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This is the very essence of community: less of me, and more of us.
Maintaining Christian community in isolation
Since the start of 2020, we’ve experienced events that have changed the world. What started as an obscure illness in central China has transformed into a global, once-in-a-generation pandemic. Slowly but surely, our public spaces have been drained, hollowed out, and left empty. The remnants around us now stand as a testament to the extraordinary impact of the coronavirus—restaurants, cafes, malls, cinemas, gyms, schools, universities, workplaces, even sport itself, have all been forced, one by one, to close their doors as mass gatherings (in many parts of the world) are now illegal. The public square is officially closed for business.
What this represents, alongside the potential collapse of domestic healthcare systems and the global economy, is the real-time collapse of community. As places that once brought people together are no longer allowed to operate, community recedes and isolation grows. Contrary to what John Donne once wrote, people are becoming islands, trapped in their own homes, devoid of the community they once shared with their fellow citizens.
Of all the groups to be impacted by a breakdown in community and an increase in isolation, one group that will feel this impact severely is the church. After all, the church isn’t a place or a building; it’s a community of believers who survive and thrive in communion with other Christians. We therefore face a dilemma. On the one hand, the church survives through having community among its members. On the other hand, the coronavirus (and the ensuing enforced isolation) is undermining the very community on which the church depends. How, then, are Christians able to maintain a sense of community with one another despite
I suggest that Paul’s letter to the Philippians offers some helpful, practical principles to help us do just that. Written to Christians living in a deeply patriotic city of the Roman Empire, and in the midst of persecution for following Jesus as the true king of the world, the circumstances surrounding the letter, while different at root cause, are similar to those faced by Christians today in the midst of the coronavirus. In both situations, there is loss of community and the prospect of isolation. To this marginalised community in Philippi, Paul writes:
If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:1–4
The first principle is that to maintain community, we must not give in to selfishness. The reason is because selflessness is a foundational pillar of community. To be part of a community is to put away a desire to put ourselves first in pursuit of relationships with others that emerge from putting them first. To be part of a community is to be more than just an individual; it means to be a member of a group of people who do things not for themselves, but for each other. The reason why the coronavirus poses a threat to community is because a health pandemic fosters a scarcity mindset fed by the instinct for self-preservation. At times like this, selfishness is natural but community is vital – a community built on selfless acts of love.
Second, in order to maintain community, we must consider others before ourselves. In other words, we must have humility. Yet, this is the very thing that’s being undermined by the coronavirus. In an effort to take care of ourselves, we often see other people not as objects of our help but as a potential threat to our wellbeing. This is a suspicion born from a loss of humility. Instead, a mindset of humility in circumstances like ours manifests itself in reaching out to those who are worried, sending food to those in need, and seeking to help those in poor health. This is the very essence of community: less of me, and more of us.
Finally, we come to an affirmation that’s central to the Christian faith: to maintain community, we must love one another. This is simultaneously the most obvious and the most difficult thing to do. It’s hard to love when this goes against our instinct for self-preservation – particularly during times of crisis. The coronavirus has demonstrated that physical survival makes a compelling case against almost everything else. But when it comes to our spiritual survival, our instinct for self-preservation will eventually kill us. Every community, and most especially the church, is built not on survival, but on love. It’s a love that suffers long, that bears burdens, that trusts, hopes, and endures. It’s a love that transcends space and time through selfless acts of service.
As long as the public square remains closed, our sources of community will remain scarce. At such a time as this, with the level of physical isolation continuing, it’s vital that a loss of community doesn’t become dominant in the church. To prevent that, let’s rediscover the vision of the church in Philippians 2: in spite of all uncertainties brought by this pandemic, let’s remain in communion with one another by being unselfish, humble, and loving people.
Christian Bargholz is an associate editor of InterSections and a member of the Eastside Church of Christ
in Sydney. firstname.lastname@example.org