Community: Who Needs It?


By Len Hjalmarson

 

    Recently Next-Wave Online published an article by Rogier Bos on community. Rogier opens an interesting discussion by telling us that we should NOT be seeking it.

    What's wrong with this guy anyway?

    We all need community, right?

    Here is how Rogier opens the article:

    Community is a buzzword. Every author and every speaker on the subject of church in the postmodern world knows it. People are looking for community, and consequently churches must offer community. Every church I have seen in the past 5 years is focusing on "being a community."

    The organization I work for, Christian Associates International, plants fresh churches in major cities across Europe. These churches characterize themselves by focusing heavily on, you guessed it: community. We recently did research in London to study the possibility of starting a church there. A friend of mine, a rather postmodern fellow, lives in London, and I had contacted him about this idea. He liked most of what I wrote, but he responded most violently at the idea that a church must be a community. He was absolutely disgusted at the idea. In his understanding, "being a community" was the last thing churches should aim for. Rogier continues…

    So why was my friend so angry at the idea that a church would present itself as being a wonderful community? It's probably best to let my friend explain himself: "It isn't that I think these things aren't good and desirable, but I feel that they're the last thing that the church in England needs to aim for. This is the only thing that churches in England have talked about for years." That is the heart of the problem for my friend: We talk about community, but we do not offer it. Says he: "I always felt that friendship, community and personal development are the kinds of things that never happen when you aim for them to happen, like aiming for happiness. They are the byproducts of risk and struggle."

    I'm afraid that my friend is pointing out a rather silly mistake we all have made. We thought that we could hang out a shingle and sell ourselves as communities, when in fact we had no idea how to be communities. Community, says my friend, is what you have on the other side of crises, when you have weathered the storms together. Before that, all you have is "a nice togetherness."

    I like that. It represents my experience of "church" very closely. Far too many churches, as identified by the people who meet in a building together on Sunday mornings, have a "nice togetherness," but do not experience real community.

    It would be easy to conclude from Rogier's article that we shouldn't even seek it. I wonder if he is right? Many years ago John Driver raised this question:

    To be or not to be a community is not an option for the church. By nature the church is a community and experiences communion. The question before the people of God is: what kind of community will we be?

    The New Testament invites us to formulate a theology and practice of communion based on the nature of the Body of Christ. John Driver, Community and Commitment

    I like Driver's approach, because I think it represents the nature of the fallen reality we deal with. We live in a fallen world, with a fallen church system, as fallen people. We will never experience perfect community, or perfect relationships, in this life.

    Yet.. we are called to "love one another," to "bear one another's burdens" and all those other "one another's" of the New Testament. We can't do these "one another's" unless we have significant trust for one another, and trust requires intimacy. We therefore need to be community, or family, for one another.

    We are called to be a koinonia ekklesia, the loving community of called out ones who show forth the glory of our King in our relationships.

    And here is the problem. We are called to this, and most of us don't experience the reality. But we should.

What Kind of Community?

    I thought I could organize small groups and the occasional potluck supper or game in the park and I'd have community. I was wrong, and no one was attracted to it. My friend, on the other hand, presents a vision of friends who stand by each other through thick and thin, finding on the other side that they have something more precious than gold. Says my friend: "It's funny how soldiers who have fought together in wars have unbreakable friendship and community." Rogier Bos

    Every church is some kind of community. Most, admittedly, aren't good ones.

    Yet each local grouping of people who identify themselves with the call of Jesus on their lives is somewhere along the continuum of community. If we recognize this, then perhaps we can figure out where on the continuum we fall, and what we must do to move further on.

    Ok, sure, this sounds like a spiritual technologist approach. "If we can just tweak this system, we can make it work. A little leverage here, a little more chutzpah there." No, I'm not talking about becoming better managers. I'm not talking about an extra potluck every two weeks, or adding to your list for sending Christmas cards. Stay with me a moment.

    Where I differ from Rogier's friend is that I believe we CAN make choices to move toward significant community. We face these choices every day. They are choices rooted in a value system that is radically different from that of the world. And they are choices that acknowledge that God uses ordinary things to carry His presence.. even the wood and straw and musty smells of a stable.

    Which brings me to a book by Scott Peck written some years ago.. The title was, "The Different Drum: Community Building and Peace."

    Peck followed Fowlers' outline of religious experience and made it his own. But the short form is that communities grow through a series of definable stages.

Stage I: Pseudo-Community
Stage II: Chaos
Stage III: Emptiness
Stage IV: True Community

    Now here we have a revolutionary understanding of community. Just like people, they grow through definable stages. Most fall off the wagon at Stage II.

    Peck argues that communities begin with stage 1: false community. People play it safe, assessing if the relationship can carry the risk.

    Some determine that it can, and they begin to be vulnerable. Others are too afraid, and revert to the masks they have always worn. Still others leave. And then others who have decided they won't take the risk encounter grace, and are drawn in to places they would never have chosen to go. These people begin to move beyond the outward appearance of community toward real and significant relationships.

    On a collective level, most groups who choose to journey together find that honesty and vulnerability lead them toward chaos. There are struggles for power, and struggles for the right to define the communal identity and vision. Many in the group call for leadership to save them from the mess. "Enough questions, who has the answers?"

    At this point many groups settle for formal community; they can't stand the pain and the fear. Many groups establish clear controls and a tightly defined hierarchy so that all can feel safe. They retreat into structure and authority rather than move toward real community. They end up with clearly defined roles, a clear vision, and superficial relationships. People no longer ask the hard questions.

    These are the groups who settle for the occasional potluck and Sunday meetings. They'll add you to their mailing list, a sure sign they care for you. They might even state up front that they care, see, it's there on the bulletin, "A Church That Cares."

    Those who manage to stay with the uncertainty and the pain eventually find a great grace in their midst. This grace will never be experienced by groups who have all the answers. Only when we move beyond our agendas and beyond definition to a place of emptiness, do we discover the life of Jesus. We begin to truly hear one another and to truly value the differences among us; we begin to love.

    Many years ago, Jean Vanier wrote that,

    "When a community is born, its founders have to struggle to survive and announce their ideal. So they find themselves confronted with contradictions and sometimes even persecution. These oblige the members of the community to emphasize their commitment; they strengthen motivation and encourage people to go beyond themselves to rely totally on Providence. Sometimes only the direct intervention of God can save them. When they are stripped of all their wealth, of all security and human support, they must depend on God and the people around them to understand the witness of their life. They are obliged to remain faithful to prayer and the glow of their love; it is a question of life or death. Their total dependence guarantees their authenticity; their weakness is their strength.

    "But when a community has enough members to do all the work, when it has enough material goods, it can relax. It has strong structures. It is fairly secure. It is then that there is danger." Community and Growth

    Personally, I think the reason we have so few real communities is because we try to build community around individual strengths rather than collective weakness. We run from our weakness and our pain. We do this as a group as well as individually. We do not experience real grace. The incarnation is too big for us.

    Yet only when we are weak, are we strong in the Lord. Only when we let God's strength uphold us do we discover His grace. Until this point we are only playing at being a community.

    It's impossible to build community around strength, though many claim to achieve it. When we are strong we have no need of one another, and no need of grace. Our strengths only create distance and competition, and competition kills community.

    Until we get honest, we'll never have significant healing let alone true community.

How Do We Get There?

    In "The Four Loves" CS Lewis wrote about love that, "Many things--such as loving, going to sleep, or behaving unaffectedly--are done worst when we try hardest to do them." This sounds a lot like Rogier's friend's position. If true community is the byproduct of risk and struggle, all our efforts won't achieve it.

    Or will they?

    When you peel the glossy surface away from the average church, you find people whose lives are full of pain and disappointment. Beyond the Sunday cliché of "I'm fine, how are you?" many are living lives of quiet desperation.

    So maybe there is enough pain and struggle, weakness and wounding to really build community, if we can only expose it. Maybe we have more than enough chaos and crisis among us already.

    The problem then is not that we need more crisis and struggle, but we somehow have to expose the stuff that is already there. We have to let the chaos and pain come to the surface.

    This is a challenge, let's be honest. It's a challenge to leaders to come down from our places of power and admit that we are as confused as the next guy (or gal). It's a challenge to leadership to not "heal the wounds of My people lightly," and it's a challenge to all of us not to demand that our wounds be instantly healed.

    Eugene Peterson, in his outstanding work, "The Contemplative Pastor, wrote that,

    "In running a church I solve problems. Wherever two or three are gathered together, problems develop... It is satisfying to my ego to help make rough places smooth.

    "The difficulty is that problems arrive in such constant flow that problem solving becomes full-time work. Because it is useful and the pastor ordinarily does it well, we fail to see that the pastoral vocation has been subverted. Gabriel Marcel wrote that life is not so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to be explored. That is certainly the biblical stance: life is not something we manage to hammer together and keep in repair by our wits; it is an unfathomable gift. We are immersed in mysteries: incredible love, confounding evil, the creation, the cross, grace, God.

    "The secularized mind is terrorized by mysteries. Thus it makes lists, labels people, assigns roles, and solves problems. But a solved life is a reduced life. These tightly buttoned-up people never take great faith risks or make convincing love talk. They deny or ignore the mysteries and diminish human existence to what can be managed, controlled, and fixed. We live in a cult of experts who explain and solve. The vast technological apparatus around us gives the impression that there is a tool for everything if we can only afford it. Pastors cast in the role of spiritual technologists are hard put to keep that role from absorbing everything else, since there are so many things that need to be and can, in fact, be fixed."

    "But "there are things," wrote Marianne Moore, "that are important beyond all this fiddle." The old time guide of souls asserts the priority of the "beyond" over "this fiddle." Who is available for this kind of work other than pastors? A few poets, maybe; and children, always. But children are not good guides, and most of the poets have lost interest in God. That leaves pastors as guides through the mysteries."

    For most of us it's a challenge to simply stay in our wounded places, and not pretend we are whole or have it all figured out, while we help our neighbor to bind up his wounds.

    To me the message of the incarnation is that God got down and dirty with us. He didn't stay safe, at a comfortable distance, and wish us well. "Gee, I hope they can make it down there." Neither did He simply pronounce a word of healing to the world and then accuse us of not having enough faith. He didn't send us a fax complaining that we should just read the damn manual!

    Rather, He gave up His safety and became one of us; He joined us in the chaos, mess and danger. He gave up control and threw caution to the wind. He bled and died, and in so doing He founded the first real human community.

    So finally the hope of the world is not that the church can be strong, but that she can be weak enough to welcome the One who came among us in weakness and vulnerability, and in the chaos of a stable, and in the mess and hopelessness of an occupied nation. If the church can get beyond her superficial spirituality to this real human level, then we have a hope of redeeming the world.


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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on May 31, 2002