Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Or, in the case of the Catholic Church, the mission or community?
The answer that is given to that question says a lot, I would suggest, about one’s understanding of the nature of the Church, and the reason for the Church’s existence.
For if we take our responsibility and our identity as Church seriously, the mission of the Church must be at the heart of all we are and all we do. Nothing else really matters if the mission entrusted to the Church is not being lived out day by day in this place and in this time.
But what is that mission? What is it that the Church is called to?
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matt 28:19-20a)
Go. Make. Baptize. Teach.
The thrust of the mission entrusted to the Church is a simple one yet one that is always looking outwards towards others, towards those who have not yet heard the kerygma (the fundamental truth of Jesus). This ad extra focus of the Church is intrinsic to the very nature of the Church’s identity and reality; if we are not focussed outwards, are we really Church anymore?
So where does this leave the concept of community from a Church perspective?
The answer is simple. The Church is a community, but a community that is not focussed in on itself but outward to those it wishes to reach and do what it can to draw them into the community of the Church. The community of the Church, the gathering together of like-minded believers, does not exist for the sake of those who are already part of the community, but rather for the mutual support of those fellow-believers as they reach out towards others, others who have not yet been touched by the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Too much a focus on community at the cost of the mission, too much attention to those who are already believers while forgetting those not yet with us, can lead to the kind of insular thinking that will eventually culminate in someone turning off the lights as they are the last ones out of the building. It is the sounding of a death-knell to the Church in any particular time or place and, I would strongly argue, is entirely foreign to the Great Commission the Church has been entrusted with (see above).
That is, of course, not to say that the Church is not a community. The Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that even in the early life of the Church there was attention paid to the existing members of the believing community, making sure that those in need were cared for, that everyone had what they needed. Yet even this internal care of the believers had a missionary dimension since those who saw the care exhibited between believers drew others to the community because the care between believers was carried out for the sake of Jesus Christ.
And coming to believe in Jesus Christ should change the way we respond to others whether they be fellow believers or not; Jesus taught us that the two great commandments were, after all, to love God and to one’s neighbour as oneself. Embracing the kerygma requires a change not only in religious belief but also in the living of daily life. Orthodoxy is not enough; it must be paired with orthopraxis. And here, I would again argue strongly, that orthopraxis is not just directed inwards towards fellow believers, internally to the community of believers, but is also and perhaps more importantly focussed outwardly towards others.
So when we speak of the Church we need to be careful that we are speaking not of an internally focused, walled-off community that only cares about those on the inside, but of a community of fellow-believers who draw mutual support from each other as they engage in their primary task of going, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching.
Anything else is simply to surrender.