"Unless the Lord Build the House..." Psalm 127:1
Questions and Answers on Building Small Christian Communities
In 1975, the Lord stirred up the Holy Spirit in me and changed my life. I was immediately very concerned with forming a Christian community. This was a radical change for me, as I had previously shown little interest in Christian community and highly valued my independence. In the next five years, I formed a "covenant community" and a parish community. The Lord worked powerfully in those communities, but they seemed to be lacking something. The superstructure of the "covenant community" was too demanding for most people, and the parish community was not stable because of changes in parish leadership. Moreover, although these communities were the best expression of Church I had ever seen, they lacked the depth of commitment we see in Acts of the Apostles. Finally, about 1983, several parishioners of Our Lady of Presentation Church in Cincinnati, Ohio began to form home-based communities. The idea for these communities came from Pope Paul VI's document On Evangelization in the Modern World, (58). These communities were the closest thing in my experience to the shared daily life of the New Testament Church. In this book, we share what we have learned about leadership development, structure, and networking in forming small Christian communities.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Christian community has come to mean almost anything and therefore almost nothing. Some people think a social after Mass is Christian community. Others believe that Christian community has something to do with suicidal cults. Still others consider Christian community to be groups of parishioners meeting periodically in prayer groups, Bible studies, Renew groups, faith-sharing groups, etc.
We must know what God means by Christian community because God has committed Himself to give us all we need to do His will, but He is not committed to provide for what is not His will even though our terminology may make it sound as if we are doing God's will. "The Lord brings to naught the plans of nations; He foils the design of peoples. But the plan of the Lord stands forever; the design of His heart, through all generations" (Ps 33:10-11).
Christian community, by God's standards, is to accept God's grace to become one with the Lord and our brothers and sisters in Christ as the Father and Jesus are one (Jn 17:21). It is participating in Trinity unity.
Christian community is what we see in Jesus' ministry. It is an "intentional" community. Jesus intentionally chose twelve apostles in whom He invested His life. We too should discern our own "twelve," with whom the Lord has called us to share our lives in a special way. We will love these brothers and sisters in deed and truth and not merely talk about it (1 Jn 3:18).
Christian community is what we see in the Acts of the Apostles. The early Church devoted themselves to the apostles' instructions, the communal life, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42). Christian community is the daily sharing of life in Christ.
Christian community is Trinitarian in that we have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. "It was in one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body" (1 Cor 12:13). Because Christian community is baptismal, it is Christian brotherhood and sisterhood. Because it is Trinitarian, baptismal, and fraternal, the heart of Christian community is "communio", i.e. a supernatural communion given us by the Spirit (Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People, Pope John Paul II, 20). Because Christian community is based on our Baptism into the new and abundant life of the Trinity, Christian community is the daily sharing of life in Christ.
Christian community is:
- not a group that merely meets.
- not merely friendship. You can make friends and leave friends, but only God can make brothers and sisters, and we are brothers and sisters forever.
- not a nuclear family, or even an extended family.
Unlike a Christian community, an extended family does not usually intentionally plan to branch off into new communities and expand in evangelistic outreach. Also, an extended family does not usually plan for continuity of leadership into the next generation.
The Church is "the pillar and bulwark of truth" (1 Tm 3:15). The Lord has given the Church the authority to speak in His name. Therefore, what the Church teaches about Christian communities is what the Lord means by Christian community.
Pope Paul VI said that Christian communities "will be a hope for the universal Church," if they avoid becoming isolated from the larger Church and other Christian communities (On Evangelization in the Modern World, 58). Pope John Paul II has stated that Christian communities are a "great hope for the life the Church" (Mission of the Redeemer, 51).
Pope John Paul II has taught: "A rapidly growing phenomenon in the young churches one sometimes fostered by the bishops and their conferences as a pastoral priority is that of 'ecclesial basic communities' (also known by other names) which are proving to be good centers for Christian formation and missionary outreach. These are groups of Christians who, at the level of the family or in a similarly restricted setting, come together for prayer, Scripture reading, catechesis, and discussion on human and ecclesial problems with a view to a common commitment" (Mission of the Redeemer, 51). Pope John Paul II has also taught: "These communities are a sign of vitality within the Church, an instrument of formation and evangelization, and a solid starting point for a new society based on a 'civilization of love' " (Mission of the Redeemer, 51).
All the churches for the first three hundred years of Church history were small communities. Jesus and His apostles were a Christian community. After the first Christian Pentecost, the early Church continued steadfastly in the communal life (Acts 2:42). The small community based at the home of Mary, John Mark's mother, was instrumental in freeing Peter from imminent execution (Acts 12:12). Lydia, the first convert of the Western world, formed a small Christian community (Acts 16:15). Priscilla and Aquila had the best known small Christian community in history. All of the churches of the Gentiles owed a debt of gratitude to their community (Rm 16:4-5). Other Christian communities were those of Nymphas (Col 4:15), Titus Justus (Act 18:7), Gaius (Rm 16:23), and Philemon (Phlm 2).
The essence of Christian community is baptismal brotherhood and sisterhood. Pope John Paul II has called this "communio." "This is our highest vocation: to enter into communion with God and with our brothers and sisters" (Fraternal Life in Community, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, 9 ). Pope John Paul II has given what is probably one of the best teachings ever on baptismal brotherhood and sisterhood when he explained the nature of "communio" in Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People, 18-20. In this document, the Pope has taught that our communion with other baptized believers is:
- a "mystery" (18).
- "a living and life-giving communion through which Christians no longer belong to themselves but are the Lord's very own, as the branches are one with the vine" (18).
- Trinitarian. The Trinity is the model, source, and means of our communion with God and other Christians (18).
- "present in the Word of God and in the Sacraments" (19).
- expressed above all by the image of the Church as the body of Christ (19). "The Church in Christ is a kind of sacrament, that is, a sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of all the human race" (19, from Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 1).
- "the integrating aspect, indeed the central content of the 'mystery,' or rather, the divine plan for the salvation of humanity" (19).
- "organic," that is, "analogous to that of a living and functioning body" (20).
- able to transfer our perspective so that "every member of the lay faithful is seen in relation to the whole body," and not vice versa (20).
- "a gift, a great gift of the Holy Spirit to be gratefully accepted by the lay faithful, and at the same time to be lived with a deep sense of responsibility" (20).
- living "in a continual interaction with others, with a lively sense of fellowship" (20).
Because Christian community is Trinitarian (see Jn 17:21), we must emphasize the Spirit greatly, for without the Holy Spirit we cannot call God the Father our "Abba" (Gal 4:6), or say "Jesus is Lord" and live it (1 Cor 12:3). Because community is living our baptismal brotherhood and sisterhood, the Holy Spirit is of extreme importance. For it was in the Spirit that we were baptized into one body (1 Cor 12:13). Without the Spirit we will not have the gifts necessary to form Christian community. Also, without the Holy Spirit we will not be holy, and without holiness Christian community is impossible. In summary, without a strong emphasis on the whole activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives, Christian community is nearly impossible.
Nevertheless, many people try to form what they call Christian communities and de-emphasize the Holy Spirit. They recognize that people usually differ greatly in their emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Therefore, they see the Holy Spirit of unity (see Eph 4:3) as divisive. However, that the Holy Spirit is not so much divisive as incisive. The Holy Spirit does not cause divisions as much as penetrate our hearts and surface divisions that are already there.
Despite the difficulties resulting from surfacing divisions, we must emphasize the Spirit. Without the Spirit we do not have the love, power and wisdom for Christian community, and our divisions are still there. Although we can quench the Spirit (1 Th 5:19) and temporarily keep our divisions below the surface, they will eventually come to the surface and destroy any facsimile of Christian community. If we begin a community with five people very open to the Holy Spirit, that community in the next five years may well branch out into four other communities totaling fifty people. If we begin a community with fifty people who are not emphasizing the Spirit, within five years possibly only five of those original fifty people will be hanging on to the idea of community.
Committed members of a community should be under Jesus' lordship, committed to living their Baptisms to the full, and letting the Spirit move freely in their lives. These communities appeal to those who are zealous for evangelization, love the Church, and have "gone through the mill" in church renewal.
Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, said that Americans were not poor enough, humble enough, or holy enough to live in Christian community. Thus, she maintained that living the Beatitudes, especially the first, third, and fourth Beatitudes, was a prerequisite for living in Christian community (see Mt 5:3ff). The Church teaches: "The one in authority needs to remind members that life in common sometimes requires sacrifice and can become a form of 'grave penance' " (Fraternal Life in Community, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life CICLSAL, 38). "When we lose ourselves for our brothers and sisters, then we find ourselves" (Fraternal Life in Community, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, 24). "To build community together with the Lord, in patience every day, takes place on the way of the Cross; it requires frequent self-denial" (Pope John Paul II to the Plenary Meeting of CICLSAL, November 20, 1992).
Ideally, the community's members should have good relationships with their parents and thereby have the basis for relating to the other members of the community as brothers and sisters. The child-parent relationship is a prerequisite for the brother-sister relationship. Therefore, it is important for community life. If members of the community have had difficult relationships with their parents, the Lord wants to restore these relationships through forgiveness and healing.
The nature of Christian community is to live our baptismal brotherhood and sisterhood. Therefore, those seriously considering the possibility of marriage should not be committed members of a Christian community, because it is not good to begin a husband-wife relationship and develop brother-sister relationships simultaneously.
Because Christian community is the daily sharing of life in Christ, it will greatly affect a person's whole life. Therefore, a married person should, as a general rule, make a commitment to a Christian community only if the other spouse is also willing to commit. If this is not the case, a married person can participate in the community's life but not make a commitment which could conflict with marital responsibilities.
We have been baptized into the miraculous unity of the Trinity. This unity is so deep that it is usually impossible to live it with a large number of people. Therefore, we usually have less than twelve committed adults in a Christian community.
Yes, children of parents who are committed to the community are full-fledged members of the community. Adolescent children of community members can decide not to be a part of the community, if the community members are not living at the same location.
Because Christian communities are a share in the life of the Trinity, they are to last on this earth until Jesus' second coming and then continue forever in heaven.
Although everyone needs to be in a Christian community, not everyone has the calling and opportunity to belong to a formal Christian community. Christians through the centuries have lived in Christian community without anyone formally organizing these communities in detail. However, in our anti-Christian, secular humanistic "culture of death", a Christian community that is not formally organized will probably not survive. Moreover, only a formal organization of Christian community will define the community's leadership, provide continuity of leadership, encourage the development of new communities, and increase the community's impact in evangelization.
- A home provides a family setting (see Acts 2:46), and both a Christian community and a family are modeled on the Trinity.
- The home continues to be Christ's base for evangelization and ministry (Mt 10:11ff).
- Christian community is the daily sharing of life in Christ. A home-based community is better integrated into everyday life and into its neighborhood.
- The home fosters the right size for growing in brotherhood and sisterhood (i.e., about 12 committed members).
- A community based in a home does not require the super-structure of a large, centralized, covenant community. While a Christian community in our culture needs to be formal and intentional, the daily workings of the Christian community must be informal and not necessitate the amassing of many meetings.
Christian community is not a series of meetings but a daily sharing of life in Christ. It is being brothers and sisters in the Lord and by the power of the Spirit. Each day members of the Christian community should pray for one another. Ideally, each day they should be in contact with at least some members of the community. This can happen through praying together, sharing meals, working together, phone conversations, and by having fellowship, recreation, or ministry together.
Although in the early months of a community's life, the interaction between community members may leave something to be desired, they will eventually grow significantly in their baptismal brotherhood and sisterhood, if they do their best to frequently relate to at least some of the community's members in some way. The key to depth in Christian community is not prolonged, occasional contact with members of the community, but daily, even brief, contact with several members of the community.
Christian community will:
- help you grow in loving people, and of course this will help your family.
- give your family the benefits of the gifts of the Holy Spirit manifested through other members of the body of Christ.
- put both you and also your family in the context of community life. This is the context for maximum growth in holiness.
- present more frequent opportunities for members of your family, i.e. your spouse, children, brothers, sisters, or parents to be evangelized by other community members. You yourself may not be able to reach these members of your family for the Lord. Thank God for new workers in His harvest, who may lead your family members closer to Him!
Jesus taught: "If anyone comes to Me without turning his back on his father and mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and sisters, indeed his very self, he cannot be My follower" (Lk 14:26). Our relationship with Jesus is first. Jesus also taught: "There are My mother and My brothers. Whoever does the will of My heavenly Father is brother and sister and mother to Me" (Mt 12:50). This does not mean that our natural family is neglected. In Jesus and Christian community, we will treat the members of our family better than ever before. We will honor our parents (Ex 20:12), be submissive to our husbands (Eph 5:22), sacrificially love our wives (Eph 5:25), make disciples of our children in a way befitting our relationship with the Lord (Eph 6:4). We are responsible to provide for all the basic needs of our family members. If we fail to do this, we have "denied the faith" and are "worse than unbelievers" (1 Tm 5:8).
Our Christian community and our family relationships are complementary. They should not conflict. For example, if one spouse in a marriage wishes to be involved in a Christian community, we encourage him or her to participate in the life of the community but not to make a commitment to the community. Thus, there will never be a conflict between their life in community and their marriage. Also, we encourage community members to celebrate holidays with their natural families but leave room for celebrating with their Christian communities at another time. For example, many of our Christian communities celebrate the baptismal days of their members and leave the birthday celebrations to their natural families.
It is usually ideal for a network of communities to have a single men's house and a single women's house. This helps them integrate the many aspects of community life and makes it easier for them to interact and thereby grow in baptismal brotherhood and sisterhood.
However, members of a Christian community in the United States and Canada usually do not live in the same house, but they try to keep in touch with each other in many different ways as often as possible, even daily.
The superstructure of the large covenant community makes it impossible for most Christians to participate. The large covenant communities require a great deal of commitment. There are months and even years of orientation. Moreover, there is the need to pastor those who have made a covenant as well as the need for leadership, teaching, administration, and ministry. The small community because of its limited size is able to provide orientation, pastoring, formation, and ministry on an informal basis and does not require the superstructure of many meetings and complex organization. This makes Christian community available to most Christians.
Because the communities described in this book are smaller than the People of Praise, etc., a much higher percentage of the members of small communities are involved in leadership. This is good, but it also means that small Christian communities usually have a lower quality of leadership than a large covenanted community would have.
Because we are baptized into Christian community (1 Cor 12:13), we are already in Christian community whether or not we are aware of it. Some reasons for living this fact of our incorporation into Christian community through Baptism are:
- because the Lord created us to need each other (1 Cor 12:21).
- for full power in evangelization (Jn 17:21).
- for the full release of the spiritual gifts, because the gifts are for the common good (1 Cor 12:7).
- to experience fully Jesus' presence (Mt 18:20).
- to hear God fully (Jn 10:27).
- for protection (Mt 18:12; Eccl 4:12).
- for strength (Eccl 4:12; Gn 29:3).
- for growth in holiness (Prv 27:17).
- for exponential growth in power (Lv 26:8).
- to harvest those who have experienced renewal (Hag 1:5-7; 2 Jn 8; Rv 3:2).
- to strengthen us against persecution.
- to decentralize and organize the parish community, to which Christian communities "always remain united" (Mission of the Redeemer, Pope John Paul II, 51).
- for authentic love (1 Jn 3:18). A Christian community becomes "a school in which all learn to love God, to love the brothers and sisters with whom they live, and to love humanity" (Fraternal Life in Community, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, 25).
- to obey Jesus (see Jn 17:21).
To grow in their new life in Christ, newly committed Christians need to be in community with other brothers and sisters in Christ. If they don't do this, they will probably lose their first love for the Lord (see Rv 2:4). For this reason, those leading Cursillo, Life in the Spirit Seminars, and other renewal programs emphasize that those who experience renewal in these programs need to participate in prayer groups or small group gatherings. Unfortunately, many people transformed in these programs are not continuing in the small groups. However, the Lord seems to be raising up small Christian communities to harvest, that is, to gather and develop those who have experienced renewal. (See #10 in the question above.)
One of the reasons for Christian community is to create the context for massive evangelization, that is, for permeating the culture with the Gospel (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 899) and converting to Jesus whole strata of society (On Evangelization, Pope Paul VI, 19). Therefore, Christian communities need to be an evangelistic outreach and not exclusive clubs.
Some teachers on Christian community talk about cell groups. Cell groups are not exactly the same as Christian communities. But there are significant similarities. The word "cell" refers to a biological cell that divides. We prefer not to speak of "cells," but "branches". This term indicates that a new Christian community is an extension of the "mother community". If our Christian communities are healthy, every year we should see new branches or at least the preparation for new branches.
We live out our baptismal brotherhood and sisterhood in Christian communities. These are deep commitments. For most people it is impossible to have deep committed relationships with a large number of people. Consequently, as a general rule, when a Christian community reaches about twelve committed adult members, they should consider branching off and forming a new community. Ideally, two or three people of the community's leadership team will be the leaders of the new community.
Many aspects of nature, especially as viewed from the ecological perspective, show the importance of Christian community. For example, we can learn a lesson from geese.
"As each bird flaps its wings, by flying in V formation, the whole flock adds 71 percent flying range than if each bird flew alone.
Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the 'lifting power' of the bird immediately in front.
When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back to the formation and another goose flies at the point position.
The geese in formation honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
When a goose gets sick or wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow to help and protect. They stay until the goose is able to fly again or dies."
(A Lesson From the Geese appeared in Issue 97 of Merle W. Boos' Agricultural Notes from the ELCA.)
In Christian community, you will be called to a discipline by which you can grow in unconditional love. Living in Christian community will not be one more thing to do but will help you to focus the many activities of your life. So, if you are very busy, Christian community is a good way to screen and focus your various activities. In Christian community, you will also be a called to deny yourself and make sacrifices. This will help you grow in holiness. For example, in Christian community, you will be repeatedly challenged to evangelize, make disciples of all nations, redemptively suffer, and rejoice in the Holy Spirit.
Christian community will result in deeper holiness and massive evangelization. It will promote religious vocations and provide a basis for exceptionally loving marriages, holy families, and a strong permeation of secular society with the Gospel (see Catechism, 899). Christian community will raise up grass-roots lay leaders for the Church and be "a solid starting point" for a new civilization of love overcoming and displacing our culture of death (Mission of the Redeemer, 51). Pope John Paul II told the Philippine Bishops' Conference on September 27, 1996: "If the experience of basic ecclesial communities proves successful in fostering a deeper, more fraternal and more practical witness of Christian life and solidarity, then a new image of the Church will appear, the image of an active and responsible community which truly reflects the model offered by the early Christians of Jerusalem as described in the Acts of the Apostles."
Through living Christian community we would discover and invent the means of permeating our culture with the Gospel (Catechism, 899). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian executed by the Third Reich, taught in his book, Life Together: "Every day brings the Christian many hours of being alone in an un-Christian environment. These are times of testing. This is the proving ground of a genuine time of meditation and genuine Christian community. Has the community served to make individuals free, strong, and mature, or has it made them insecure and dependent? Has it taken them by the hand for awhile so that they would learn again to walk by themselves, or has it made them anxious and unsure? This is one of the toughest and most serious questions that can be put to any form of everyday Christian life in community (Lebensgemeinschaft). Moreover, we will see, at this point, whether Christians' time of meditation has led them into an un-real world, from which they awaken with a fright when they step out into the workaday world, or whether it has led them into a real world of God, from which they enter into the day's activities strengthened and purified. Has it transported them for a few short moments into a spiritual ecstasy that vanished when everyday life returns, or has it planted the Word of God so soberly and so deeply in their hearts that it holds and strengthens them all day long, leading them to active love, to obedience, to good works? Only the day can decide."
Jesus raised up His apostles to be leaders of Christian communities by forming a community of these leaders. After those leaders received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they went forth and formed other Christian communities. The Lord created the Church and called her the body of Christ. He has chosen those members of the body with the charism of leadership to order, protect, motivate, and develop the other parts of the body. Therefore, leaders are extremely important in forming and developing Christian communities. To form a Christian community we must raise up a leader and a leadership team to whom God will give the grace to do everything necessary for the founding and developing of Christian community.
Leaders are "to break the path...burst open the gate and go out through it" (Mi 2:13). Leaders of Christian communities are trailblazers. They need the vision to know where the Lord wants them to lead their communities and the courage to overcome all obstacles.
- have the vision of God's plan for community.
- lead others to join the community.
- give the Church's teaching on small communities by using the Church's official documents and especially the Bible.
- recognize the gifts of each member of the community and delegate responsibilities.
- maintain God's order in community.
- inspire in the community a zeal to evangelize and serve.
- strengthen the unity of the members of the community with each other by praying for God's grace and fostering a "continual interaction" among the members of the community.
The leaders of a community are responsible especially to call each member of the community to be responsible for the life and growth of Christian community. "Right from the beginning, it is necessary to prepare to be not only consumers of community, but above all its builders; to be responsible for each other's growth" (Fraternal Life in Community, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, 24).
If a community is branching off another community, the first community's leaders should choose the leaders of the new community. If a community is changing its leadership, it should seek help from the leaders of other communities.
Each community should have a leadership team possibly comprising one-third or one-fourth of the community. One person should lead the leadership team and make final decisions. The main leader should be unanimously chosen by the leaders that he or she is accountable to outside the community and by the other leaders on the leadership team.
Leaders of a Christian community should make decisions after repeated prayer and consultations with the members of the community. They should not vote on matters but try to discern God's will. They should rely on those in the community with the charisms of wisdom, prophecy, and discernment of spirits. At the beginning of the community's life, they may decide to make decisions by consensus. This forces the leaders to grow in unity. However, consensus decision-making is not realistic in the long run because it requires that all the leaders of the community hear God on the same point at about the same time.
Because the charism of leadership is so important to the body of Christ, those with the gift of leadership should use their gift to the fullest for their whole lives. However, a leader should not lead exactly the same people for years, for the community should be receiving new members and be branching into new communities. Moreover, because of special circumstances the main leader of a community may not continue as the main leader but remain in the leadership team of the community.
If you are called to lead a community, begin by praying for and seeking other leaders. Then pray and invite others who may be called to join your community to gather for a couple hours to learn more about the Church's teachings on Christian community. Presentation Ministries' booklet, Introduction to Small Christian Communities, can be used as a supplement to your teaching. Ask everyone at the gathering to pray and invite them to a series of Bible teachings on Christian community. Our twelve seminars on building small Christian communities can be used as a format for these teachings. Next, make a first draft of a covenant-commitment for the community. After receiving feedback and re-drafting the covenant, pray and invite those called to sign for an initial three-month commitment.
This process emphasizes prayer, leadership, teaching, and commitment. In our culture, probably few people will respond to this approach to building Christian community. However, for a community to grow in the long run, it is best to start smallwith those strongly committed to community life.
The Lord usually graces us incarnationally, since He has decided to save us through His incarnation, death, and resurrection. Therefore, the graces of "communio" usually come through the members of the community sharing the diverse experiences of everyday life. The Pope calls this "continual interaction" (Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People, 20).
We accept God's incarnational graces by asceticism, that is, self-denial and sacrifice. "The ascetic commitment...is necessary and irreplaceable for any liberation capable of transforming a group of people into a Christian fraternity...community that is not mystical has no soul, but community that is not ascetic has no body" (Fraternal Life in Community, Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life, 23).
Christian community may not be very deep in holiness or gifted with large numbers for some time. For the first year or two, Christian community is usually more shallow than some of our friendships and family relationships. However, eventually these relationships deepen and can become the deepest and most fruitful relationships of our lives.
Pope John Paul II has taught that Christian community is a gift of the Holy Spirit and usually is the result of the "continual interaction" of the community's members (Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People, 20). Therefore, members of a community should make decisions that will build into their daily lives occasions for many interactions with members of their community. To speed up the growth of Christian community, members of the community should consider living in the same house, belonging to the same parish, doing some of the same ministries, living in the same neighborhood, schooling their children together, sharing materially with one another, and simplifying their lives. If God unites communities in some of these major decisions, they will grow in holiness and numbers much more quickly.
All human beings are, by nature, communitarian. Therefore, to some degree we all are in communities, although these communities may not be Christian. These non-Christian communities are often related to family, business, entertainment, sports, hobbies, etc. Because most people are already involved in non-Christian communities, they are not free to enter into the total commitment of Christian community. However, they do not realize this. To lead someone into Christian community we must lead them out of non-Christian communities.
Because non-Christian communities do not adequately fulfill our basic human desires, there is always at least a subtle sense of alienation in non-Christian communities. When a person is baptized, this alienation becomes more pronounced. Therefore, to lead a person out of non-Christian communities we simply need to help him get in touch with the natural and baptismal alienation he is already experiencing. The Holy Spirit will do this by leading him to renew his Baptism. The Spirit will work especially through those preaching, teaching, interceding, redemptively suffering, and fasting. The Spirit, "will prove the world wrong about sin, about justice, about condemnation" (Jn 16:8) and will crucify us to the world and the world to us (Gal 6:14). After a person is in touch with the natural and baptismal alienation he feels in non-Christian communities, he realizes that he is a stranger and in exile in this world (1 Pt 2:11). Then he will be open to Christian community, for he will still have a need for community but realize that non-Christian communities will not adequately fulfill him.
- blood relatives (Andrew told his brother Simon Peter about Jesus [Jn 1:41].)
- those with whom you have things in common (The first followers of Jesus were all Jews.)
- neighbors ("Phillip was from Bethsaida, the same town as Andrew and Peter" [Jn 1:44].)
- co-workers (One-third of the 12 apostles were fishermen.)
From these four categories, make a list of people for whom you are committing to pray daily, and invite them to share in your community.
When we have God's plan for Christian community and the makings of Christian community, we then need tools to build community. Possibly we should refer to these tools as "boxes of tools". First, the community's covenant includes several commitments that can be used as tools by the leaders of a Christian community to develop "communio". For example, the leaders of a community could help their community's members work out their differences by calling them to be faithful to such covenant-commitments as to pray for each other, serve together, eat together, and to celebrate the Eucharist together. The community's covenant provides the opportunity for discipline, accountability, and solidarity.
A second important "box of tools " is the community's meeting. Through the worship, teachings, personal ministry, communication, and hospitality at the community's meetings, the leaders have many tools at their disposal to promote the "continual interaction" in which the Lord graces the communities with a deepening of "communio."
Also, the networking of the community with other communities is a box of tools that can be used by leaders of communities to further the growth of "communio." For example, one community may be weak in worship. If it grows in this most important aspect of Christian life, its members will grow in love for the Lord and each other. If this community belonged to a network of small communities which gathered for a monthly Mass, its members would see communities who are much stronger in giving worship to God. Worshipping with these other communities would be a critical growing experience.
The major covenant of our lives is our baptismal covenant in which we commit ourselves to love the Lord totally, our brothers and sisters in Christ specially (Gal 6:10), and all people unconditionally. In covenanting to a small Christian community, we focus our baptismal covenant on a small number of Christian brothers and sisters. We are not making an additional covenant but living our baptismal covenant practically (1 Jn 3:18).
Applying our baptismal covenant to particular people is a discipline (Heb 12:5). This helps us grow in unconditional love for our brothers and sisters. We are saying that God has called us to commit ourselves to these people. This is an affirmation of them. Moreover, by applying our baptismal covenant to particular brothers and sisters we clarify to whom we are primarily responsible. This clarity will help us discern our priorities. Finally, making a covenant gives stability to a community and to its ministries. This is necessary for discipline, evangelization, and growth.
The following agreements are part of the covenants of some small Christian communities:
- Pray daily for the other members of the community.
- Celebrate Mass with the community regularly.
- Attend the community's meetings.
- Share meals with the community regularly.
- Work in the community's ministry.
- Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation monthly.
- Participate in the community's fast day.
The aspects of our baptismal covenant which we apply to our community life should be minimal and measurable. In our Western culture, covenants are usually written and signed. Community covenants should be signed for three months initially and after that for one year. It is good to review, revise, and renew covenants annually. Because Presentation Ministries is named after Our Lady of Presentation, our patronal feast day is November 21. We encourage annual covenants to begin and end on November 21.
An example of a covenant
Presentation Promised Community
(November 21, 1995November 21, 1996)
The members of Presentation Promised Community have expressed their commitment to support each other in their Christian life in the following covenant made November 21, 1995 until November 21, 1996.
CELIBACY AND POVERTY:
We promise to live and encourage one another in a life-long commitment to Presentation Ministries, celibate life for the Kingdom and simple life-style.
We promise to devote ourselves to the Apostles' instruction (Acts 2:42) through scripture study and daily spiritual and scriptural reading, including some readings from the Pope's encyclicals and exhortations. By a lifetime commitment to Presentation Ministries and Communities, we have promised to work for the spread of the Gospel.
We promise to grow in our Baptismal relationship through sharing each others' burdens, daily prayer for one another, and personal prayer in times of need. We will have a spiritual director (required by the statutes for lifelong members of P.M. and we will receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least monthly (1 Cor 12:26). We'll celebrate our baptismal days, and major Church feasts.
We will meet and share a meal monthly, and attend the annual communities' and/or co-worker retreats. We will work together in a life-time commitment as Co-workers for Presentation Ministries.
BREAKING OF BREAD:
We will attend Mass each day (together when possible), and spend some time in Eucharistic adoration.
We promise to celebrate Mass with Presentation Communities the last Friday of every month.
We will pray part of the Liturgy of the Hours (Morning Prayer, and Evening Prayer). We promise to fast according to God's call for each individual.
Decisions will be made by leader after consultation with the group. The current leader is Vivian Jansen.
Discipleship and Guadalupe Bible College.
We will accept new members into the group through mutual discernment in prayer and establish the following as part of our orientation procedure:
introduction to Presentation Ministries and co-workers commitment
involvement in SFO formation and postulancy
begin process for lifetime commitment to Presentation Ministries with a spiritual director
An example of a covenant
TRINITY HOME-BASED COMMUNITY COVENANT
Leaders: Paul & Denise Autenrieb
"I therefore, a prisoner in the Lord, exhort you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all humility and meekness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, careful to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, even as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and throughout all, and in us all." Ephesians 4:1-6
We, the undersigned, commit to each other and to Presentation Ministries the following until November 21, 1996:
A. Pray each day for all covenanted members of all HBCCs in the network and for all the work of Presentation Ministries.
B. Attend each monthly Mass of the total Presentation community.
C. Attend the scheduled annual retreat of the total Presentation community.
D. Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation monthly.
E. Pray the family rosary at least once weekly.
F. Fast in some way on Friday.
G. Attend at least one additional Mass during the week.
H. Spend at least one hour monthly in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Through the upholding of this covenant, we strive to build up and strengthen family life and deepen our Catholic faith as well as increase our trust in our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we may surrender ourselves more fully to Him.
The leaders of a community pray and seek God's will about the agreements they need among the community's members to promote growth in brotherhood and sisterhood. The leaders then propose a covenant to the members of the community. After prayer and discussion, whatever is accepted unanimously in the proposed covenant is submitted for approval to the leaders of the network of communities to which the community belongs.
The covenant-commitments of a community are not binding under pain of sin. However, it is very important to keep our word to everyone, especially to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Faithfulness to a community's covenant is an expression of love.
Because Christian community is greatly deepened by the Eucharist, members of a Christian community should frequently celebrate Mass together. If the community's members are in the same parish, they should celebrate Mass together more than once a week. If they are from different parishes, they should celebrate weekday Mass together at least a couple times a month. In addition to these scheduled times for the whole community to celebrate Mass together, at least some of the community members should celebrate Mass together as frequently as possible, even daily. The Church teaches: "No Christian community, however, can be built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist. Here, therefore, all education in the spirit of community must originate" (On Priests, Vatican II, 6).
Members of communities sin, and sin makes life and Christian community extremely difficult. Therefore, it is important to commit ourselves to regularly confess our sins and be forgiven of them.
In frequent Confession not only are our sins forgiven, but we are strengthened to overcome temptations and are graced to grow in holiness. These are exceptionally important graces for those living in Christian community. Several years ago only a few of our communities thought that their members should make a commitment to monthly Confession. After a few years of experience, almost all of our communities include a commitment to monthly Confession as part of their covenants.
The Lord works in powerful ways through our sharing of meals. The Mass is in the context of the sharing of a meal. Meals, according to Biblical revelation, are sacred times. Therefore, it is good for members of a Christian community to try to share at least one meal together per week. If the community's members are not in the same geographical area or have extremely demanding family responsibilities or work schedules, they may be able to share a meal only once or twice a month. However, in addition to these scheduled times for the whole community to share meals, the Holy Spirit will probably inspire several members of the community to share in meals frequently, sometimes even daily (Acts 2:46).
The Lord frees us through fasting (Is 58:6). Some demons cannot be driven out except through prayer and fasting (Mt 17:21). Pope John Paul II has taught that prayer and fasting are the "first and most effective weapons" against the forces of evil (The Gospel of Life, 100). All the communities networked in Presentation Ministries fast on Fridays or on another day of the week. Especially at this present time, the Lord has decided to give His people victory through fasting.
Yes, each community should have a ministry in which all the members of the community participate. Although each member of a community may have other individual ministries, a corporate ministry is necessary, for it is a great opportunity to grow in baptismal brotherhood and sisterhood. Some people grow more in unity by serving together than they do through other ways of sharing.
The community's leader should consider having the community's meetings in the context of the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Church teaches: "Gatherings of laity for prayer, apostolic work or any other reason are encouraged to fulfill the Church's office by celebrating part of the Liturgy of the Hours" (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 27). Because meetings are often held in the evening, the community's meeting could begin with the evening prayer of the Church.
The community's meeting could continue with the following format:
1. PRAISE The fruitfulness of the meeting depends on having a good start. We begin by thanking and praising God in our native language. We then sing praises to the Lord, but most importantly we should pray and sing in tongues. It is very important to enter deeply into God's presence. The Lord usually brings us into His presence by gracing us to worship Him in long, sustained praise (Ps 100:4). The gift of tongues is invaluable in praising the Lord for an extended time. (For more teaching on this, read our pamphlet: Speaking in Tongues.)
2. BIBLE TEACHING The foundation of all Christian communities is the word of God (Mt 7:24). Pope Paul VI has taught that basic communities "will be a hope for the universal Church to the extent that they seek their nourishment in the Word of God" (On Evangelization, 58). The Lord has probably given one or more members of the community the supernatural gift of teaching God's word (see Eph 4:11; 1 Tm 3:2). It is important to accept this gift. The teachers should not primarily be discussion-leaders or facilitators. They must teach in the power of the Spirit. This teaching should usually be given live. Audio/video recordings of even the best teachers generally should not be used except for more than a few minutes during the meeting. Recordings can be good for personal use but not for the community meeting.
3. PERSONAL MINISTRY In addition to the gifts of teaching and of praying in tongues, we need to use many other gifts of the Spirit in the community's meetings. Each person should put his gifts at the service of the community (1 Pt 4:10). Leaders should view the community as a body and try to lead each one to make his unique contribution. At the community's meeting each person should have the opportunity to receive ministry for his personal needs. Sometimes the community should break into small groups to provide this personal ministry. Usually we gather around each individual to lay hands on them. At this time the Lord may bring forth prophecy, healing, intercession, encouragement, wisdom and other gifts of the Spirit.
4. PRAISE We conclude the meeting as we began it. We praise God in various ways, especially in tongues. The final and lasting impression of the meeting should be "praise."
Because Christian community is a daily living of baptismal brotherhood and sisterhood, we want to promote God's call to share our lives with each other frequently and informally. Therefore, we do not want to put too much emphasis on the community's meetings and make people think that the meetings are the main activities of the community. This does not mean that the meetings should be uneventful and lacking in preparation and content. The meetings should be a special opportunity for all to receive the grace of God and a catalyst for sharing together informally our lives in Christ. As a general rule, the whole community should meet formally about every two weeks.
Because the children are full-fledged members of the community, they participate in the community meetings. It is ideal for them to be at the opening of the meeting to join in the whole community's praise of God. Then, if possible, one or more adult community members should take the children to another part of the house to teach them divine revelation, especially the Bible as taught by the Church. After the teaching, the leaders of the children should lead them in crafts and games. Finally, refreshments can be served.
Those ministering to the children are not leaving the community's meeting but are leading one part of the community's meetings. The children's meeting is not baby-sitting. It is as much a part of the community's life as the meeting of the adult community members.
Witnessing to what the Lord has done in our lives is one of the most powerful ways of leading others to a commitment to Christ and of helping others and ourselves to grow in holiness. Witnessing usually should be specific. However, some parts of a person's witness may not be appropriate for a mixed gathering. Consequently, separate male and female groupings can make personal witnessing more effective. The psychology of men and women is obviously and significantly different. Men will participate and share more in an all-male gathering. Also, personal ministry is more effective in all-male and all-female groupings. In an all-male gathering, men can be more confrontational and hold each other accountable to their Christian commitments. In an all-female gathering, there can be an empathy that is not often found in mixed groupings. Moreover, men ministering to men and women to women diminishes the possibility of spiritual warfare related to lustful thoughts, jealousy, and misunderstandings.
Because of the advantages of separate male and female groupings, we recommend scheduling separate gatherings at other times if they cannot be practically done at the community's meetings.
Jesus, not only had a community of twelve people, but also a network of seventy-two and later one hundred and twenty disciples (Lk 10:1; Acts 1:15). This is a model for all Christian communities. Just as individuals need community, so communities need communities. Pope Paul VI warned Christian communities that there is a very real danger of becoming "isolated" (On Evangelization, 58). Communities should be networked with one another:
- to have greater evangelistic impact (Jn 17:21).
- to have greater outreach in ministry.
- to learn from other communities and receive support (see Rm 16:4).
- to protect the community's leaders from making bad decision (Prv 11:14).
- to provide recourse for those who disagree with decisions of the leaders (see Acts 15:2).
- to assist communities in appointing and changing leaders (see Ti 1:5).
- to better protect communities from being influenced by secular humanism.
- This incarnates and symbolizes the universal (catholic) nature of the Church (Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People, 25). Examples of Catholic organizations in transparochial networks are the Legion of Mary, St. Vincent de Paul Society, third orders, Knights of Columbus, etc. These organizations love and devotedly serve the parish, but they are not parish structures.
- Networking communities outside the parish better assures continuity of leadership. In other words, the transfer of your pastor will not be a major problem for your community.
- A transparochial network helps members of a community resist the temptation of unjustly expecting a new pastor to fit into the priorities and ministries of the previous pastor.
- By not being officially part of the parish structure, a community is not a threat to parish organizations. Thus, a pastor will not be "put on the spot" to choose between a community and some of the parish groups.
- A community, if it is transparochial, can work on an ongoing basis with communities throughout its diocese and the world. Otherwise, ongoing outreach to another parish would be perceived as meddling in another parish.
- A community may have members from several parishes. Transparochial networking allows members from several parishes to remain under the authority of their respective pastors while being joined to the larger Church.
- Transparochial networking means a community can join an existing network and not have the responsibility of creating their own network within a parish.
Pope Paul VI has taught that the community should have a "sincere communion" with the pastor (On Evangelization, 58). The community loves, prays for, serves, and communicates with the pastor. He should be invited to participate in the community's life to the extent which he chooses. The pastor can choose to relate to the community as he relates to other transparochial ministries, such as the Legion of Mary, St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Knights of Columbus, Cursillo, etc.
- A parish was originally intended to be a community network of small communities. The bishops at the 1987 Synod at Rome proclaimed: "We note with great satisfaction that the parish is becoming a dynamic community of communities, a center where movements, basic ecclesial communities and other apostolic groups energize it and in turn are nourished" (Final Message to the People of God, 10). Networking communities in a parish decentralizes and organizes the parish (Mission of the Redeemer, 51).
- A parish is usually more effective in pastoring its communities than a transparochial network can be.
- Networking communities in a parish has a greater, immediate impact on parish renewal.
- According to Pope John Paul II (Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People, 61), most Christian communities will eventually be networked in parishes. So why not be the pioneers in the U.S.A and Canada?
Because leadership is so important for the development of Christian community, it is necessary that continuity of leadership for communities be assured. In other words, will the pastor support the small communities, and will his successor and the successor to his successors also support these communities? If there is no realistic assurance of this, then communities should not be networked within the parish at this time. Although pastors throughout most of the world are trained to help form Christian communities, this is not the case in the United States and Canada. Therefore, to network communities in the parishes of North America is not practical at this time. However, as Christian communities become places where people recognize and accept their vocations to the priesthood, more and more priests will have a community background. Therefore, in later generations most Christian communities, even in the United States and Canada, should be networked in parishes.
Due to changing pastoral leadership, parishes in the United States are not usually ready to network communities. Other international networks of communities (i.e. Communion and Liberation, Neo-Catechumenate, Focolare, etc.) are not developed and available in most of the United States. The Secular Franciscans have a beautiful rule of life in which they speak eloquently of networking their fraternities in small communities. However, this has not been implemented widely. Therefore, Presentation Ministries is often the only option in which communities can be networked.
Presentation Ministries is a canonically established association of the laity under the Archbishop of Cincinnati. Presentation Ministries is focused on God's word, submissive to the authority of the Church and the Pope, and zealous for evangelization and discipleship. Presentation Ministries offers communities structural unity with the universal Church, a foundation on the authority of the Church and God's word, a commitment to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19), and several years of experience in forming and networking Christian communities.
In the Greater Cincinnati area, a community meets with the some of the leaders of Presentation Communities and works out an agreement by which the community can relate to the other communities in Presentation. This agreement includes:
1. PRAYER - The covenanted members of our community pray each day for the covenanted members of all communities in the network and for all the work of Presentation Ministries.
2. MONTHLY MASS - The covenanted members of our community attend each monthly Mass of the network of communities, unless excused by their community's leadership.
3. ANNUAL RETREAT - The covenanted members of our community attend the annual retreat of the network of communities, unless excused by their community's leaders.
4. LEADERSHIP TRAINING - All leaders in their communities attend leadership training meetings, unless excused by the networking team.
5. OUTREACH - Each community is responsible to develop an outreach ministry.
6. EVANGELIZATION - Each community evangelizes. It is committed to growth in membership and to branching into new communities.
7. ANNUAL REPORT - The leaders of each community prepare an annual report to the networking team.
8. LEADERSHIP CHANGES - When changing leaders, a community must work with those networking Presentation's communities. New leaders must be accepted by the networkers of Presentation Ministries.
9. RATIFICATION OF DECISIONS - Decisions of the community must be ratified by the networkers of Presentation Ministries.
The networking team of Presentation Ministries are responsible:
- to provide leadership training for present and potential lead- ers.
- to shepherd all the communities' leaders.
- to visit with a community at least annually to promote unity between the communities in the network.
- to assist in choosing new leaders for a community.
- to ratify the covenants of the communities.
- to ratify decisions of the leaders of a community.
- to give community members recourse if they want to appeal leaders' decisions to be reviewed and possibly changed.
Communities outside the Cincinnati area need to adapt the agreements made by the communities in the Cincinnati area. We encourage an out-of-town community to write a letter of intent. The leaders of this community should look at page 29 in our book, Building Small Christian Communities. On this page concerning networking, the leaders should look at the various reasons for networking and pick two or three major reasons why their community is called to network with the other communities in Presentation Ministries. Based on these reasons, the leaders should discern God's will concerning two or three goals for the next year. Then the leaders should state in their letter of intent how these goals can be realized. For example, in its letter, a community may propose regular conference calls between its leaders and/or community and some of the people helping with the networking of communities in Presentation Ministries. They may also agree to send written communications to Presentation Ministries a certain number of times per year. The leaders usually commit themselves to one or two face-to-face meetings each year in order to meet the goals of networking with the communities of Presentation Ministries.
In summary, the leaders of a Christian community outside of Cincinnati should write a letter of intent to those working with networking the communities in Presentation Ministries. They should list their goals for networking and the means to accomplish these goals, and they should date this from the present date to November 21. If that commitment seems too long initially, the leaders of the community should date their community's commitment for three months.
3230 McHenry Ave.
Cincinnati, OH 45211
Dear Presentation Ministries:
Our core group met last evening and discussed setting goals for our Home Based Communities and how Presentation Ministries can be a help to us. We have enclosed a copy of our mission statement and charter for your review also.
1. Learn to be more effective in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in our community.
- Send a delegate to attend Presentation Ministries' discipleship training at least once a year (i.e. Bible Institute).
- Obtain Presentation Ministries' materials to distribute (i.e. One Bread, One Body and John Paul Speaks).
- Use Presentation Ministries' audio/video recordings for teachings at weekly meetings.
2. Be affiliated with Presentation Ministries so as to prevent spiritual isolation and be protected from spiritual warfare.
- Keep in contact by phone once per month.
- Give quarterly and annual written reports as to what we have accomplished.
3. Seek information from Presentation Ministries as to best ways to birth new groups and seek good leaders.
4. Seek the prayerful support of Presentation Ministries for special intentions of our community, such as when we conduct Life in the Spirit Seminars or when we are seeking the Holy Spirit's direction for our groups.
We hope that this is what you had in mind for goals. Let us know if these sound realistic. Thank you for your prayers as we continue to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit for Home Based Communities at Assumption.
"Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you, with its power to save you. Act on this word. If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves" (Jas 1:21-22). Don't abort the word you have received, but do it. Even if you feel inadequate, you can be confident "that He Who has a begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion, right up to the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:6). "He Who calls us is trustworthy, therefore He will do it" (1 Th 5:24). Alleluia!
Nihil obstat: Reverend Robert J. Buschmiller,
June 5, 1997.
Imprimatur: Most Reverend Carl K. Moeddel, Vicar General and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, June 12, 1997.
Scripture references are taken from The New American Bible, copyright 1970 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., and are used with permission for the copyright holder. All rights reserved.