Community and Mission Together, or No More Bowling Alone: a Review of Life in Community by Dustin Willis

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I recently read Life in Community, by Dustin Willis. I decided to read this as Kirsten and I were beginning the journey of connecting to Mill City Church. I knew the book was about missional communities and was obviously written by someone steeped in the 3DM missional community lingo, but there didn’t appear to be a direct connection (that I was aware of) between the author, Dustin Willis, and 3DM. This was good, given my wariness regarding 3DM; so I thought I’d read his book as a way of trying to dip my toes in the “shapeworld” without “drinking the Kool-Aid.” If I was going to be a part of a church that was committed to missional communities as the primary expression of how they “do life together,” I wanted to be a little better informed. This is slightly ironic, as I have myself received training directly from 3DM in the past, but did so skeptically. I’m trying now to be a little more open to what God might be up to in this “movement.”

So, let’s talk about what I learned. I like that the book is very accessible. It’s written in easy to understand language with short chapters and plenty of anecdotes and application to every day life. It’s a quick read. The book is broken into 3 sections: “Forming Community,” “The Values for Living in Community,” and “Next Steps for Strong Community.” The first section explores “the need for community” by describing how isolated and lonely modern life (in developed countries/USAmerica) can be and how atomizing our culture is. He cites this Newsweek article as evidence of this. I couldn’t agree more, and often write/talk about this. I’ve experienced this in my own life, and this anecdotal evidence was bolstered not only by the Newsweek article Willis cites but by my reading of the seminal work by Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone. As Putnam’s site declares:

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

There is, or should be, little argument that our need for community is greater perhaps than it has ever been, especially perhaps for those of us who live in the ‘burbs, a fact which I continually carry some measure of shame about in my own life, but which I am working to accept in the short term. Many of us commute individually in our cars to and from work every day, often some distance away. Kirsten and I drive from one end of the cities to another every day and back. Our workplaces are within a few miles of each other, but we haven’t figured out a way to carpool or take mass transit, something which we lament. So we suburbanites leave our garage in our cars, usually with the windows rolled up, drive to work and spend 8 or more hours interacting superficially with co-workers and/or clients, and then return home the same way, entering our houses from the comfort of our attached garages, if we’re so privileged as to have them, without ever having to say hello to a neighbor. For my part, this is mitigated somewhat by a daily walk to Nathan’s neighborhood elementary school, but until recently I would get to the school and stand there with fellow parents waiting for students to emerge, and could do so without ever actually speaking to any of them. Thankfully, the parents of one of the other Kindergarteners in Nathan’s class recently invited the class over to play/have lunch in an effort to build a little community among the parents/families. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. Still, the larger trends hold. Unlike much of the world, which frequently lives as extended families together or with multiple generations under one roof or within literal tribes throughout human history, we (relatively) rich Westerners live very isolated lives.

I can attest to this. Though I grew up in a nominally “Christian” home and went to a nominally “Christian” school (though a thing cannot be “Christian,” as I keep saying) and was part of a church and even participated in the youth group sometimes, nobody knew, or cared to act on their suspicion of, the fact that my “Christian” home was toxic and my mother was perpetuating the cycle of abuse she had grown up in. I was somewhat fortunate. My mom’s dad was a high society “important person-” a Lt. Colonel in the Army and part of the CIA for 20 years who lived in D.C. and traveled the world. Don’t believe me? I have proof. The picture below is of a medal my grandfather received when he retired from the CIA. It sits on my shelf now, one of a few mementos I have from a man I never knew:


However “important” he may have been, he was also a drunk, and an angry one who abused his wife and daughter, which likely contributed to what my mother always believed was my grandmother’s suicide; she died in a single car accident in which she drove into a pole and was killed. So I was fortunate in that my mother wasn’t a drunk and only got physically violent on a few notable occasions. Her emotional abuse was no less devastating, though, as I’ve written about previously, and no one knew, or was close enough to my family of origin to really do anything. Had we been in a bona fide community as I was growing up, maybe my life and that of my half-siblings would have been different. Who knows?

In any case, I grew up believing the lie that life as I experienced it was life as it was supposed to be. Fortunately, I grew up knowing Jesus, and my faith was no doubt accelerated as a youngster in no small part because, as I’ve often said and written about before, “I learned to depend on God in the absence of dependable parents.” And God was very present to me, but my understanding of God and what life as a Christ-follower was meant to be about was impoverished. The conflated “conservative”/Republican/Southern/Fundamentalist/Evangelical worldview of my youth led me to believe, as I’ve also often said, that God was a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male who lived in the ‘burbs, shopped at the mall, and spent his days pursuing the (individualistic) “American dream” just like everybody else I knew and/or aspired to be like. I’ve often written of my astonishment at going away to college in New England and discovering that this was not the case.

I’ve also written of my joy at discovering Circle of Hope, the (now) network of 5 congregations and 104 (if my math is right) cell groups throughout the greater Philadelphia region. We moved to Philly as young newlyweds and started our married life together just as Circle of Hope started their life together as a church with one fledgling congregation with a few cell groups. We were relieved to immediately find a family among them. As we learned that this church really was a family, that they were a people on a mission together to really “be the church,” and worked intentionally at doing so “for the next generation,” I can remember sitting in one of their public meetings one night as a light bulb went on and I realized that it’s about community. I learned that all of those “you’s” in the Bible that speak of how to follow Jesus are plural, that the writers were speaking to the Christian community and challenging them to do the hard work of following Jesus together, which is how it was meant to be done and is the only way it possibly could be done.

Willis at least alludes to this when he says that “Even Jesus’ instruction for evangelism and mission were all given to a community of tight-knit believers- not simply to individuals (see Matt. 28:19; John 20:21; Acts 1:8).” He adds, in what might be the larger point of his entire book, “These types of communities bring hope to a lonely and isolated society. In fact, our entire lives are meant to be lived in community on mission (Eph. 2:1-22)” (italics added). Elsewhere he speaks of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:2, which we USAmericans usually interpret individually, but do so to our detriment. Willis says:

Consider Paul’s words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Paul is not writing to isolated individuals but to the church. His point is clear: the church can walk together in the process of transformation.

Willis later adds, “Living out our faith was never intended to be done in isolation, but within a community.” Indeed.

He goes on to describe throughout the book how such communities or ” extended families on mission” are agents of transformation for those who participate in them as their gifts are unleashed; as people are able to be their authentic selves; and as they confess their sins to one another and challenge, encourage, and help one another to pursue “the good.” Doing these things enables them to persevere, together, through the trials and tribulations of life so that they have capacity to love, serve, meet the needs of, and welcome those around them. Truly such communities, to whatever extent those who would follow Jesus can be faithful to embodying these aspirations, would be good news to a lost and lonely world.

In an early part of the book Willis describes why this seems to happen so seldomly, however. He says that there is an “unnecessary divide” between the efforts of too many churches to cultivate and experience authentic community (often through “small groups”) on the one hand, and, on the other hand, their efforts to be “missional,” to reach the world for Jesus. Willis asks:

How do we pursue community and mission? It’s more closely connected than you may realize. As people live on mission with others, they discover community. And as people live in true community, they will seek mission. Community and mission are not in competition with each other- they are inseparable. You don’t have to choose one or the other.

He goes on to give the example of a mission trip and describe how those who travel to build a well or teach kids in another part of the world often find themselves experiencing deep community together as they serve others. He asks why this intersection of service/mission and community can’t be the starting point, the foundation, for the “culture that daily permeates our churches.” This, of course, is what “missional communities” are all about, though in hindsight it’s somewhat strange that I don’t think he ever just comes out and uses the term explicitly. Perhaps 3DM has trademarked it and Willis didn’t want to pay for the rights to use it. I say that only half sarcastically, as this is perhaps my biggest critique of 3DM, but again I’ve already written about this.

As Willis describes the divide in all too many churches between mission and community, he gives a laundry list of the many community building efforts that such churches engage in that he seems to consider short-sighted or incomplete. He gives “small groups” as the broader category these efforts fall under, and says “Many of these small groups follow a specific type of structure, whether cell groups, Sunday school classes, life groups, or some other clever name they’ve brainstormed to emphasize Christian community.” As you might imagine if you know me or have been reading this blog or even this post, his mention of “cell groups” under the broader category of “small groups,” given in contradistinction to “missional communities” (a term again which I don’t think he uses) as a better way, caused me to have an almost visceral reaction. Whatever he may know or think he knows about “cell groups” in the U.S., he must not be aware of Circle of Hope.

I’ve written at length about Circle of Hope repeatedly and especially recently, here; so I need not repeat it all now. What I will say is simply that I’ve been talking about being part of a “people on (a) mission together” for quite some time (including above in this post), but long before I ever heard of 3DM and their language of “family on mission,” to be sure. And I used that language of a people on a mission together because it was the best language I could come up with to describe my experience. Among the people of Circle of Hope I learned that life as a Jesus-follower was necessarily a life lived in community. It was among them that I learned that the church exists for those yet to become a part of it, and that “life in Christ is one whole cloth” (therefore artificial divisions between sacred and secular were to be repented of). Likewise, it was among them that I learned that “knowing and following,” let alone interpreting, the Bible “is a group project.” In every cell group I participated in with Circle of Hope we kept an “empty chair” to symbolize not only Jesus, who was the “only agenda” of each and every group, but to remind us of our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members that we were called to love and serve and invite not “to church” but into the life we were experiencing together 7 days a week. It was a fellow member of a cell group we were a part of that supplied the down payment Kirsten and I needed and took us car shopping when a job opportunity for me required us to have a car after we had gone without one for a while, and when that car was totaled in a bad accident I was in not all that long later, that same fellow cell group member convinced her dad to give us the old car he wasn’t using and paid for the repairs to make it road-worthy. Obviously this was an extraordinary person, a wonderful follower of Jesus, but she was also a product of her environment in which such ongoing expressions of love were cultivated, encouraged, and made possible. I could go on at the risk of further digressing, but I bring it all up, yet again, to set the stage for just why I so struggle to accept missional communities not only as the model for discipleship and mission that seems to keep popping up everywhere I look, but more to the point as the kind of community that Jesus now seems to be calling I and my family into.

Nonetheless, called into such a community we very much seem to be, and Willis helps to explain why this is something to rejoice about. One of the passages I like most in the book, and was most challenged by, was this one, in which Willis quotes Joseph Hellerman, who says:

People who remain connected with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding as they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially true for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay also grow. People who leave do not grow. It is a simple but profound biblical reality that we both grow and thrive together or we do not grow much at all.

To this, Willis adds: “Only by persevering over the long haul will we see genuine love produce personal transformation.” I am challenged by this because this is precisely the process that I have all too often short-circuited in my own life, including and especially as it relates to the people of Circle of Hope, as again I’ve written about recently. It’s all too tempting to leave when the going gets hard. It’s the commitment to stay and work through whatever challenges arise among those who would follow Jesus together, which again is always a group project, that unlocks the potential for growth and transformation not only in the individuals the community is made up of, but also in the Christian community itself not to mention the larger society it’s immersed in. As Willis says:

Too often we think that we must first get our act together and then we can live on mission for God. Mission, however, is a perfect tool for change. If you struggle with your prayer life, love a person far from God and see if that does not prompt you to pray more consistently. If you struggle to read the Bible, serve your Muslim neighbor and dialogue about how you each understand God. If you struggle with secret sin, invite a lost friend to model their life after yours. Mission in community will expedite your personal transformation.

It will expedite your personal transformation, to be sure, but that’s not what it’s all about, as Willis makes clear. Life in community is a cruciform one that enables us to live the life Jesus calls us to. It’s a prophetic one in which we act out the truth of God’s kingdom come, living in the present as if it already has, though it may not yet be fully realized. Life in community is a life of sacrificial love and service toward those around us as we call those around us to join us at the table of radical inclusion that God is always setting. Life in community is one in which the mercy of God proves more powerfully uniting than whatever might otherwise divide us such that those who under any other circumstance would have nothing in common together find themselves united in brotherly love, service, and mission. It’s a life I want to be a part of.

“I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.”

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