Biblical and Cultural Community: Part 1

The Luncheon of the Boating Party, c.1881 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
I was on a trip last week with some amazing friends who are faithful missionaries to the city of Seattle, and we enjoyed a number of conversations on the topic of Biblical community. As you likely well know, this is a hot topic in Christianity today as many of our communities seem to have strayed far from the Biblical ideal and many people are working and praying towards change in this area. The Bible talks about having deep relationships where we share in one another’s struggles, serve, help and support each other, enjoy spending time together over meals, encourage one another in godliness, and so much more.

Having heard a spectrum of ideas on this topic and how they relate in American culture, a culture where community and a heart of serving one another is often lacking in the average neighborhood or area,  I got to thinking about the differences in community and relationships in the various cultures in which we serve. In some cultures, like my beloved home culture of Seattle, community suffers as people are highly independent and often isolated as a result. In other cultures we often struggle personally because the culture is so open and lives so intertwined that it can be difficult for our American mindsets to adapt.

One friend on this recent trip of mine was sharing about her friend living in an African culture and how for her family community there was almost instant. Very soon after moving into town there,  she and her family were brought wholly into the fold of the community.  The people in this place live life in a very open community, serving one another and being a part of one another’s daily life. It is generally assumed that her door revolves as freely as anyone else’s on her street.  People coming in and out, stopping by without notice, meals constantly being prepared and enjoyed by spontaneous guests… This to me sounds wonderful and amazing, but at the same time exhausting to my American mindset of  dinners scheduled weeks in advance and pre-planned coffee dates with friends.

My experience with Russian culture, though different than the story above, still is a contrast to the Seattle culture that I grew up in. In Seattle I found that making friends was quite easy with a bit of initiative, though often only to a certain extent. Depth takes time, and coming to the point where you would do almost anything to help a friend and open up and share the depths of your soul takes even longer.  In Russia though, I have heard from various sources,  people generally have a small handful of deep friendships during any given time in life and don’t eagerly seek to expand that circle to the dozens that we as Americans enjoy including among our group. Though many people have fewer friends, they have deeper friendships in which they regularly serve and sacrifice greatly for one another. Being accepted into the group of friends in our ministry was an amazing blessing and a learning experience too. Friends go so far out of their way to help and serve one another, regardless of the inconvenience. It is beautiful to see and experience and has taught me so much about how to love deeply and practically through truly serving and daily laying down one’s life (or personal priorities and plans) for a friend. I hope I keep growing in this! I see the image of God reflected so much in this aspect of Russian relationships.

There are so many reasons for these differences, such as different cultural views and values on things such as time, relationships, and autonomy. I don’t know about you, but sometimes distinguishing the difference between what is Biblical and what is comfortable for me personally can be difficult.

If you have a few minutes, it would be great to hear what community looks like where you live. Some questions for thought would be: What do you love? What is hard for you? What aspects of Biblical community do you see? In what ways are you hoping for or working towards change?

Next: What is Biblical community? Post # 2 will be up tomorrow (there was too much to post in one day) and will include some Biblical characteristics of healthy community. I would LOVE for you to share your own wisdom and thoughts about this too!

(Art courtesy of Renoir: The Luncheon of the Boating Party)


3 Responses to “Biblical and Cultural Community: Part 1”

  1. 1 Bethany May 26, 2009 at 7:54 am

    Biblical community has been on my mind a lot since we too left Seattle and moved to a new culture in Africa. Here, Malawians are very community oriented. They do not make decisions without the blessing of family and friends. Even in the prisons, no one would dare try to escape because if one does something wrong, all are punished. There is no concept of the individual. If one family member is blessed enough to go to college and lands a good job, they are expected to send money home. It would be wrong for that person to thrive and succeed above their family. Everyone is to be at the same level working together. Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, this is what I have observed here in Malawi.

    At first, I was so taken back by the love and devotion family and friends have for each other. It is a truly loving and giving culture. However, over time, I have seen negative affects. It is hard for Malawians to draw a line with each other. For example, many time families live together, that is in laws living with newlyweds, cousins, aunts and uncles all under one roof. Sometimes this is to save money, but it is mostly because of their community based culture. The uncle of your child is more like the father. They have the responsibility of paying school fees for their nephews and nieces and have the power to take them out of school in order to work instead, gaining the profits. The parents of that child may not see them again until they are grown! Parents do not name their own children but the grandparents do. At any point in time, you might take on another child of a relative just because they were sent. We’ve seen many families struggle because of this.

    As well, it is true that people drop by unexpectedly. I actually love this because I am a people person and I love to visit. However, there is no awareness or consideration in this practice. A person might stop by, but they expect food, drinks, tea and biscuits. They could stay at your house for HOURS! They don’t stop to think “Oh, maybe this family was on their way to do something, maybe they had plans to dine with someone else tonight…”. You wouldn’t ever want to offend anyone in this culture, so often times, the truth isn’t said. It would be wrong for me to ask unexpected guests to leave, even for a good reason. Expectations are high with a low level of consideration.

    It is difficult to draw the line with families in any culture. I have a friend who struggles with having her mother in law always at her house. I however hardly see my mother in law and have to encourage my husband to make contact with her when we are back in Seattle. Basically, I think that in Malawi, people are too involved for the wrong reasons. In America, we are too reclusive. We are unable to open up to those in our congregations out of fear that they might see the “real us”.

    Biblical community would be full of sinful people, recognizing their sinfulness in themselves and in others and still spending time with each other in fellowship and worship. I would think it would be filled with truth, both in speaking into each others lives, confessing to one another and encouraging each other in our walks with Christ. Of course, we will only find perfect Biblical community in Heaven, but we can pray and long for it here on Earth.

    -sorry for the long winded comment…it’s just been on my mind a lot lately.

  2. 2 alatvala May 26, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Wow Bethany, great thoughts. Thank you for sharing so in depth. I have never experienced the type of community/culture that you are living in right now, so all of your thoughts are so eye opening. It is easy to think closer community is better, but like all things without Christ, you’ve shared what happens on the opposite extreme end of the spectrum from extreme individualism and how that can be just as sinful. It is hard to picture exactly what that would look like without having ever experienced it, so again, your comment was so helpful. I will be praying for Malawi today based on what you’ve shared.

  3. 3 Patty Sommer May 31, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    I agree with Bethany almost 100%. Facing the idea of community in Africa can be daunting. Things in Ghana are almost exactly the same as in Malawi. Without God’s help, most of these people will live their lives in bondage to their culture and their families.
    I beieve Christian community is something I experiences as a young girl growing up. I was raised in a church where the people loved God and loved each other. It was by no means perfect, but it was a place where I felt safe to grow, learn, and be challenged to be what God wanted me to be.

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