based on sacrifice could mean getting outside the Penn Bubble and forming relationships with people in the larger West Philadelphia area, including our off-campus church communities. As scary as it is I have even begun to do this myself in admittedly very small ways this semester by tutoring at an off-campus middle school, switching up the activities I am doing in my Christian fellowships, and investing more time than I have previously in extracurriculars outside of my comfortable Christian groups. I still have my usual solid group of go-to girlfriends, but I’m finding more pockets of community and friendship this year than I ever have in my life, and I have been enjoying the blessings of these relationships and experiences which God has given me this semester.
1. Genesis 3
2. 1 Corinthians 1:10, NIV.
Summer Osborn is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying political science. She plans to spend this year studying, keeping up with friends, and honing her cooking skills in order to not starve.