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Tim Challies

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My Custom Built Community

One of the interesting and significant new realities of life in a digital world is that we are finding new and original ways of building community. There was a time when community was largely related to and dependent upon geography. Community was based on shared space, so our sense of belonging was tied to the people who were closest to us; our deepest commitments were to the local community.

The Internet has allowed us to expand our understanding of community so that we can have significant and ongoing interaction with people regardless of their location. Today my sense of belonging, my sense of identity, may be tied most closely to a community of people who share an interest but who relate only online. I may feel closer affinity with these people than with anyone in my own zip code or my own local church. Many of us have custom-built a community for ourselves based around a common interest.

This weekend a nearby church asked me to speak on “Missions in a Changing World.” They wanted me to focus on how we can be faithful in mission in a world that has been transformed by our new technologies. I found myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). There we see a lawyer who goes to Jesus to ask, “What is the most important commandment.” I suppose this man knows that he is meant to live a life that is different from the lives of people around him, and he is wondering how he is to do that.

Jesus gives him the opportunity to answer his own question. He correctly identifies that he is to love God first and, having done that, to love his neighbor as himself. But he immediately looks for a loophole, asking Jesus, “But who is my neighbor.” He wants to know who it is that he is primarily responsible to love.

One of the constant challenges of the Christian is to look to the Bible, to the unchanging Word of God, and to apply it to an always-changing world. Jesus knew the specific challenge of the people of that time and that place. This lawyer was willing to love the people right around him, the people who were just like him, so Jesus responded by drawing “neighbor” far wider than this man could have imagined. The point is clear: My neighbor is not just the person next door, but it is anyone the Lord brings into my life, even if that person is my sworn enemy.

As I pondered this Good Samaritan, and as I pondered missions in a changing world, I began to wonder what our specific challenge is in applying this text. Who is my neighbor in a world where community now spans the globe? Who is my neighbor when my deepest and most comfortable sense of belonging may be with a group that communes only online? Who am I primarily responsible to love and to share the gospel with? It seems to me that the temptation today is to err in exactly the opposite direction, to love the person far away before loving the person nearby. Today the Samaritan may be the person next door while the person I love with little effort is halfway across the world. As I’ve customized my own little community, I’ve learned to ignore the people right around me.

Where will I have the best, the most natural opportunities to love? Where will I have the best opportunities to share the gospel? The best opportunities will inevitably come with relationships in the real world, where I can give all of myself to another person, not just the bits I choose to reveal through the Internet. I can be a far better neighbor to the person next door than I can to the person thousands of miles away. 

If I am to obey the second great commandment, to love my neighbor as myself, I need to refocus my understanding of community, of neighbor, to the people I can best love, best serve, best share the gospel with. And those are the people right here, right now, right around me.