11 A Counterintuitive Way to Destroy Community
Christian community is compelling. It’s difficult, yes, but there’s really nothing like having a group of people around you who care deeply about who you are, what you need, who you’re becoming, etc. There’s nothing like having people who know what you’re wrestling with, who understand what you’re good at, who always have your back no matter what. We experience this depth of relationship here and there in our lives, but I’d argue that it comes most freely and naturally in the context of the church. After all, this is where we join together because we are redeemed by Jesus. Jesus joins us together in a way that nothing else can do. Without question, the church is the one place where this type of community occurs supernaturally.
Anyone that has been around the church for any amount of time knows about this ideal of true, loving community. And that’s great. But it can be problematic. Here’s why.
In his wonderful little book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns against those who fixate on a dream version of “community.” They talk about it, think about it, dream about it. “Community” is a big deal to them, so it’s something they often emphasize. But Bonhoeffer warns that this dream often inhibits real, situation-specific, instantiated community. In this quote, Bonhoeffer uses the term “wish dream” to cover this idealized, dream-land version of community:
“Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. 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.”
I’ll use an example to illustrate this. I taught for ten years at Eternity Bible College in Southern California. Every year, we would start a new cohort of students through what we called our Foundations curriculum. With this group, we would ultimately spend 2.5 years of meeting weekly to discuss every topic imaginable. During that time, we would read a total of 7,500 pages. It was crazy. As you can imagine, we grew very close to each other during this time. The students would come out more as family than as fellow students.
But each time we began a new cohort, the new students also had some familiarity with the graduating cohort. They saw how tight-knit the group was, how they functioned like a family. So when they started their cohort, they wanted to be like that. They entered with that idealized version of community. But in reality, they found themselves sitting in college classes with a bunch of strangers. They wanted to live together as a family, but they didn’t know each other at all. So they were invariably disappointed at not having the same deep connections that the others had.
In each case, it took some time before each new cohort of students was able to let go of their dreams of what a community should look like, and actually begin to love and care for and engage with the real people in the cohort. Once they let go of the idealized version of community, they were able to pursue real people. The result in almost every case was a deep, loving community. But to get there, they had to lay the dream aside and begin loving real people. Bonhoeffer also warns:
“The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
If we are going to have any success in joining together for the sake of the Gospel, we’re going to have to let go of our expectations about what a perfect community looks like. We don’t have any perfect groups in our church. Nor do we have any perfect people. So let go of your idealized version of this—there is no room for romanticism here—and start paying attention to the very real, very flawed people that God has placed around you. The only path to true community is to love those people in real, everyday, tangible ways.
Similarly, if we’re going to be able to invite our friends, neighbors, and coworkers into a loving Gospel-saturated community, then we need to let go of our ideals for what that process looks like. If you want your neighbors to get a taste of who Jesus is and what life with him looks like, then you’ll have to see them for who they are, love them for who they are, and build a relationship on that basis. It won’t help to wish you had a more friendly neighborhood, or neighbors whose interests or ages are closer to yours, or neighbors who are more spiritual or more chatty, etc. You only get the neighbors you have. So love them. Let go of the ideals and find ways to love and bless.
Until we’re ready to lay down the dream-versions of community that we foster, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and failure. But if we can let go of these romantic notions, then we can begin to love real people. And if we do, we might be pleased to discover that we are a part of a loving, compelling community of people.