A few days ago Erin wrote an honest post called “A Place For Us“, which touched off a firestorm of comments as people shared their ideas, hopes, fears, dreams, and longings to find authentic Christian community with others without the trappings of organized religion. Just reading the comments can be almost overwhelming (but try it anyway). If nothing else, they point to a deep shared need among the growing number of people who are disenfranchised with religious systems.
We might be disillusioned with institutional church. We might be jaded and wounded by the abuses we’ve suffered. We might be nauseated by the idea of regular structured meetings of any kind–under a steeple, in a home, or in a park. We might be so broken that we just don’t trust anybody outside the virtual world of blogging.
But we still long for community with other believers. We still need it, even though we may not trust it. We still dream of it happening in a lifegiving way, even though we may not dare hope for it.
Dare we hope for it?
I say we dare.
When I say that, I don’t intend to cheapen this issue by claiming to have the answers as to what a healthy community looks like, or how to have one. Emotions and opinions both run quite deep on this issue, and I think what it looks like is shaped by who is there and where it’s happening. God is way too diverse for us to reduce things like this to formulas, and that’s why I don’t put a lot of stock in people who vigorously claim that their picture of it is the right one.
However, in our quest to either find or form this kind of community, I think there is a way we can approach it with wisdom. For what they are worth…here are some thoughts I have on the matter…
1. You are going to be hurt.
Gosh, maybe this shouldn’t be point one. But lemme splain.
Fear of being wounded again is probably the number one reason why people who have left church groups are reluctant to try again. When we have been wounded, the reflex is to build walls or barriers or try to put safeguards in place to prevent it from happening again. And even when we venture out and try to re-connect, our impulse is to try and set things up in such a way that people (read: we) won’t get hurt. But here’s the thing: people are ultimately the ones who wound us, not an institution. We wound one another because we are all broken. And meeting outside the walls of an institution will not change this. If our main objective is to avoid being hurt, it ultimately results in avoiding relationship altogether–and that means missing out on the potential of great joy and fulfillment. That can’t be the answer. So rather than trying to avoid being hurt, we need to learn how to deal with one another with grace and forgiveness, and we need to learn to look to Jesus our healer when we do get hurt. The potential for healthy, lifegiving community is ultimately worth the risk of pain.
2. Lasting, healthy communities cannot be built on the mutual dislike of something else.
I recognize many such organic communities will consist of broken, hurting people, each with their own story of pain. But ultimately the cohesion of the group cannot be about what everyone is against, or in my opinion it will not last. You need to be for something. A love for God, and love for one another, with Christ at the center, and hopefully some sense of shared mission. These are at the foundation of healthy community, no matter how it fleshes out.
3. The fact that communities disband (or even implode) does not automatically mean they shouldn’t have existed, or that they did something wrong.
I notice that a lot of people are reluctant to join or form communities because they are concerned that at some point things will go south, and the group will implode or scatter. And because of our brokenness, while we can make good choices along the way that might help, there is no way to completely guarantee that this will not happen. That does not mean the group didn’t serve a good purpose for a season, or that we shouldn’t try again. Having been through my share of negative experiences, it’s my belief that everything is redeemable by God–even bad experiences. I’ve probably learned more from my bad experiences than my good ones. And a “bad” ending doesn’t have to ruin the good experiences gained.
We often have the mentality that a community that forms should last forever, and if it doesn’t, we failed. But if the church is really the fluid entity we think it is, it makes sense that there are times and seasons for certain communities. Sometimes a community goes south just because it outlasted its expiration date. And sometimes a community can last a multitude of seasons just by being willing to reinvent itself repeatedly. There is no set time span for healthy communities; each one is different. Our home church has lasted 8 years so far, and has undergone a lot of shift and change and turnover during that time. It is, in my opinion, a healthy community (although it hasn’t always been). We’d love it to last forever, but we’ve known for a long time that it lives or dies by the breath of God. So we have hope for the future, but we trust the future to the Lord, and seek His will for the present hour.
4. We are part of a story that is still being written. We are part of God’s bigger picture. And we need to be flexible during transition.
What I mean by this is that even though there are many who feel isolated and alone, or jaded by church, seeing no good purpose in it–I believe we are still part of a bigger picture. There are common threads running through our experiences that tell me that God is up to something with all this, and we don’t know what it all is going to look like. One reason the need for community is so deeply felt by the disenfranchised is that they are so alone with their feelings. Many of us feel we are the only ones who see things this way, that there is no one around us to have community with. That’s a legitimate feeling, but it won’t always be that way. This chapter is still unfolding, and this shift is still in the early stages. In the meantime…this also means that whatever forms our communities might take, we need to hold them loosely. Just because “community” looks like this today does not mean it will look the same in a few years. We should purpose in our hearts to be flexible and adaptable.
So…all this to say that despite all our concerns and fears about forming community, I think ultimately it’s better to face those concerns and not allow them to stop us. There is a deep, God-inspired need within us, and when we yield that sense of need to Jesus and ask Him to lead us, I believe He will respond to that. There may be issues of timing and healing, but ultimately, I believe the reward is well worth the risk.
That’s what I think, anyway…what about you?