He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I have been thinking a lot lately about community. It is word we use often in our emerging conversation. But maybe for all of our talking about the need for community, we haven’t reflected enough on how it is actually experienced. My thinking lately has coalesced around three ideas: community takes actual relationships, a heavy dose of reality, and a good bit of resilience.
I am always amazed by people who speak of community but don’t invest themselves in actual relationships. I’ve seen this as a pastor when people talk about how they love church community but they don’t talk to people at worship gatherings (if they attend at all) and don’t join small groups when they are offered. It reminds me a little bit of the young woman who has every detail of her wedding planned and is only missing the groom. What is community without relationships? Community is not some mystical or magical thing that happens outside of ourselves. Community only takes places where relationships exist, where friendships are growing, where people are connecting.
Relationships require investment. If I am going to be in community with a group of people, I need to invest myself in them and be prepared for them to invest themselves in me. Investment takes time, emotion, energy, even money – all of my precious resources that are already scarce. I need to listen and not just talk. I need to give and not just take. I need to initiate and not just respond.
True community also requires a substantial grip on reality. Bonhoeffer’s observation that people who love their dream of community more than the actual Christian community end up destroying the actual community is a profound one. How often has a person been so enamored by the prospect of being in love that they have driven their potential lover away by being too clingy and needy?
The same happens with churches. People come to church will all sorts of expectations (frequently unrealistic) and ideas and dreams. Many who have been hurt and burned by church are hopeful that their new community will finally live up to those dreams. Rarely can a church leap such a high bar. I get a little skittish when new folks at Vintage gush about how it’s the church they’ve been looking for. I know that if they invest themselves in relationships within our community that it’s only a matter of time before they experience reality. The reality is that churches are made up of weak, frail, and hurting people – and those who are pretending that they are not.
Weak, frail, and hurting people tend to hurt each other sometimes. Words are spoken out of turn. Memories fail. Priorities differ. Expectations are unmet. People are often selfish and immature and slow to do the right thing. The dream of community and the reality community are often far apart in our actual experience.
Does this mean that we should abandon the church whenever our feelings are hurt? Absolutely not. If we abandon anything, we should abandon our dream of community and embrace the reality of community. And this takes resilience. Community grows and develops over time. It is deepened and solidified by interpersonal conflicts.
Community is not a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Community is, to borrow another phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, life together. It can only take place when we commit ourselves to experience the ups and downs, the joys and disappointments, the twists of turns of reality in relationships with one another.
This runs counter to our cultural inclination. We live in a disposable culture. Take the unfolding saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin of Jon & Kate + 8 fame. While it might be easy to join the crowd that is casting stones at them for disposing of their marriage and family. Maybe we ought to consider how we collectively have used up and disposed of them. Their story was entertaining for a while, and as it has taken a turn for the worst, we’ve been content to stand by and crack jokes. Soon, we’ll be on to voyeuristically enjoying some other celebrity’s crisis. When we haven’t invested much in them and when we weren’t realistic about them in the first place (even though they were on a “reality show”), it doesn’t cost us much to dispose of relationships.
We dispose of relationships far too easily. As Bob Dylan once sang, “But to remain as friends you need the time to make amends and stay behind.”
If we dispose of actual community too soon in hopes of finding our dream of community, we will end up never experiencing either. Community is experienced when we know each other well enough to be ourselves. Community is experienced when forgiveness is needed and extended. Community is experienced in the tears of disappointment and recommitment. Community is experienced in the joy and pain of reconciliation.
In Philippians, Paul spoke of the fellowship (relationships) of sharing (resilience) in the suffering (reality) of Jesus. That’s not a dream; that’s how actual community is experienced.