As a lifelong participant-observer of people desiring community in church, and from my pastoral perspective for more than a decade, I would suggest that exclusivity often characterizes human community. In our human nature, we look to connect with people via gated communities, private clubs, particular schools, and even churches populated by those we like or feel are like us. However, true Christian community is “welcoming one another as Christ has welcomed you.” Rom 15:7. Its quality could be measured by how the weakest member in the group is regarded and treated. Christian community is counter-cultural and supernatural; it is not our natural human tendency, so it requires the work of the Spirit in us.
During my years of pastoral ministry, I have witnessed and experienced the frustration of seeking but often not finding this kind of life-giving, gracious, interdependent community. I have watched top-notch group leaders’ frustration in wanting to “go deeper” while others in the group seem to prefer to socialize. I have personally wrestled with the desire for a more communal feeling to my own relationships. I have sometimes hoped for things to look like I imagine them to be in communal cultures, such as many in Asia, Africa, or even in 1940’s America. I have a wishful, nostalgic image of community, but I may or may not want relationship with the actual people who constitute my real-life community.
Our world today has a deep hunger for community, but we have other competing hungers, like our desires for independence, privacy, productivity and pragmatism. “Who am I if I am not producing?”, we think. “I’d really love to chit-chat with you,” we reason, “but I’ve got stuff to do.” Instead of investing in each other’s joys and sorrows, carrying each other’s burdens, holding each other accountable, following Christ together, and serving each other and our world, we often opt for the more immediate satisfaction of less intimacy and sacrifice, more individualism and productivity.
One of the best-ever books about community, in my view, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. Bonhoeffer says, “Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us… The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us will recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is alive between us… Those who want more than what Christ has established between us do not want Christian community. They are looking for some extraordinary experiences of community that were denied them elsewhere. Such people are bringing confused and tainted desires into the Christian community. Precisely at this point Christian community is most often threatened from the very outset by the greatest danger, the danger of internal poisoning, the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful image of pious community, the danger of blending the devout heart’s natural desire for community with the spiritual reality of Christian community. It is essential for Christian community that two things become clear right from the beginning. First, Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality; second, Christian community is a spiritual and not an emotional reality. On innumerable occasion a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image.”
Wow! Let’s noodle on that together as we at Platt Park Church prepare to launch our Fall “growing groups.” These groups will gather all around the city in hopes of fostering and expressing the Christian community for which we were made. Please pray with me that these groups will be experiments in grace and courage as we practice “genuine and deep” community.