I have a confession. When I was in college, even though I was studying to become a pastor, I didn’t have any real affiliation with a particular church. Sure, I went to church every Sunday, but I wasn’t a member of any one church. Church was something I enjoyed, and I would visit different churches, depending on how I was feeling on a given Sunday. My real commitment was not to a church but to a close group of friends that I had made at my Christian college. This friendship community was great, because we could have long talks about theology, culture, and politics, without disagreeing too much. In my mind, this close group of friends was my church community, so joining a church didn’t make much sense to me.
Fast forward almost a decade later, and my opinion about church and community has significantly changed. Now, having been a pastor for a few years, there are three ways I would challenge the “college me” and any other people today who have a similar outlook.
So, without further ado, here is a letter to my college self about the differences between a “friendship community” and a “gospel community,” which is a local church:
Dear Adriel in college:
First, your friendship community doesn’t display the power of the gospel like an actual church community would. In your friendship community, the community is created out of shared interests. Your friendship community looks a lot like you and likes all the same things you like. That’s normal and natural (we all gravitate toward people who are like us), but the community that God creates is supernatural. God gets to pick your brothers and sisters, and he often brings people into the family who don’t look—or think—like you do. Friendship communities will dissolve when some of the friends within the community enter a new stage of life or change personally. Gospel communities aren’t based on life stages or personal preference but on a common Savior. When this Savior brings people together who are very different and unites them in love, it displays the power of the gospel in a way that your friendship community doesn’t.
After all, it isn’t surprising when a group of friends who enjoy one another’s company love each other (the world has that). Sadly, your friendship community doesn’t end up saying much about the gospel’s power to reconcile enemies (Eph. 2:14–16), not to mention the fact that since this community is based primarily on your shared interests, you spend more time talking about those things than the gospel. If you commit yourself to a gospel community, however, you’ll find yourself attached to a group of people with whom you might not share anything in common except Jesus! It will be hard and sometimes frustrating, but the gospel is able to sustain this community and therefore gets credit for its existence. You will also find that since Jesus is the uniting factor, he is the subject of your discussions in a way that he wasn’t before. Hence, Jesus and his power shine much brighter in a gospel community than they do when you just hang out with your Christian affinity group.
Second, your friendship community contributes to the thriving of your various idols in a way that a gospel community wouldn’t. I know you hate your sin and want to find ways to root it out of your life, but have you considered that since you and your friendship community have many of the same likes, you might also have many of the same struggles? In friendship communities, there are often shared idolatries just as much as there are shared affinities. Consider the fact that a shared sin or idolatry isn’t just hard to call out (this is because it is difficult to speak against something you also do), it’s also extremely hard to identify. Since it’s shared, it’s often unseen by the friendship community. And if exposed, friendship communities with shared idolatries tend to justify them before each other rather than repent of them.
Think about how much more sanctifying a gospel community would be. In a gospel community, our shared affinity toward Jesus should drive us to speak the truth in love to each other in such a way that it brings our individual sins into the light and suffocates them with God’s grace. I admit that this is one of the messiest parts of a gospel community, and addressing sin isn’t always done like it should be, but that’s a part of the sanctifying process.
Third, your friendship community alone cannot provide the type of ecclesiastical oversight the Bible presupposes. Remember all those verses about, “submitting to your leaders and elders” (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5)? What do you think those verses mean? Who are the elders currently “watching over your soul” who will one day “give an account” for their oversight? Were they ordained like Paul talked about in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1? If you ever fell into some horrible sin, who are the people God has placed over you who can restore you to the church (Gal. 6:1; Matt. 18:15–20)? The Bible seems to assume that Christians are so attached to a gospel community that this oversight actually occurs. Unfortunately, since your friendship community has replaced a genuine gospel community, it can’t. Because you’re not a member of any local church, there’s no one to whom you’re accountable besides yourself and your friendship community. But when we look at the Bible, that’s not the picture of accountability and of a believer’s relationship to the church that we see. One of the most tragic things about your current view of community is that you call it Christian, but it’s simply unbiblical.
Again, our friends are great, but as Christians, our primary commitment should be to a local church that is created by the gospel. This type of community displays God’s power to bring together diverse people, crushes rather than cultivates our idolatries, and affords us the true oversight Scripture prescribes. So long as our friendship community is our primary community to the neglect of the local church, those things are not going to happen.
A final word: unfortunately, entire gospel communities can degenerate into friendship communities. This is what happens when something besides Jesus takes the place of the church’s passion. As you search for a gospel community, make sure you’re looking for a place where Jesus and the message of his salvation are central. You might not like everything about how the church operates, but that’s okay. Gospel communities are so diverse that they cannot please everyone, but the gospel proclaimed in them can keep everyone together.