FR DAN EVBOTOKHAI
Over the years hundreds of parishes transform and become vibrant in large part by simply following the small group model of the early Church. Reclaiming this model may be the single most important thing we can do to strengthen the Church today. This small group has been termed Basic Christian Communities. The terminology used in official Catholic documents is “church of the home,” “domestic church,” “communautes de base,” or “basic communties.” It is also known as mini-parishes, life-communions, neighborhood churches, and grass-roots. These communities are relatively small in comparison with parishes, they are homogeneous groups of Christians who share common doctrine and interests, values, and objectives; who search to emphasize primary, inter-personal, ongoing relationships; and who view themselves as ecclesial entities. Basic Christian communities are the form in which growing numbers of concerned peoples are structuring themselves as an alternative or a complement to the parish model of Church. Their common interests, their possibly living in the same area, and their limited numbers from 8 to 40, some would say 100 allow members to develop close personal relationships.
Generally these groups seek some concerted impact on the world and undertake apostolic options as a group. The rhythm of sacramental life varies according to group discernment and the availability of a priest or deacon. The purpose of basic Christian communities is not to be parish societies that provide services to the parish, to be study groups, or to be movements infusing church life with one special quality; but rather to hold their own identity as an ecclesial unit.
In the late 20th century basic Christian communities became a major element of the pastoral practice of significant segments of the Catholic and Protestant Churches over the world. They are a cornerstone of much Latin American pastoral work. In many areas of Africa and Asia they are likewise a key for pastoral development.
Basic Christian Community in the Bible
In the Old Testament, the home and the Temple were the most important places of worship and celebration. The Passover, the greatest of all Israelite celebrations, was held in homes. Jesus made the home not only a center for worship but also His base for evangelization. He told His apostles: “Look for a worthy person in every town or village you come to and stay with him until you leave. As you enter his home bless it” (Mt 10:11-12). After Pentecost, the early Church met in their homes daily for the breaking of the bread (the Eucharist) and shared meals (Acts 2:46). This resulted in the manifestation of signs and wonders, break-through in economic sharing, and wildfire evangelism. “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). All the churches for the first 300 years of Church history were homes. Saul persecuted the Church by breaking up these home-meetings, dragging men and women out of house after house, and throwing them into jail (Acts 8:3). Peter was saved from execution through an all-night prayer-vigil at the home of Mary, John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12). Lydia, the first convert of the Western world, made her home a church (Acts 16:15, 40). Priscilla and Aquila had the most famous home-based community in history. They strengthened Paul to return to full-time ministry (Acts 18:2-5), converted Apollos, and empowered him to minister in the Spirit (Acts 18:26). All the churches of the Gentiles owed a debt of gratitude to Priscilla and Aquila and the congregation that met in their house (Rm 16:4-5). Other notable communities were those of Nymphas (Col 4:15), Titus Justus (Acts 18:7), Gaius (Rm 16:23), and Philemon (Phlm 2). The home-based community was seen as a training ground for leadership in the early Church (1 Tm 3: 5, 12).
Doubtless, there are many biblical references in this regard. Again, in the Gospel of Matthew Our Lord says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). So the best part about gathering together as Christians is that we can be assured that Jesus is there among us. This, of course, can still be experienced in some sense outside of Mass or Eucharistic adoration. Christ is in our hearts by virtue of our baptism; by virtue of our incorporation into his Body. So in a very real way, encounters with other Christians during a bible study, or a Rosary meet up, or a faith-sharing session in a small group all constitute a legitimate meeting with our Lord.
Another aspect of the Christian life that is of the utmost importance is the building up of the Body. We already see that this happens through gathering in community with each other to worship our Lord in common. But this building up also happens through encouraging each other. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is very explicit on the importance of both points in the life of the Christian:
“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
So first off, he reminds us not to neglect meeting together. Obviously, he’s referring to the Mass here. But he takes it a step further and asks that we as Christians “stir up one another”. Now, he’s not telling us to stir the pot and antagonize our brethren. Instead, we are to encourage and embolden each other to carry out good works in love. Acts of the Apostles also makes it clear that the baptized had “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) This encouragement and fellowship is sorely needed today, especially when many Catholics who, for instance, enter secular life on a college campus find themselves without any kind of support for their faith through a period of time.
Basic Christian Community in the Official Teachings of the Church
“You will know what kind of conduct befits a member of God’s household, the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth.” 1 Timothy 3:15
The following quotations from Pope John Paul II, and Pope Paul VI indicate how the Spirit is developing small Christian communities and that the Church approves and encourages the formation of small communities. Communautes de base (basic communities) “will be a hope for the universal Church to the extent:
- That they seek their nourishment in the Word of God and do not allow themselves to be ensnared by political polarization or fashionable ideologies, which are ready to exploit their immense human potential;
- That they avoid the ever present temptation of systematic protest and a hypercritical attitude, under the pretext of authenticity and a spirit of collaboration;
- That they remain firmly attached to the local Church in which they are inserted, and to the universal Church, thus avoiding the very real danger of becoming isolated within themselves, then of believing themselves to be the only authentic Church of Christ, and hence of condemning the other ecclesial communities;
- That they maintain a sincere communion with the pastors whom the Lord gives to His Church, and with the magisterium which the Spirit of Christ has entrusted to these pastors;
- That they never look on themselves as the sole beneficiaries or sole agents of evangelization — or even the only depositories of the Gospel — but, being aware that the Church is much more vast and diversified, accept the fact that this Church becomes incarnate in other ways than themselves;
- That they constantly grow in missionary consciousness, fervor, commitment and zeal;
- That they show themselves to be universal in all things and never sectarian.”
On these conditions, which are certainly demanding but also uplifting, the ecclesial communautes de base will correspond to their most fundamental vocation; as hearers of the Gospel which is proclaimed to them and privileged beneficiaries of evangelization, they will soon become proclaimers of the Gospel themselves” (Pope Paul VI, On Evangelization, 58).
“A rapidly growing phenomenon in the young churches — one sometimes fostered by the bishops and their Conferences as pastoral priority — is that of ‘ecclesial basic communities’ 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. 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 ‘civilization of love.’
“These communities decentralize and organize the parish community, to which they always remain united” (Pope John Paul II, The Mission of the Redeemer, 51).
Because the Church is communion, the new ‘basic communities’, if they truly live in unity with the Church, are a true expression of communion and a means of construction of a more profound communion. They are thus cause for great hope for the life of the Church (Pope John Paul II, The Mission of the Redeemer, 51).
So that all parishes of this kind may be truly communities of Christians, local ecclesial authorities ought to foster small, basic or so-called ‘living’ communities, where the faithful can communicate the word of God and express it in service and love to one another; these communities are true expressions of ecclesial communion and centers of evangelization, in communion with their pastors (Pope John Paul II, The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People).
Internal to the parish, especially if vast and territorially extensive, small Church communities, where present, can be a notable help in the formation of Christians by providing a consciousness and an experience of ecclesial communion and mission which are more extensive and incisive (Pope John Paul II, The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People, 61).
Some features of Basic Christian Community:
- Close supportive relationships beyond the family.
- Effective community supports.
- Challenges members towards meaningful services.
- It allows interaction on biblical and moral issues that can deepen the faith.
- It allows critique among members that prompt growth.
- It brings to fore some doctrinal questions or questions frequently asked about the Church.
- It promotes involvement in the Church and in the society or immediate environment.
- It allows rapid development of many and varied ministries or services among the members.
- It allows for the correction of one another
- It develops real friendships in Christ.
- It gives us a safe place to work out our personal faith/life issues.
- Now we have a structured, scheduled time to refocus our lives on the Lord.
- Participants discover other people in the community who can help them on my journey.
- The example of others in the group inspires us to do better.
- It enables for the distribution of Church functions such as visitation to the sick, prison, grieved, those absent at parish level.
It serves as a witness for Children; when children see their parents praying and in fellowship with other adults discussing the Faith, this has a lasting influence on the children’s longevity in their church community. This witness has a profound impact on their own attachment to their church.
It fosters leadership; if we’re all called to be disciples, it also means we’re called to be leaders. A leader has the courage and conviction to say “follow me.” At BCC people learn to lead by example? The parish administrator gradually identifies potential leaders and helps form and encourage them so they can serve in the parish. It enables for the distribution of Church functions such as visitation to the sick, prison, grieved, those absent at parish level.
The home-based community is almost contrary to the trends of our society today. The home is usually considered insignificant today. We are an extremely mobile society, constantly changing residences and jobs. We jump from apartment to apartment. We even eat on the run, picking up “fast foods” at drive-through windows. Home is a layover, a sleeping room. But in the Bible, home is where the action is (Prv 31:10ff). It is the center of community, business, education, social services, entertainment, and more. It is the center of life.
Our technology has made it possible to begin an experiment. Our independent life-style is unprecedented in world history totally experimental. We have no idea how it will turn out. Early indications are frightening. According to our new life-style, home-makers have meaningless lives, and children are seen as a great inconvenience to their parents and a hindrance to living the “good life.” There seems to be nothing sacred in life including sex, love, marriage, family, and community. Talents and skills which have been traditionally valued are now considered unimportant. We are taking an extreme risk in the most basic elements of life. We may be creating a frankenstein world that is something that destroys or harms the person or people who created it. In such an alien environment, the concept of a community may sound idealistic.
Today’s communities should not be islands to themselves. They should be rooted in the local Church truly and genuinely. Pope Paul VI stated that “basic communities” should “remain firmly attached to the local Church in which they are inserted, and to the universal Church thus avoiding the very real danger of becoming isolated within themselves. The relationship with the local churches and their pastors is an invaluable help to communities. However, we need another structure to network and foster home-based communities because; sometimes the priest of a parish is unable or unwilling to do much to help the community. Even if a priest of a parish supports Christian community, he will probably not stay at that parish for more than a few years. Thus, there is no assurance of continuity in leadership of a small community. This is a serious problem because the leadership in a small community is so important! Therefore, most communities are in a dilemma. They need a larger structure to impact the world, provide good leadership training, and protect themselves in spiritual warfare.