Counterfeit Community

By Charles Crismier

Is your frustration building? Pursuit of Christian unity is hitting a wall. Programs, gospel gimmicks and compromise… even prayer are failing to yield true community. Here’s why.

Cries for Christian unity have defined much of the public expression of the church over the last two decades. Calls, conferences and commitments to racial reconciliation have played a significant role in the current yearning for unity. A plethora of exhortations that “they may be one” have made Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” of John 17 a centerpiece of the Christian unity movement. Yet genuine unity eludes us.

Pastors and Parishioners at Risk

George Barna, in his book Virtual America, revealed statistics that should break your heart.

  • Fifty-five percent of non-Christian Americans believe it is getting harder and harder to make lasting friendships
  • Sixty-two percent of “born-again” Christians claim it is getting hard to make lasting friendships
  • Seventy-three percent of “evangelical” Christians are finding it difficult to make real friends

It seems the stronger the alleged commitment to scriptural authority, the more severe the problem of our relationships. Conclusion: the more RELIGION, the less RELATIONSHIP. Something is desperately wrong! Divided and in a state of dissolution, we stand. Individualism reigns supreme.

On my daily broadcast, VIEWPOINT, I interviewed H.B. London, head of pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family. Our focus was “Pastors at Risk.” He disclosed that at least 70 percent of pastors in America claim they have NO friends.

Whatever happened to Christian community? Whatever happened to the “covenant community” in America”? Are we destined to be strangers in the “Commonwealth of Faith?” Can we truly have unity without genuine community?

The fracture of community is also revealed in the widening chasm that divides our families. The divorce rate among professing Christians exceeds that of the nation at large. The divorce rate among pastors equals that of their congregations (Hartford Seminary Study), the second highest of all professions, and divorce in the “Bible Belt” exceeds the nation at large by 50 percent (Rutgers University Study – “The State of Our Unions”). Christ may be our Savior, but SELF is king. Could it be that the Church has taken the lead even in estranging the family? Counterfeit community is devastating us and destroying our witness.

William Hendricks, author of Exit Interviews, also appeared on VIEWPOINT. He revealed that 53,000 people per week who remain committed to Christ are leaving through the “backdoor” of America’s churches. He concluded that many parishioners do not believe they are being told the whole “gospel truth,” that their unique giftedness and purpose as part of a body is not recognized, and that the church does not provide true Christian fellowship and community but has become a “gospel country club” of Sunday back-slappers who care little about one another after the worship service. Add to that the new “mall” methods of mass ministry and you have a pretense of community utterly void of natural commitment to one another.

Organizational “unity” programs multiply, rhetorical unity abounds, but genuine relational substance is scarce. Why? What is it that frustrates experiencing the fruit of true unity? Could it be that in our increasing pursuit of unity we have missed the community out of which unity is born?

The Real and the Counterfeit

It is said that the best way to identify counterfeit currency is to study the real thing. The sin nature is pervasive, and we humans have a distinct propensity to counterfeit the real in every area of life. This is true also of such prized commodities as unity and community. American pragmatism only fuels the counterfeiting fires, enabling us to stamp “UNITY” or “COMMUNITY” on relational coinage that lacks the spiritual or relational “metal” of true unity and community.

Genuine unity is forged in community. It cannot be carved out of the cold rock of American hyper-individualism. Rather, it is hammered out in the intense heat of relationships being welded together “in Christ.” The very godhead is an eternal display and declaration of community… Father, Son and Holy Spirit – distinct persons, yet one – united in truth and spirit. Even so, we who are born of the Spirit and saved through the sacrifice of the Son who declared himself “The TRUTH” become “one” with the Father. This was Jesus’ vision in his “high priestly prayer” of John 17. Jesus said true worshipers must worship Him both in spirit and truth.

Truth coupled with the warm wind of relationship in the Spirit is essential to Christian community that produces the fruit of biblical unity. That relationship is not just with the Father but revealed in our communion – common union – with one another. Just as truth and relationship are indispensable to our union in Christ, they are indispensable in common union with one another.

Without the fulness of both truth and relationship born of the spirit, our faith becomes either a cold set of creeds or an orgy of conjured feelings. Compromised truth in pursuit of unity yields nothing but a cheap counterfeit – sentimentality. Similarly, conjured feelings of unity without genuine common union in real relationships mocks the costly currency of true unity expressed in community.

So how did we come to so readily accept such tinny counterfeits? Is there an essential “metal” that has eluded us in producing the coinage of genuine comm-unity that gives rise to the glorious unity we so desire? There is, and it is called HOSPITALITY.

Whatever Happened to Hospitality?

There was a time when hospitality was at the heart of the American home. There was a time when hearts and homes that practiced hospitality welded families into community with an invisible glue that let people know they belonged and were welcome and accepted. And there was a time twenty centuries ago when one of the hallmarks of the Church was “behold how they love one another.” They broke bread together “from house to house with gladness and singleness of heart,” and the Church exploded (Acts 2:41-47). Hospitality was the earthly expression of the eternal hope of believers.

Something dramatic has happened, however, since those times, causing Christianity Today (May 22, 2000) to ask the headline question, “Whatever Happened to Hospitality?” There is a pervasive sense throughout our land that hospitality is becoming discouragingly scarce as an art and as an expression of the heart. So let me ask you, Whatever happened to hospitality?

Many experience “crowded loneliness” – surrounded by people but lost in the crowd. The spirit of the mall has become the consumer model for the Master’s church. There is a growing absence of heart connectedness, a deep feeling that no one knows my name, or even cares. The collective effect is the collapse of community, a conclusion validated by both secular and spiritual observers. Even our church buildings are increasingly designed like malls, breeding grounds for artificial relationships. We belong to the club of strangers yearning desperately for fellowship. Often even our small group or cell group efforts become more methodologies for organizational growth than for genuine biblical and Kingdom relationships. Artificiality is becoming normative. And we are becoming virtually strangers… in the crowd, yet lonely.

Crowded loneliness is frightening. God well understood the implications of lack of relationship rooted in genuine community. He warned Israel from the moment of their deliverance from the bondage of Egypt to reach to the stranger. But the insidious roots of strangerhood have assaulted the American heart, threatening the very faith that bred our freedom.

Alexis de Tocqueville first diagnosed the danger of selfish isolationism that threatened the nation. In Habits of the Heart, sociologists discuss the gravity of de Tocqueville’s 1830’s observations for our time, noting it was he who coined the term “individualism.” Individualism has mutated now into hyper-individualism, a virulent disease of the soul now threatening to destroy even Christian community and the God-ordained heart of hospitality that undergirds all genuine community.

The Divine Antidote

“Hospitality is as close as we will ever get to the face of God,” declared a rabbi. Hospitality is at the heart of the Gospel. God was not willing that we, who were estranged from Him by sin, should remain strangers. The Father sent forth His Son to extend an invitation to His home, welcoming those who would receive His invitation into a holy comm-unity called the Church. His desire was that we be one in community with Him even as Christ was, that the world would be convinced of Christ and His mission.

Hospitality is to reach to strangers. In a very real and growing sense, we are all strangers here. We must grasp the God-breathed need for Christ-infused hospitality to reach the virtual strangers around us, beginning with those virtual strangers right in our midst in the household of faith.

Hospitality is glorious, but not glamorous. It is not an artificial marketing tool but the Master’s authentic method for birthing and maintaining relational community. Therefore, the Apostle Paul stated that anyone in a position of leadership in the Church must first be “given to” hospitality and be a “lover” of hospitality. In describing the functional essence of Christian relationships, Paul made clear that all who follow Christ must be “given to” hospitality.

Contrary to popular thinking and teaching, hospitality is not a gift I have, but a gift I must give. It is the practical handle God has given to implement agape love. It is the attitude of the heart which, when expressed collectively among members of the Body, produces the authentic relational womb that births a community in which a people linked in truth are described as being in “unity.” Unity is not the goal but rather the fruit that issues from the root. When either truth or community relationship fostered by hospitality are missing in whole or in part, we seek gospel gimmicks to replace them. The result is not true unity but a counterfeit, requiring constant catering to fleshly interests demanding a conformity of compromise rather than to Christ.

As we see the day of our Lord’s return rapidly approaching, the Holy Spirit bringing re-birth to the holy heart of hospitality that graced the life of the early Church, causing outsiders to desire becoming insiders as they observed the unity of truth displayed in holy community. We yearn again for the world to inescapably conclude, “Behold, how they love one another.” But first it will be necessary to restore the Hebraic roots of the church.

Restoring Our Hebraic Roots

How could Christian leadership since the early Church have largely lost the profound simplicity of hospitality? The viewpoint of the Church and its leaders changed dramatically.

The Church was born in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish feast celebrated fifty days after the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of First Fruits. Pentecost was followed by the Feast of Trumpets and the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrated by Jesus, His apostles and the Apostle Paul, all of which were Jewish, to display God’s covenantal community before the nations. The “Feasts of the Lord” were open to all who embraced the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel,” whether Jew or Gentile.

Into such a spiritual environment Yeshua (Christ) was presented as the “Word made flesh,” “Tabernacled among us,” welcoming all who would receive Him to His Father’s eternal home. It was in this same Hebraic environment that the Church was born.

As the Church spread, invading Gentile realms, Gentile thinking and ways invaded the Church. Predominant were Greek thinking and Roman organization. For the Greek, the mind mattered most, and relationship was of remote relevancy. Hellenistic influence rapidly replaced the Hebraic heart. God’s Truth became not a faith to be practiced but facts to be pondered.

For gentile Christians, it became more “kosher” to think like a Greek than like a Jew. This eroded Hebraic practice. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, so did the Roman Empire spread its ways and practices among Christians. Roman structures and organizational ways replaced Hebraic synagogues and relational patterns of worship.

With radical changes of thought and practice among Christians came radical rejection of Hebraic practices and persecution of the Jews, severing our Hebraic roots while laying the foundation for seventeen centuries of abandonment of the very heart and soul of first-century Christianity.

The Spirit of God is grieved. He is bringing course correction. It is part of the Holy Spirit’s “preparing the way” for our Lord’s return. Much is at stake. Our future success will depend significantly on the degree to which we restore the Hebraic roots that open our hearts hospitably to others.

Nowhere is the substitution of the Greek mind for the Hebraic heart more prevalent in practice than among pastors. We who pastor have become the primary perpetrators and propagators of a purely cognitive approach to the practice of Christian faith. While what we believe is truly important, how we live is of equal or greater importance. The great gap between what we say we believe and how we really live opens us and our flocks to self deception.

In few places is this gap more apparent than in the practice of hospitality. While statistics do not always tell the whole truth, the fact that 70 percent of pastors admit they have no friends reveals a significant disconnect between our sincere desire to practice agape love and our failure to practice hospitality.

When hospitality begins to invade and issue from a pastor’s heart, new hope and healing flows from his ministry. His home becomes a revitalized haven for his family, the faithful, and those who would enter the family of God. The spirit of true community comes alive. Genuine unity emerges naturally from the vibrancy of community.

The Pastoral Connection

If we truly want unity, we must restore community. Genuine community will flower with a fresh pursuit of truth and a rebirth of hospitality. To preach hospitality, I must practice hospitality. And if I would practice hospitality, I will soon preach hospitality. Hospitality must again become an essential of Christian discipleship.

If we would be touched with hospitality, we must teach hospitality. Hospitality gives us a “handle” on agape love. It requires not only teaching but also training, enveloping every aspect of our Christian walk. Once one gains a vision for The POWER of Hospitality, forgiveness, reconciliation, fellowship, reaching the lost, and virtually every other aspect of ministry and relationship take on new significance and meaning, including unity.

The heart of our faith is revealed in a heart of hospitality. Let’s get serious about discipling the saints in this essential expression of God’s grace to us. May no Christian magazine ever again need to ask, “Whatever Happened to Hospitality?” And may The POWER of Hospitality give rebirth to genuine Christian comm-unity causing a skeptical world to again declare, “Behold how they love one another,” thus extending a welcoming hand to those in a fractured and hyper-individualistic society who will embrace “the WAY, the TRUTH and the LIFE.”

Charles Crismier, founder of Save America Ministries, is host of VIEWPOINT, a national radio broadcast “Confronting the Issues of America’s Heart and Home.” This article is partially taken from a new release, The POWER of Hospitality (2005, Elijah Books) by Chuck and Kathie Crismier.