One of the most interesting terms used to describe the early church was “The Way” (cf. Acts 9:2; 22:4). This term implies movement and pilgrimage. The church is thus a group of people who are in transition from where they are toward where God is leading. The church is also a band of pilgrims who never settle in any culture as a lasting expression of identity. John Bunyan expressed that concept in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
In Images of the Church in the New Testament, Paul Minear presents four images of the church:
(1) Fellowship of the forgiven. People who have experienced transforming grace in Jesus’ atonement and are now bound to others who are saved and being saved.
(2) Body of Christ. Communities of care that express the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts through ministry within the fellowship and into the neighborhood.
(3) People of God. God’s people assembled in worship who are commissioned to systematically address their cultures as ambassadors of another kingdom.
(4) New Creation. A visible beginning of the kind of human society God has planned for eternity.
Spend some time thinking of texts in the New Testament that support these images. Have members of the group offer examples of what these four big images look like from their own experiences of the Christian community. With these things in mind, discuss these questions:
[Q] What images of the church appear evident in Colson’s west Michigan experiences?
[Q] In what ways do these communities balance both the internal character and the external mission of the church as portrayed in one or more of these images?
[Q] How do you suppose non-Dutch and non-Christian people living in Ottawa County perceive the dominance of the Dutch Reformed in shaping their neighborhood?
[Q] If things are as good and healthy in these western Michigan communities as Colson seems to indicate, what comes next? Is it possible for communities to so embody the New Testament images of the church that they have nowhere else to go?
Teaching point three: One of the most important dimensions of Christian living is to make a difference in one’s neighborhood.
The Dutch Reformed immigrants who came to Iowa and west Michigan originally set up their colonies in isolation from other groups. Because of the tremendous growth in world population and the relatively limited amount of space on earth today, most of us are not able to repeat that experience. We can’t create neighborhoods that are so marked by ethnic and religious homogeneity that they shape our communities. Yet we must be salt and light to those around us (Matt. 6:13–16), while taking care of the needs of one another, particularly those of the household of faith (Gal. 6).
[Q] Since many of us have moved away from our hometowns, how can we follow Colson’s advice to “sink our roots into the towns we now call home”? In what ways can we give back something of what we produce in them?
[Q] If we do make contributions to our communities, how do we guard against doing that simply to protect our own—e.g. giving to schools to make them better for our own children, or helping out at the library so we have better resources for our families, or donating to the local hospital so it’s better equipped to treat our diseases? How do we get beyond self-interest in giving back to the towns and neighborhoods in which we live?
[Q] What would happen to your neighborhood if all the members of your church suddenly left? What would it look like in fifty years if your church followed Colson’s suggestions to stay put and rejuvenate its surroundings? Do you know any churches that have done that? Share some examples.
Apply Your Findings
Are we enriching our neighborhoods or are we cocooning ourselves within the splendid isolation of our gated neighborhoods? Colson sees the Dutch Reformed areas of west Michigan as an example of Christian community development at its best. Others living there or who have moved away on purpose may have a different view.
[Q] Spend some time discussing how we as a church are contributing to our neighborhood and community in time, talent, and treasure. What percentage of our tithe in each is focused locally? What about globally? Is there room for improvement here?
[Q] When Jesus returns to make all things new, how much of what we have done in his name in our neighborhood will show that we have been responsible for the resources he left with us? How do we judge that? Give examples.
―Study by Wayne Brouwer, pastor and author of many books and
articles on the intersection of faith and practice.
Why we should sink our roots in the places we call home.
For those who think the Reformation no longer influences American life, I recommend a trip to western Michigan. I was there recently for the dedication of the Rich and Helen DeVos Arts and Worship Center at Grand Rapids Christian High School. Everything about it was impressive, designed with excellence. Rich DeVos, who was born in Grand Rapids and attended that school, has never lost his love for his community, which he expresses through his philanthropy.
DeVos is not alone. Driving through western Michigan neighborhoods, you see on building after building the names of Dutch Reformed families who settled that area: the Van Andel Medical Institute, the DeVos Children’s Hospital, the Prince Conference Center at Calvin College, the DeWitt, DePree, and Cook buildings at Hope College. And names like Huizenga, Volkema, and Jansma fill the corporate offices that are widely respected for community endeavors.
Devotion like this reflects a Christian commitment to community, in sharp contrast to what’s happening elsewhere in our culture. This era will be remembered for the business scandals in which corporate raiders cooked books, bilked stockholders, left employees in the lurch, and then fled to mansions on faraway beaches.
What makes western Michigan citizens so different is their heritage. A hardy and industrious people, the Dutch arrived in Michigan and Iowa in the mid-19th century explicitly to plant, as historian John Bratt put it, “Christian communities to serve as radiating centers of the gospel.” They reflected “cultural Calvinism,” which reached its zenith in 19th-century Holland. It emphasized the lordship of Christ and sphere sovereignty—the belief that each institution in society has its ordained role.
This Reformation-influenced vision continues, which is why Ottawa County was so successful when, a few years ago, then-Governor John Engler challenged Michigan counties to get jobs for all able-bodied welfare recipients. Ottawa County asked its 250 churches to help; 60 signed up. Within a year, the welfare rolls were emptied.
This commitment to community is why the descendants of the original settlers have continued to plow their profits back into their hometowns—residents like the late Edgar Prince and his family, who led efforts to gut downtown Holland (seat of Ottawa County) and totally rebuild it. The family even started a restaurant knowing it would lose money. Why? Because it serves as the local gathering place, fostering a sense of community—like the coffee shops of an earlier era. The town’s benefactors self-consciously work at giving citizens a sense of attachment, and then pass their values on to succeeding generations.
Christians should emulate this caring about community, especially the soil in which they were reared. Remember, the faith began as communities of believers living in a hostile culture. The particulars of time and place help shape our identity.
One great scholar, Russell Kirk, not only wrote about the importance of roots and tradition, but also lived it. Not long before he died in 1994, I visited Kirk at his home in Mecosta, Michigan. Now, Mecosta isn’t much more than a truck stop in the boonies. But Kirk stayed put, inconvenient though it was, because six generations of his family had lived there. A true conservative, he had a keen sense of place and belonging.
In today’s mobile culture, not everybody can stay in their hometowns, as Kirk did, or as so many Dutch immigrants have. Social and economic factors—the post—World War II economic explosion, easy air travel, and sprawling international companies—have eroded our sense of connection to communities. But we can sink our roots into the towns we now call home. The principle remains: What we produce in and from our communities we should return to them.
Most of America used to be like Ottawa County. Civic duty was once a cardinal American virtue, so much so that Tocqueville commented that there weren’t ten men in all of France who did what Americans did every day as a matter of course-raising barns, feeding the hungry, and looking after orphans. Christians must set the example for recovering this tradition and rejuvenating in our communities the sense of responsibility the Dutch Reformed citizens of western Michigan demonstrate.
C. S. Lewis, who lived in the same Oxford house most of his adult life, put it well: As Christians, we can’t love the whole world. But we should remember that God has placed us in a specific community at a particular time. We’re called to love those around us. Loving them means serving them—and in doing so, we become the best of citizens.
“Being Here,” Christianity Today, August 2003, Page 64.
How is the church called to be different from the local social club?
Christian community often is confused with mere cordiality, courtesy, or sociability, says Howard A. Snyder. As such, it can be not much different from the Kiwanis Club or a neighborhood potluck. But genuine Christian fellowship is a gift of the Holy Spirit, centered on Jesus, which becomes a living witness to Christ and the gospel in the world.
Why can authentic Christian fellowship be so difficult to develop? What are the markers of genuine Christian fellowship? How can it be deepened and strengthened? These are the questions we’ll be asking and discussing in this study.