A livable community

On my way home a few weeks ago, something caught my attention. I had seen it many times before, but it had not made an impression on me until that day. It was a sign that had a simple message: “Welcome to Prince George’s County—a livable community.” A what? All of a sudden, that phrase caught my attention. I don’t know why I had not noticed it before. A livable community? As opposed to what? A non-livable community? I suppose I am blessed to live in a livable community. I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a non-livable community.

I arrived home with a newfound mission. My discovery that morning sparked my curiosity. Clearly, it must have something to do with the way people live in their community, and the quality of their lives. What body evaluates communities? How do those who evaluate communities arrive at the determination of a livable community? I thought of a few possible answers, but I decided to look a little deeper. I began researching the topic of livability and community. I started by going to Prince George’s County’s Website to see how it defined a livable community.

I discovered that “livability is a concept that conveys an image of a future that is enduring, vibrant, responsible (as in civil), and offers a desirable quality of life. Livability, in this context, is the sum of the factors that add up to a community’s quality of life—including the built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities.”

As I thought about the deliberate planning and developing that goes into creating livable communities, I could not help but think about our church community. Our church did not come about randomly. For centuries, God has been very involved and active in developing and growing His people, the fellowship of believers, into a living and thriving community. The church is one body that is representative of a deep and united fellowship with Christ. In Ephesians 3:6, Paul writes: “Through the gospel, the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”* We are a community of disciples and part of God’s family. Therefore, we are a small community here in our local church, and part of a larger community within the worldwide church.

One of the best ways to understand livability in our distinct and unique community—our church—is by looking at the model of the church in the first century.

In Acts, chapter 2, the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles. The multitudes witness the apostles speaking in different languages, and they are amazed. Some admire it, others criticize it, and they all want to know what it means. Peter, with the other apostles, shares the words from Joel 2 and reveals that these events are the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Further, Peter includes his audience among those guilty of crucifying the Messiah whom God had testified to be His Son.

The people are pierced by what they have heard. They ask Peter and the apostles what they should do. Peter responds: “‘Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are afar off—for all whom the Lord our God will call’” (Acts 2:38, 39). Peter further says in verse 40, “‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’” In other words, “Be saved.” The responsibility has been placed upon the multitudes to decide whom they will follow and serve. Will they accept the words, which Peter preached, or will they reject his admonitions?

Let us look at some of the characteristics that made up the first Christian community.

1. Hearing the Word. The first characteristic of these early Christians is their willingness to hear the word of the Lord. Not only hear it, but also to receive it unto themselves. Other translations of Acts 2:37 use the words “pricked,” or “cut to the heart,” referring to hearing the word of the Lord. This describes the deep inner sorrow that accompanies true repentance. The word of the Lord sunk in and was allowed to affect their hearts. These people did not hear the words and afterward go up to Peter and tell him that was a nice sermon. They allowed the words to be life changing. They did not sit with wandering minds and closed hearts.

2. Acting on the Word. The new believers were motivated by the words they heard to act upon what they heard. They put the words into deeds by becoming baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. Peter preached that forgiveness of sins would only come through repentance and baptism. Peter allows no exemption from baptism. It is the outward sign of the death of the old life and the beginning of the new, and it is required of all. What did it mean if someone was not baptized? The answer is clear: The person rejected the message and rejected the word of God.

3. Obeying the doctrines. Thirdly, the newly-baptized Christians devoted themselves, persevered, gave constant attention to the learning and keeping of the doctrines they were taught. Jesus promised His apostles they would be guided in all truth. As God’s truths were being revealed by the Holy Spirit to the apostles, the apostles taught that message to other disciples.

True disciples do not want to miss an opportunity to learn more about God and are devoted to the doctrines found in the Scriptures. We need to have the same fervor and zeal for studying the Bible. It is a shame how often Christians allow themselves to remain ignorant concerning the word of God. Like those of the first century, true disciples will always want to be filled with the knowledge of God.

4. Fellowship. The early Christians devoted themselves to fellowship. Fellowship is not just having a meal together. Acts 2:44 defines true fellowship: “All of the believers were together and had everything in common.” This is a direct reference to the common brotherhood that developed between the apostles and their converts for a common goal and purpose. First, the believers were joined and knit together. These Christians did not declare themselves to be in fellowship simply because they had been baptized or merely attended worship services. Verse 45 describes the extent of their fellowship: “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had a need.” These disciples had all things in common, and that is true Christianity. If all that we have is truly the Lord’s, as we say it is, then we must be willing to share what God has given us with others who may be in need.

True fellowship means having all things in common with one another. We see this same love for each other emphasized in 2 Corinthians 8:2-5. They who had nothing to give were still giving what scraps they did have for others who were in need. This is the level of fellowship we should set as our goal.

Acts 2:46 tells us that the disciples were devoted to meeting together every day in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. The disciples were unified through fervent prayer. The SDA Commentary on this passage describes their unity this way: “This is the unity that must characterize the people of God whenever they aspire to a special experience with the Lord, or expect of Him a manifestation of power. Whatever interferes with such unity must be removed, or it will obstruct the Spirit, who does the work of God for His people.”1

Think about this concept of worship. How many of us would be willing to meet every day with other Christians? Probably not many, as it would consume too much of our time. We certainly seem to balk when too many meetings or committees are scheduled. Instead of joy and anticipation, too often we exhibit disappointment or even anger for being expected to show up on a regular basis. It seems that today many of us have lost the love that would draw Christians together on a daily basis. I know that we have demanding jobs, children in school, and families that take much of our time. But when a congregation comes together for a common purpose, especially for worship and prayer, we should be overjoyed for the opportunity.

5. Evangelism. The disciples were devoted to evangelism: “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Day by day, people were turning their lives to Jesus and being baptized. It was not enough for these disciples to congregate together, study the word of God, and help the needy. These new Christians had an overwhelming desire to share the good news with others—a theme we see repeated throughout the Book of Acts.

Can you imagine your church conducting baptisms on a daily basis? This is exactly what happened in Jerusalem. Do we have a spirit for evangelism? Do we feel compelled to share the gospel with others? We must obey the command of God to take the gospel to all people. How many of us actually know our neighbors, much less share the gospel with them? We have the opportunity to invite our friends and neighbors to church. How many of us actually do it?

6. Joyful living. Finally, the early Christians continually experienced joy and gladness in their newfound faith. They ate their food together with a glad and sincere heart. They praised God in everything. They rejoiced in sharing their faith. In other words, they rejoiced at the privilege of being Christians.

Is this real?

I know what you are thinking. You are probably saying to yourselves, “This is all nice and sweet. Thank you for sharing, but this does not apply in today’s reality.” Well, all I can say is that it is easy for us to dismiss Acts 2 as not being relevant in our lives. But Luke recorded it for our understanding of what Christians ought to be like. If we truly believe God’s Word and follow its counsel, then this message is still valid.

Why is authentic biblical community so rare? Perhaps it is because most of us would rather appear impressively intact than broken. We must understand, though, that it is only when we admit that we are broken, that we are ready for community. Living in this sinful world will, in effect, bring brokenness. None of us is immune to it. Some of us have been broken by the loss of a loved one. Some may be dealing with addictions, adultery, divorce, or betrayal. Some are broken by disease. But the one thing we all have in common is that we are all broken.

Barb’s life is a mess. Her drinking problem is out of control, and her husband, Ken, refuses to cover for her anymore. Everyone around her sees Barb’s problem, but they all pretend like everything’s just fine, a classic case of denial.

Sitting in the row behind Barb at church each Sabbath morning is Joe. Everyone likes Joe, especially all the guys, because he is a man’s man. Joe played football in college, and he’s filled with stories of athletic accomplishments. But when Joe’s all alone, his heart is filled with emptiness because of his inability to sustain a long-term relationship. His marriage lasted only six months, and over the years, he’s driven away everyone close to him with his short fuse.

But that Sabbath, when a friend asks Joe how things are going, he quickly says, “Great… never been better.” Joe and Barb have both learned that church is a place for plastic people, a place for perfect people. So Barb has become Barbie, complete with her husband, Ken, and her perfect plastic children. And Joe has become G. I. Joe, a plastic action hero everyone admires but no one really knows. But inside, Barb and Joe are dying, because they’re not made of plastic.

Our churches today are filled with Barbies and Joes. We’ve learned that image is everything, that what counts is how you look, the impressions you make, the groups you belong to, and the friends you have. As a result, in the Christian community, we have perfected the fine art of faking it.

Are there any Barbies and Joes in our church? What are we doing as a community, as individuals, to reach out to them? Are we sensitive to their needs and aware of the pain they are experiencing? Can we ever have a livable community in our church?

Yes, we can. Only through a deep personal relationship with Jesus, and hearts filled with genuine love and compassion, will we be willing to accept people the way they are and refrain from casting judgment. There is no greater joy than being used by the Holy Spirit to extend a helping hand to those who are broken, lonely, and in need of a friend. By devoting ourselves daily to studying the Scriptures, by developing a personal relationship with God, by sharing the joy of real fellowship with one another, we can experience God’s version of a livable community.

Marilyn Scott is an associate pastor of Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Spencerville, Maryland. E-mail: m.scott@spencervillesda.org.

  1. Seventh-day Adventist Commentary, (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1957) vol. 6, p. 135.

* All Scripture references are taken from the New International Version.