Together: Community as a Means of Grace
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Alden Bass
New Testament scholars believe that when Paul entered a new city on his missionary journeys, one of the first things he did was set up a tent-making stall in the local market. Day after day, he would sit in the narrow alleys of the shopping district, doing business and striking up conversations with passersby. Though he engaged local synagogues, there is no doubt that many of his contacts came through the spontaneous communities which formed around his daily presence in the marketplace.
In this latest addition to the Missional Wisdom Library series, Larry Duggins suggests that the church recover something of this model by facilitating missional “communities” – making space on church property and within church life for Christian and non-Christian people to come together for work, play, and fellowship.
The idea for this slender volume came from a discussion between Duggins, Brett Wells, and Elaine Heath – all veterans of the Missional Wisdom Foundation (MWF), a network of intentional communities formed by the Wesleyan tradition – over Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” Could it be that Jesus is present whenever any two or three are gathered, they asked, even if the gathering is not explicitly “in the name” of Jesus? If so, then Christians’ priority should be getting people together.
Duggins spends about a third of the book laying the biblical and theological groundwork for togetherness. The loose working definition of community is a gathering of two or three persons for some purpose. Since humans are created for relationship in the image of the Triune God, any community, Christian or not, has the potential to be a means of grace. Drawing on the Wesleyan taxonomy of grace, Duggin identifies these communities as means of “prudential grace,” a pragmatic category which encompasses any method for growing the kingdom which does not violate scripture of the tradition of the church.
Churches – sites of “instituted grace” – have long been places where community is nurtured. Duggins spends a chapter outlining the ways in which the church has traditionally brought people together: Sunday assemblies, Bible classes, service projects, potlucks, small groups, AA meetings, et cetera. American churches have excelled at community building. Sadly, Duggins asserts, these traditional church-based forms of community “no longer seem relevant to the present generation.” They have failed to live up to their potential as means of grace. He cites a host of stereotypes (legalism, exclusivity, political conservatism) which discourage unbelievers, doubters, and the disaffected from exploring these communities. On top of this, Duggins rightfully notes that the majority of church buildings across the country sit empty Monday through Saturday.
The proposal: churches should use their resources – especially their facilities – to draw people into “neutral” communities. The Missional Wisdom folks have been experimenting with this idea in Dallas and Ashville, converting underutilized spaces in church buildings to co-working space. The last third or so of the book considers how communities can be formed in these reimagined spaces around concrete human needs – work projects, food preparation, and child care. Simply being together in the same space, he argues, opens up new ways of being as people become available to one another through their shared presence. He offers several stories to illustrate the point.
Duggins’s effort to bring people together is an important step in the revitalization of American – especially mainline – churches. If it is to survive here, the church has to recover its place in the public square, and that may very well happen by entering the semi-public dimensions of life and work. However, I would urge caution in using the word “community” to describe these efforts. The word has already become debased in common usage, used primarily as a marketing tool. Christians should be careful that the word retains something of its original currency, which is a group of people bound together. Projects, affinities, and work may be shared by individuals, who then form “communities,” but only in the weakest sense. Christian community is built on reciprocity, the give and take of people whose lives are covenanted to each other, whose salvation in some real sense depends on each other. Matthew 18:20, the verse which forms the kernel of the book’s argument, is about a group of people authorized to forgive sins – what these “two or three” do on earth is ratified in heaven. In the case of the church, the “name of Jesus” is what turns the aggregate into true community – a means of sanctifying grace. It is not clear how one moves from the sort of causal sharing envisioned by Duggins to the robust community of discipleship witnessed in the gospels.
The MWF’s proposal could be better understood as a missional extension of the church’s community, an invitation into fuller communion. At the very end of the book, Duggins’s acknowledges that these alternative “communities” on their own are insufficient as means of grace; spiritual growth comes the instituted means of grace exercised within the church: baptism, eucharist, and the ministry of the word. For this project to be effective, however, the church itself must thicken up its own practices of “togetherness” so that those outside may be drawn in deeper, not only accepting the gifts of community, but also learning to give in turn.