February 19, 2016

The Beautiful Plan: Building Community for Mission

Editor's note: During the recent Cross-Cultural Symposium hosted by the General Conference and attended by 150 senior General Conference staff, each of the General Conference vice presidents shared devotional messages. This is a condensed version of the presentation by Dr. Simmons, a general vice president.

I’ll state my thesis at the outset:
Authentic relationships are vital and harmonious community is crucial in the Christian journey and in the Church's mission.

A familiar song says:
“No man is an island; No man stands alone; Each man's joy is joy to me; Each man's grief is my own.1 Whether happy or sad, through good and bad, we need to stay together. What holds relationships together? What is the glue? What binds?

Scripture is clear on what relationships should be like. David, in one of his “Songs of Ascent”—Psalm 133—sings of the blessed unity of the people of God.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil . . .”

Oil was (and still is) essential for everyday life. Oil is for health and healing; it’s a source of light,and also represents the Holy Spirit. Oil is used as a mild internal cleanser. It is soothing and is applied externally as an ointment for bruises, burns, cuts, and abrasions (Isaiah 1:6; Mark 6:13; Luke 10:34). Oil is symbolically associated with joy, festivity, ceremony, honor, light, and health (spiritual and physical), while its absence indicates sorrow (Joel 1:10), and the withdrawal of all that is good . . .

David says in verse 3 that this unity—this community
islike the dew of Hermon, descending upon the mountains of Zion.”

Dew is important to the growth of plants and a successful harvest (Haggai 1:10). In the Bible, dew and rain are spoken of together as of great value (1 Kings 17:1). During the Exodus, dew was an important source of sustenance (Exodus 16:13–21; Numbers 11:9). Dew is a symbol of refreshment, renewal, and prosperity (Job 29:19; Hosea 14:5). A king’s favor was said to be “like dew upon the grass” (Proverbs 19:12).

Then the psalmist says:
“For there [in this unity/community] the Lord commanded the blessing—Life forevermore.” (NKJV)

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! (NIV)

How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony! (NLT)

How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along! (MSG)

James Bryan Smith, in his book, “The Good and Beautiful Community,” describes this community as one (1) Following the Spirit, (2) Extending Grace, and (3) Demonstrating Love.

These three are portrayed in Genesis 13
: “So Abram said to Lot, “Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren.” Even in reference to interpersonal relationships with our enemies, Paul writes in Romans 12: “As much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” We might appropriately paraphrase: “Discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.”

This unity is a crucial quality of God’s covenant community. It is that for which Jesus prayed in John 17:11, 21: “Father, keep . . . those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.
“That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; . . . that the world may believe that You sent Me.” God’s plan calls for our agreement and action on the principles and purposes of life which make relationships harmonious, lasting, and pleasant. When living in unity, we are committed and faithful to the cause and to each other.4

We must walk and live worthily, agreeably, suitably, and congruously in the beautiful community into which the grace of God has called us. Paul urges us to mutual love, unity, and accord, with the proper means and motives to promote them. Nothing is pressed upon us more earnestly in the scriptures than this. Love is the law of Christ’s kingdom, the lesson of His school, the vestment or uniform of His family.

God’s Design for Community.

The challenge in community building is that we need to bring a number of individuals together in such a way that they are headed in one direction without losing their uniqueness. There are billions of distinctly unique people sharing this planet. “Without unifying factors such as laws, dreams or causes to unite people, there would be total anarchy.”
[6] But we have our unifying factor in Jesus who is the Head of our body.

God’s plan for community-building is that people who wouldn’t necessarily be friends in another setting come together for the long, difficult process of becoming co-disciples. The Word tells us that even spirit beings will watch in amazement as God builds a unified church out of vastly diverse groups of people (Ephesians 3:6–11). “It is a beautiful plan, although one full of dangers, and we have a part in fulfilling it.”

The Book of Zechariah is a good working guide for us. It remains relevant for our time with emphasis on the sovereignty of God (Zechariah 10:1-2). Zechariah opens with a call to repentance, reminding God’s people of the sins of their ancestors (1:1-6). It focuses on rebuilding the Temple (1:18 - 2:13) and speaks of the importance of removing sinful defilement from the high priest (3:1-7) and the entire land (5:5-11) for the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the covenant community. His seventh vision (5:5-11) presents the cleansing of the restored covenant community.

Too often, we confuse love with permissiveness. It’s not love to fail to dissuade another believer from sin any more than it is love to fail to take a drink away from an alcoholic, or matches away from a baby. True fellowship out of love for one another demands accountability.

A colleague observed that often in church organizations, “'niceness' is substituted for transparency by conflict-aversive administrators who in God's observation to the prophet Jeremiah are 'treating the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace, when there is no peace'. The pressure to say nothing critical works against accountability. . . . Overlooking conduct that is contrary to mission and values and not dealing with those engaging in that conduct is to allow those who are misbehaving to exercise a tacit veto over what makes for organizational peace and progress”

Our Christianity must inspire best practices, and not excuse the failure to achieve them. Paul admonished the Ephesian believers that growth in Christian community required 'speaking the truth in love'.
10 Christian communities lose their credibility and thereby they lose their witness when they don’t practice what they preach, or are contented with mediocrity and turn a blind eye to sin.

James Bryan Smith characterizes the beautiful community as peculiar, hopeful, serving, Christ-Centered, reconciling, encouraging, generous, and worshiping.
11 Toward our beautiful community we must perfect our:

Communication. We must work consciously to overcome communication problems within our community and require honest communication giving voice to all members.

Expectations. We must take into account each group’s and individual’s life experiences that shape their world views.

Consensus. We must seek consensus that affirms and builds up all members because their opinions are necessary and valued. Ours isn’t a democracy, where majority rules. Neither is it a republic, where elected officials rule supremely. Rather, decisions are made by the group for the good of the group.12

Ethics. We must make our communities more just. We are called to acting justly toward others and treating them with kindness and mercy.13

Worship. We must worship together in spirit and truth as the foundation of our community. Zechariah says there were shouts of joy and songs of gladness in the Temple (8:19) and silence in the awesome presence of God (2:13). We worship God both with loud praises and silent devotion, all in unity.

It’s a beautiful plan, although one laden with dangers, and we have a part in it.

A Tale of Two Steamboats

They left Memphis about the same time, traveling down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. As they traveled side by side, sailors from one vessel made a few remarks about the snail's pace of the other. Words were exchanged. Challenges were made. And the race began. Competition became vicious as the two boats roared down the river.

One boat began falling behind: not enough fuel. There had been plenty of coal for the trip, but not enough for a race. As the boat dropped back, an enterprising young sailor took some of the ship's cargo and tossed it into the ovens. When the sailors saw that the supplies burned as well as the coal, they fueled their boat with the material they had been assigned to transport. They ended up winning the race, but burned their cargo.

God has entrusted cargo to us, too: children, spouses, friends, and each other. Our job is to do our part in seeing that this cargo, including each other, reaches its destination. Yet when the program or position or even personal comfort takes priority over people, people suffer and the community is lost.

How much cargo do we sacrifice in order to achieve the numbers or the goals? How many people never reach the destination because of the aggressiveness of competitive or cowardly leaders?

If we allow Him, even spirit beings will watch in amazement as God creates a beautiful community among us; and behold how wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along!

  1. Peter Schickele, “No Man is an Island.”
  2. Elwell, W.A. and Beitzel, B.J., Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 1586). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.
  3. Elwell and Beitzel, ibid.
  4. Dybdahl, J.L., ed. (2010), Andrews Study Bible Notes, Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 776.
  5. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 2312). Peabody: Hendrickson
  6. Arnold, J., and Black, S., (1992) The big book on small groups, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press
  7. Arnold and Black, op. cit.
  8. Dybdahl, op. cit.
  9. Jer. 8:11, quoted in Hansen, Kent, A Word of Grace for Your Monday, 1.25.2016, email newsletter.

  10. Eph. 4:15, quoted in Hansen, ibid.
  11. Smith, J.B., (2010) The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press)
  12. Arnold, J., and Black, S., op cit.
  13. W. A. Elwell and W. A. Elwell, in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), 1996.
  14. Max Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm, (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1991), 97-98