A blog post by David Fitch a few days ago provoked some thoughts for me on the way we bandy the word "community" about.
Everyone loves the idea of community. It’s used to market all kinds of things (including churches!), and it works because people are lonely. We’ve spent the last 200 years asserting our individual right to privacy, and now we find that we’re starved for community (coincidence?).
But while everyone loves the idea of community, we also tend to think that it is something we can get the same way we get breakfast cereal. We want community as a commodity: something we can go pick up at the
church store when we feel like it. But then if things get too serious or "heavy," we can always go back to asserting our right to privacy.
The problem is that community is not a commodity. We can’t just grab some community when we feel like it, like a hamburger. We can’t just walk into a church and expect that "community" will happen automatically because we’d like it to. True community takes a lot of time and effort, and it can’t be condensed into a convenient package that fits your lifestyle. Community requires deep commitment. True community means that others have a "say" about how you live your life and spend your time. It means people will be relying on you to fulfill your responsibilities, and will probably be upset if you don’t. It means laying down your "right" to privacy and realizing that others are going to know the real you. It means taking the huge risk of being known.
Community isn’t just one more thing we can consume when it suits our fancy. It’s not a commodity. It entails huge commitment and breathtaking risk. But the rewards are greater than the risks.
Brilliant. And painful to read.
We started experiencing church as community as opposed to church as activity about four years ago. Commitment to community is commitment to having your heart ripped out. After watching them drive away throwing rocks, I realized what great risks are involved in loving people as much as life. I’m still crying and it’s been three years.
As God brought a new church to us (a beautiful mess of a community that we didn’t seek) one of us made this brilliant observation on her long list of broken communities. She said, “Community is hard, and I don’t even think it’s possible. The only place with relationships that last is family. And that’s different, because you’re stuck with family.” Probably the biggest reason communities fail is people can’t stand being stuck. Commodity provides the perfect paradigm. And I wonder, if we saw church as family rather than community, would it be better? more intense? more volatile?
My friend Jon says that God is looking for something even more than family. Jon says that it’s about becoming one, just like Jesus and the Father are one. The family of God is more than having brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers. It’s about being part of each other, extensions of each other somehow. I have had glimpses and felt brushes with this, but I am still longing.
Benjamin Sternke says
Steve, thanks for sharing some of your experiences. The reason many people choose against giving themselves to anyone in vulnerability and trust is because of the fear of having “heart ripped out” experience like you describe.
If we saw church more as family, perhaps we’d feel more “stuck with” each other, which would cause us to go further on the road to community.
The other thing about Christian community, too, is the fact that it doesn’t exist primarily for itself, but always for the sake o the world. A community only interested in “having community” is bound to turn inward and be crushed under the weight of its own expectations. But a missional community that is going in a purposeful direction together (the furthering of God’s kingdom through the preaching and demonstration of the gospel), real community can happen.
Mervin Koehlinger says
Well said, Ben.
I think that the main reason that there is such a great longing for community is that there is a real lack of traditional family relationships these days. And that is for at least two reasons: (1) Most people no longer enjoy the day-to-day, face-to-face relationships of extended family because of our mobile society and families being so dispersed. (2) Many families are dysfunctional and relationships within the family are strained.
So, we seek what we are missing by looking for community in other places. And as you say, we want it on our own terms and without the long-term commitment that is required if true community is to be realized.
Well said… If I read one more book which tries to sell me a formula for a Christian community, I will go crackers…
You can’t manufacture it… 1960’s urban redevelopments proved that… you have to grow it.
And you are right, it needs to be focused outside itself… an introspective community will ultimately implode because it’s self-referential nature will put off any new-comer…
Great subject and post.
I spent 10 years in a Christian community and experienced just what everyone else describes here. It was wonderful and it ripped my heart out. I was probably 6 years getting over it, but I’d say it’s healed now. It seems there are an awful lot of communities started by articulate, excited, pure-hearted narcissists. Consequently, there’s a lot of pain out there.
If you are evaluating a community, I’d offer this advice:
If the strongest voice in the community (the leader is often not called a leader) naturally seems to see everyone’s actions primarily in terms of their relationship to himself and the community, you may be in for a rough ride. A person who constantly reacts to the world as if everything that happens is either “for” or “against” some ideal will quickly become hard to live with, even if they do have a verse to justify it.
Anyway, it was this statement of yours that brought me to comment:
> Community requires deep commitment.
I think that deep commitment, as a chief glue, has been tried and found wanting. People who can generate enough commitment tend to be fanatical, and people who cannot tend to be looked down upon. Commitment is what causes brothers to stab each other in the back as they leave. Commitment is good and valuable, but it cannot bear the weight alone of keeping a community together.
Maybe the other ingredient is weakness or need. All us commitment junkies (and yes, I was one) project an aura of self-sufficiency. Even if we proudly declare how much we need the body of Christ, we don’t collapse in a heap when things go against us and nobody rushes to our side. Our need is more a matter of principle than of weakness.
I think if we admitted more freely how nice it would be collapse from time to time, and then if we actually did it, things might be better. Just picture any respected pastor. How often do you see him collapse? I propose that if you’ve seen him really be needy a couple times in the last year or two, you love him more.
Anyway, check out this link for a political perspective on the same thoughts:
Paul Merrill says
I linked to you. Great post.