I started the church I serve believing a myth about Christian community. I had the genuine conviction that if I just pastored the right way, I would be able to facilitate a nurturing, loving environment that would be mostly free from frustration, pain, hurt and conflict. I was terribly wrong, completely wrong, profoundly wrong. I sought utopia, but found something far more complicated: the body of Christ on Earth. – Douglas S. Bursch, The Community of God: A Theology of the Church from a Reluctant Pastor (Fairly Spiritual, 2017, page 3)
You don’t have to be a new pastor to fall under the spell of this myth. Many of us seem to operate under this mistaken belief that if only the pastors or the elders or the members of the congregation would just do ministry the right way, then everything would be fine with the church.
But as Doug Bursch goes on to point out,
The u of utopia means “no or not” and topia means “place.” Put them together and utopia literally means “not a place” or “no such place.” In other words, a utopian society is a nonexistent society , a place no one can find because it does not exist. (pages 3-4)
So too the church as utopia does not exist on this earth; instead, the author found the church as the body of Christ, the community of God.
From this opening, he weaves together his experience as a pastor with a careful reading of Scripture and solid theological reflection to explore the church as the community of God. In contrast to the individualism of our culture, he lifts up God’s creation and desire for human community, carefully tracing it throughout Scripture and outlining its implications for evangelism, discipleship-making, team ministry, what it means to abide with one another even through difference and conflict, and more.
For example, as an evangelist himself, he understands those who express God’s love and salvation in a deeply personal way: “If you were the only person on the face of this earth, Jesus would have died for you.” Yet he says,
In my opinion, if you were really the only person in existence, God would have first created someone to be with you. Why? God is community and it is his nature to create community to share in his love. (page 29)
While much of leadership development today focuses on the traits and skills of individual leaders, he points to the biblical model of ministering in pairs:
. . . the biblical record reveals that healthy ministry is often conducted by healthy ministry pairs or teams. Even the word team is insufficient in our present vernacular as it evokes an image of one head coach leading a group of players. This is not the kind of team we see in the New Testament. Instead, in the biblical record, we see ministry teams with shared and mutual responsibility. The New Testament concept of leadership is far different from our modern senior pastor or lead pastor model of ministry. Although individuals have different levels of relational authority, we find a model of shared ministry in the New Testament that is foreign to our current individualistic models. (page 159)
While The Community of God is subtitled “a theology of the church from a reluctant pastor,” I think of it as a theology of the church from a pastor who loves and serves the church, who for all of the church’s pains, frustrations, and challenges, remains convicted and held by the church as the community of God. As theology, it’s well grounded, practical, with plenty of stories to make for easy reading, and discussion questions at the end of each chapter for responding in community. I so appreciate this book and only wish I’d read it sooner!
Community is a gift from God, to make us human, and to help us become who we are in Christ. Through community, we discover God’s nature as well as our own. In community, we find a purpose that is greater than our individual wants and needs. . . . The body of Christ is sacred and worthy of our best effort, even our very lives. (page 232)
Disclosure: I receive many books for review, but I bought this one myself after getting to know Doug on Twitter, then becoming familiar with his blog and podcast. For more information on Doug, his podcast, and book, please see: The Community of God.
for more encouragement and resources on doing ministry better,
I read and reviewed this book too. It is so worthwhile, and so much resonated with me. I even used some points he made about Abraham in a sermon. (I do substitute preaching as a lay person.)
That’s great to hear, Laura! I’ll be preaching on belonging in community this summer, and expect The Community of God will be part of my sermon too. It’s such a helpful and encouraging resource!