The Common Good
July 1986

The Call To Community

by Gordon Cosby | July 1986

Depending on God's Grace --Jim Wallis interviews Gordon Cosby.

Jim Wallis: In this spirituality series, "The Life of Faith," we began by talking about conversion and faith. I'd also like to hear your thoughts about community. How is community an expression of faith, and how does community nurture faith?

Gordon Cosby: The conversion experience brings one into a conscious relationship with Jesus, but at the same time it brings one into a conscious relationship with other people. When the conversion experience is a whole conversion experience, one is brought into a corporate reality and therefore, in some genuine, authentic sense, into community. If conversion to the gospel begins with individual praying, it becomes a matter of the person moving from that individualism into being part of a corporate entity. It's a long journey from individualism to being a "corporate" person, but a necessary one.

So you're saying that part of the call of the gospel itself is a call to a new community as well as to Christ.

That's right. You can't have one without the other. All of the images in the scriptures having to do with the church are corporate images - the people of God, the body of Christ. The person who says, "I want to belong to Jesus, but I don't want to belong to community," is saying that which is impossible from a biblical understanding of the church.

How is the community a crucible of conversion? How does continuing conversion occur in the context of community?

It seems to me that individualism is so strong in each one of us that we have to be converted step by step to get to the place where we really are corporate people. A community has to have different stages for that continuing conversion to occur. So you have exploratory steps, such as intern or novice membership.

Becoming a corporate person has to happen step by step because community is very, very frightening and extremely difficult. It is much more difficult than that new person realizes. Community is hell for many, many people - or an experience to be tolerated.

Why is that so?

I think that's because we are so individualistic. We have our own ego needs, and every new step of community is a threat to the false self. We hope that the false self will die and the true self will come into its fullness and completion. That is the self which is the corporate self and which is concerned with the common good, not only within the life of the community but for the larger common good. But the process of that false self dying so that the true self may be actualized is a very, very painful process. We resist that death even though community insists on it.

The dying of the false self is not a conceptual death. It's an actual death in the context of other selves that each of us comes up against in community - and they are wounded, fractured, and broken individuals, just as we are fractured and broken and wounded. With all that woundedness rubbing up against the woundedness of one another, it's a difficult phase. But that's the context for the movement away from the false self, the inauthentic self, to begin. The person who says, "I want to belong to Jesus, but I don't want to belong to community," is saying that which is impossible from a biblical understanding of the church.

I'm intrigued by your description of this movement from being a person who is individualistically preoccupied to one who has a corporate sense of self and vision. How would you describe those two kinds of people? What happens to people as they enter community as "individual" persons and become more and more corporate persons?

I think the average person who comes into a Christian community wants support for his or her life, but feels that they must make fundamental decisions themselves. They want to be associated with community for comfort's sake, for a sense of support with other people. They want to be associated with a group of people that is doing significant things and is on the right side of the issues. But they are not at all ready to surrender any part of their sovereignty to a larger call.

What I'm talking about is the sort of thing that happens between two individuals in marriage. You can have two individuals who have a very close, wonderful friendship with one another. They are associated with one another, and they give one another support. But that's different from a union in which those two give up some sovereignty and the two become one.

I think that's something like the process that happens when a person genuinely enters into community. We are not only associated with one another and giving one another support. Something happens, and we begin to conceive of ourselves as part of a larger entity, as members of a body, not existing except as members of that body. Our deep, authentic existence is drawn from a body to which we belong and from playing a part in its life.

I think this movement is a gradual process. The average person, even after having been in community for quite a long time, will still be making basic individual decisions and then may announce to the community that they have decided to leave it. They will have done it on their own, not as a part of a process. They haven't considered that they really were a part of the body, nor said, "I need your discernment, I need your help on this."

It's very important for me to play my part as a member of a body and not just work for my individual fulfillment. And the same principle applies to how we belong to the totality of the body of Christ, so that we transcend the local community of which we are a part.

I'm struck by how you differentiate association from union. A lot of people think they want community. But what they really want is an association with others that will enhance their own individual capacities and fulfillment. They are not really seeking union with other people that entails, as you say, a surrender of sovereignty.

I think this is the heartbeat of the issue. For a community to be maintained and its life deepened over a period of time, there must be a "critical mass" of people who understand just what the community is about. It is this critical mass of people that is seriously in union with the community and is not seeking personal enhancement in and through the community, or making demands of ego on the community.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer called these personal ego demands "wish-dreams." Bonhoeffer said they are imposed on the community, which then tends to destroy the community. But if you've got that critical mass who really understands the community, then it can deal with the people who come in expecting the community to enhance their egos and their own fulfillment. In one sense, it is very desirable that certain of their dimensions be enhanced; but the death process has to take place so that that which has been enhanced is now serving the community, rather than enhancing and serving the ego needs of the person.

Every community has to be aware of and see whether it has that critical mass. And it needs to sustain that critical mass and not give itself in so many different types of outreach or mission that it doesn't nurture this inner core of its life. It's not an easy thing to see. You can't say, well this person has really made this transition and this person over here has not. It's very subtle. But if I know that it is going on, I've got a better chance of being aware of what the community needs and how to nurture it.

A few months ago, when you were sharing an evening with Sojourners Community, we learned about the breakup of a community that has been very close to us for a decade. You instinctively responded about the fragility of community and how forces, particularly the forces of evil around us, want to break up community. Can you say more about what nurtures and sustains a community for the long haul?

First of all, I think that it's very right for some communities to go out of existence. It's not always a tragedy, because the Spirit can call people together for a period of time. Sometimes it's appropriate for that time to end and for the Spirit then to call those people, and other people, to new combinations of life. That's important to recognize, because sometimes we assume that anything that is good ought to go on forever, and I just don't believe that.

So if there's that sort of call into being and out of being, I rejoice in it. But I think a lot of communities are not really called out of being, but instead they are destroyed by the forces of our society and the demonic working through the forces of our society. I think that's what you were talking about, and we need to be aware of it.

Then how do we sustain it? One of the important things is the process through which people come into membership in any community. That is where the battle is lost for most of us. We don't have people who are discerning enough to be able to detect some of the inauthentic motivations and deal with them ahead of time.

Now the minute a new person comes into membership, that person has ultimate power to determine the direction and the destiny of the community. That's really what membership means. But all of the members of a community are not members on the same basis and understanding of Christian community.

If a community is going to have a life which is an alternative life to the dominant culture and the dominant consciousness, then it must clearly define what its corporate life is and is not about. It must clearly prepare people who want to explore that life and who are making the transition from non-community to community life. A fundamental difference exists between what the new person has lived through within the dominant society and what they aspire to in this alternative community which is the church. It's in that initial period of spiritual formation that the person really enters into the community. That is where I feel we can lose the battle.

Sometimes it comes to be a power struggle between the people who see community at a deeper level and the people who were attracted to the excitement and the vitality and the works of the Holy Spirit in the community. This latter group finds that the price is too high for them to pay; they do not really want this death and resurrection, and the next death and resurrection, and the next death and resurrection. Then you've got a battle going on within the membership.

A community that was at one time called into being can move into a period when the Spirit departs and it does not have that critical mass. This is what I mean by the fragility of community. Without people who have the gift of discernment, you may not know until several years have gone by that the Spirit has really been lost. The community can start operating on its natural power, on the basis of sound, rational planning and efficiency - all of the things that the world operates on. And people who are gifted can do a lot of good things even when the community has shifted. It may have shifted slowly and without members discerning it.

Another reason why community is fragile is that sometimes a community is held together not only by a certain combination of persons but by one person who is crucial to that combination, and when that one person is lost, the community is gone. Nobody can pull it back, because this is the person who had the spiritual authority within the life of the community to keep reminding the community or bringing it back to where it should be.

Grace and Spiritual Gifts

What are the temptations that threaten a community after it has been formed and existed for several years, after it has become more or less successful?

Any community in good, strong shape is existing by God's grace. Yet, the stronger and more powerful it is, the more vulnerable a community is, because it has to deal with power and success. It has to deal with its fame and with the way other people and the society perceive it. It has all of the temptations that Jesus had in the wilderness. The community, therefore, faces new temptations because of its effectiveness.

Another way to describe this is through what is called the "monastic cycle." The cycle is that devotion produces discipline, discipline produces abundance, and abundance destroys discipline. The cycle happens both individually and corporately. Through the devotion that comes in knowing Christ, meeting Christ, and being overcome by the grace which we have been given, our sins are forgiven. We then want to be open to the disciplines whereby the grace can be enhanced in our lives.

The disciplines are an opening to grace that can fill our lives. So we do that, and grace pours in to us individually; it pours into us as a community. In terms of the gospel image, we are faithful with one city, with its human intensities, opportunities, and responsibilities, and so we are asked to be faithful with 10 cities, or a hundred cities. But at this point the temptation, it seems to me, always is to believe that we have done the work rather than accepting that we were the channels, or instruments, of God. It's almost impossible for those things not to slip in at that point, because we think we've got the key to this thing, we know how to go about it, and we've gotten sophisticated enough to make our way around the world. People ask us how to deal with things, and they treat us as authorities.

The critical question then becomes: Can a community stand the pressures of abundance? It takes a deeper level of faith for a community to rejoice in its abundance and to know that abundance is the result of grace rather than its own capabilities and maturity. So it's an issue of whether or not the community can sufficiently deepen its faith.

In the early days, all of us had to depend upon grace, through whatever resources came to us, to survive a week. Now, most of us have a financial basis that can survive a longer time. So we're not as dependent. At the same time, we declare that we are depending upon God's grace. We don't have to depend on it in the way we did earlier, so it's important to learn how we can be dependent in our own hearts and spirits for the Spirit to be with us every day now, as when we were literally dependent on it each day. I just think it takes more faith to do that.

Are there essential elements of community? Are there secrets, perfect models, key structures, or unchanging institutions that make community work? Are there other elements, in addition to a critical mass, that really need to be present for the core community to begin, to endure, and to sustain itself?

I think you've got to have one or two people who somehow have been so touched by God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, that they can call the community into being.

Do you mean a founder or founders?

I mean a founder who soon has founders, but I think it usually starts with a founder. You may have a couple of other people who are exploring and saying we need to do something. Often, out of that group, you have one person who says, "I am going to do it." Then some of those other people who are exploring say, "Well, I'd like to go with you." But often it's that one person who simply starts trying to create community, without having done much of this intellectual work regarding models. I think it usually starts at a deeper level.

Those who gather around that leader have to work with what they perceive to be the fundamental dimensions of the community that they are bringing into being. They have to get down to very clear specifics of what are the marks of community for them. Everybody's got to get down to the hard work of saying that my call is a call to be a part, to bring into being, to be evolving with the community, and these are the necessary minimums to make it worthwhile for me to lay down my life.

These minimums vary, because mine will be different from yours. But if certain things that are fundamental for me no longer exist here, then I'm going to start over again. While they are not to be absolutized, the minimums have to be made specific, because otherwise the community is lost very, very quickly.

Can you give some examples of what some of those specifics might be, even though they may vary from place to place?

I think that the people who come in to the community must be committed to the deepening of the inner life, which means moving toward the death of the inauthentic self, whether you call it the "inward journey" or another name. Then you have to work with the structures whereby that takes place so you don't separate the concept from the structures through which it will happen.

The second thing is that commitment to community must issue in some relief of the suffering of humankind - locally or around the world - since God is calling us to connect with that suffering. At some point we've got to suffer to relieve it, to bring about liberation and to bring about freedom. That will become very specific for every community.

The community also will have to decide the frequency of its gathering together and celebrating common life in worship. I feel that for the deepening of the inner life, some clear, personal discipline of prayer and working with the scriptures is essential, in addition to the work that goes on corporately. If a person coming in says they are not going to have time for that, or they can't get into that dimension, then you simply say they have to wait a little while, because this is essential to community for us.

I think one of the most important disciplines for anybody coming in is a discipline of money. Money, and what it represents, is an idol for almost all of us, and, therefore, to think that one is going to have genuine community without giving up money is an illusion. Oftentimes that's been a more healthy discipline for us than prayer, because you can fudge on prayer and make everybody think you are doing it. If you have a money discipline, it's clear whether you are or are not following it. We've had more people who have not come into the community because they couldn't deal with the money discipline than because of any other discipline.

One very basic element of community has to do with the authority and obedience issue, which centers around gift-evoking. Whatever the gifts within the life of the community, the person who exercises a gift must exercise authority when offering the gift; and the people who are responding to that gift are thereby being obedient to it. So the issue of authority and obedience comes into play around identified gifts, or functions, within the life of the community. This means a community is not operating as a democracy. A community operates around the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have been identified and which are being exercised. And where you exercise a gift, there is authority.

Movement of the Spirit

You say community is not a democracy but operates by the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit. How does this relate to the difficult questions about consensus vs. hierarchical forms of decision making and leadership?

Normally, the way we think about organizations is that we all have an equal vote and that the majority rules and will make a decision about the issues before that group. But the church functions under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, which transcends human power. I don't feel there is a prayer of a chance in the world of any of our missions being effective unless they use the pentecostal power, the power of the Holy Spirit, which is formed through us.

It seems to me that the whole book of Acts has to do not with majority rule in the first days of the church but with the gifts of the Spirit. In Acts 8 Philip goes up to Samaria under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There he gets the guidance to go down to the Gaza road. Down at the Gaza road, he gets the guidance to join the chariot and talk to the Ethiopian official who is reading the 53rd chapter of Isaiah and wondering what it is about. Philip says, "I can help you with your problem." And so the gospel gets to Ethiopia, without a committee and without a budget.

In Acts 16 Paul is wandering around, not allowed to go into Bithynia or Asia. The scripture says that the Spirit of Jesus did not allow it. He goes to Troas and gets a vision: "Come over to Macedonia and help us." Now, that's guidance, that's the Spirit, and so the gospel begins to travel west.

That sort of movement of the Spirit within the life of our communities is what we've got to depend on. Who are the ones who have the call and the gift, which have been identified and have emerged from within the life of the community? Whatever your gift within the life of the community, which the community has identified, it has to be trusted in those areas. Whatever the gifts of the other people in the community - the gift of pastoring, or the gift of publishing, or the gift of administration - they must be recognized and respected as gifts of the Spirit through that person.

This doesn't mean that the judgment of that person is never questioned. To have all of these gifts functioning in concert under the orchestration of the Spirit is the way the community is to operate, rather than to say these are the things we need to work with and devise some strategy. It is not that we don't have to do that, but that's not the primary emphasis.

If we can function under call and under gifts, then people can support, encourage, and be a part of us as we are faithful to that call and the gifts that are evoked in the service of that call. But that is an entirely different way of functioning than saying we've all got an equal voice in this thing, and we are going to work for the majority vote. It is a process which is constantly working itself out if we are committed to it.

Gordon Cosby was pastor of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., which he founded, when this interview appeared. This interview was conducted by Jim Wallis in May 1986.

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