From Individual Believers to Missional Community

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Take some time to read Matthew 4:18–22:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.—Matthew 4:18–22

Core truth: Following Jesus involves living as part of a community that guides and points others to God.

Jesus began his ministry by announcing God’s kingdom and calling his audience to realign with it. What does it look like to realign with God?

Jesus begins to answer this in Matthew 4:18–22 by creating a new community that will embody the kingdom’s values. This new community begins with two sets of brothers: Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. It is important for us to understand and see that the value and importance of community is embedded in the DNA of God’s kingdom. We were created for community. Following Jesus involves being part of the new humanity that lives for God’s kingdom.

A Community for the World

Jesus’ new community will embody the kingdom in the world, to the world, and for the world. Too often we can equate spirituality and religion with separation from the surrounding world. Monks move away from society to live in monasteries. Priests and shamans wear distinctive clothing to mark their separation from the rest of humanity. Even ordinary Christians spend time away on retreats from the world. Jesus’ new community will be different.

The community of Jesus exists not as an escape from the world but rather as an outpost for the kingdom of God. It is in the community of Jesus’ followers where the kingdom of God is made manifest. Jesus’ new community lives in anticipation of the coming day of abundance where all creation will bear witness to the justice, peace, joy, and love found in God. Until that day, Jesus’ disciples serve as clues to the wider world of the good news of God’s future.

Communal Not Individualistic

There is a temptation in the spirituality of our world to focus solely on the individual. Christians sometimes talk about the need to have a personal relationship with Jesus. There is truth in this as each of us must answer Jesus’ call to follow him. But notice that from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he called two sets of brothers rather than merely solitary persons. There was never a moment when there was only Jesus and a single follower. He called brothers in part to signify that following Jesus means joining and participating in a new community.

If Jesus were in our modern context, he would likely have called brothers and sisters or maybe even sisters. But the ancient world was male-driven and dominated, so a band of men was the only option to speak meaningfully to the culture of the ancient world. Moreover, Jesus’ new community would eventually include twelve male disciples. This number was symbolic and meaningful for the Jews of Jesus’ day because ancient Israel had been organized around twelve tribes that each traced their ancestry back to the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel.

The implications of the necessity of community are vast. The fundamental truth is that we need each other in our journey of becoming all that God desires for us to be. Yes, each of us must exercise personal faith, but true faith manifests itself in relationships with others.

Those of us seeped in American mythology tend to amplify the hero over the collective. We tend to read the Bible as instructions for us as individuals. As we journey through the biblical narrative together, a key learning will be the communal nature of what it means to be a Christian as well as a human. God originally created humans for community. Part of our brokenness involves the fracturing of our relational lives. Jesus calls men and women to a new community. We genuinely need one another. We misread the Bible whenever we forget that Scripture speaks to us as people in community more than it addresses us merely as individuals. Each of us has a part to play. But we are part of a team.

Missional Community as Clues to the Kingdom

God’s people on mission serve corporately as clues to the reality of the kingdom. In the New Testament book of Philippians, Paul uses a powerful metaphor to describe how a missional community manifests the kingdom in the world, to the world, and for the world. In Philippians 2:15, he describes how God’s people shine forth like stars. This is a rich image. Imagine the stars on the darkest of nights when you are far from the lights of any city. How do they appear? They leap off the fabric of the sky and radiate brightly.

For millennia, humans have used the stars for guidance and to tell stories. Sailors have navigated their vessels by way of the stars. Storytellers have found pictures outlined by groupings of stars in order to narrate memorable tales. When Paul talks about shining like stars, he is reminding the Philippian Christians that their words and actions tell a story. Individual followers of Jesus serve as clues to the kingdom of God. The beauty of community is the possibility for enough clues to group together to point to the deepest truths about God’s love and desire to bless the world.

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Dr. Brian Russell is Dean of the School of Urban Ministries and Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also a consultant and speaker on the missional interpretation of Scripture and creating a missional ethos in communities of faith.

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