Hunger for community, of course, is a sweet spot for the gospel. You know that in the early church of the second and third centuries there were massive plagues that struck the Roman Empire. One of the reasons historians suggest the early church grew as fast as it did was that within the Jesus community people loved one another and nursed their sick, whereas among the surrounding pagans the death rates were so high that they would just leave the sick alone. The outward-focused people of the Jesus community would go to their pagan neighbors who were abandoned by their loved ones, and would nurse them. And those pagans who had been nursed back to health would become Christians. Therefore the gospel wasn’t left to rot in a Christian ghetto, but it went out into the community. So the combination of the plagues and the love of the Christian community created a sweet spot for the gospel.
I think we are at a similar place for the gospel in America right now. We are primed to make a difference. Putnam’s follow-up book (Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Simon & Schuster 2003) identifies Rick Warren’s Saddleback Community Church as one of the promising trends in restoring social capital. Interestingly, Putnam has a very high view of mega-churches, and says that they are one of the forces in the United States that is actually doing something to restore social capital. He calls the pastors of mega-churches “savvy social capitalists”.
The form of community, however, that we have to offer is Jesus-brand community rather than generic community. It would be very tempting for us in this age, with such a loss of community, to feel like “Gee, the solution is community, so let’s just throw community at people.” But what we have to offer is particular, not general.
The plagues are here again. The plague isn't viral; it is dysfunction. Offering a community for dysfunction isn't easy by it's very nature. It isn't just a matter of gathering. It is a matter of overcoming the dysfunction. Dysfunctional people get irritating when stressed. Teaching community is stressful to people. And they initially become irritating. A key for community has to be the ability to not allow irritation to cause problems for the community, but also not to assume there can be no irritation.