the dream of Christian community

In thinking about Christian community and the barriers to experiencing it, a friend wrote to me:

I think most Christians share the desire for community you talk about, but, as you allude to, a conditional version. You mention these conditions as barriers to community. Either it is a community made up of a particular subset of people (i.e. those they are not repulsed by)… or it is something they work to create, not just participate in (i.e. a problem to be solved). In thinking about these things I was reminded of this quotation from Bonhoeffer, which I find difficult.

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”

On one hand I know that Bonhoeffer is right, that our ideas can become barriers to that which we are trying to seek, but at the same time I don’t know how to pursue that community while at the same time laying aside that dream.

In response, I wrote the following…


Tentatively, I’d say that our approach or posture toward community will stem from our posture toward God.

I wonder if the family analogy might fit in well here. The (archetypal) family is defined by a certain inevitability: you’re inescapably bonded by blood. Your connection is fundamentally secure. In daily life, we might try to please our parents and our parents might try to please us, whether out of spontaneous love, obedience to principles, or the desire to be praised. The dynamics of actually trying to act like family to each other are what take up most of our conscious attention. But it’s all within the bounds of inevitability, and more particularly, the inevitable and undying love of parent for child. There’s a deep knowledge that at some level the parent’s love for the child is a one-way street, and that the main thing the child is doing is simply being loved. The anxiety of disappointing or losing the parent is thus relieved for the (again, archetypal) child. Within that context of receptive love arises all the “action” of family life.

If we experience that same sense of inevitability in our relationship with God — if our justification is by grace alone, if our fundamental posture is one of receptivity, if God is our Father in this way — that will be the context for the action happening in our spiritual lives. The dynamics of trying to please God (i.e. repentance) are real, but they’re grounded on security and inevitability (in contrast to, for example, the dynamics of trying to please a new boy/girlfriend, where the anxiety to prove oneself and the liberty to leave is dominant). Which is why the passive reception of the Eucharist has become so central in my spiritual life, because it “embodies” that posture so well.

Regarding Christian community, it seems that “active surrender” will happen in this same way. If our community is truly familial — if our terms of brother/sister are real — then the work of pleasing each other and forging bonds will happen and be dynamic, but it will happen on a foundation of inevitability.

So, then, the obvious question is how to create a community founded on family-style inevitability, or where to find such a thing. If only it were as easy as showing up at the nearest congregation and immediately living like family with everyone there.

On the other hand, maybe there is something to that. And I only say that, with reservation, because I’m thinking of an experience I had last week. Long story short, there was some serious awkwardness and mutual suspicion between me and a friend of mine from church. We were having coffee, only to talk about church “business,” when he eventually brought up the issues between us, in a direct and uncomfortable way. We talked it through for a long time and ended it by praying for each other. I walked away from that conversation thinking about how rare it is to have friendships like that, where because of shared commitments to a shared faith, and to shared values of forgiveness/patience/etc, and also shared commitments to the same small church, we were basically forced to work through our shit. All of those shared commitments put us in a position of familial inevitability. And that brought about a moment of tangible “community,” in the sense of that word that we all seem to be longing to use it.

Moments like that are rare. But I can’t think of any other contexts, besides family and friendships with Christians where there is a recognition of mutual responsibility, in which I’ve willingly stuck with someone it would be easier to drift away from, and in which actual resolution and redemption have come about as a result.

take-home lessons from Honduras (pt. 3): devotion to street kids

Street boys at the Peter Project in La Ceiba, Honduras

“Street boys” at the Peter Project in La Ceiba, Honduras

In the last two posts (this one and this one) I described what I learned in Honduras about who missionaries are, how they think, and one of the most important things they do, which is hospitality. This final post has more to do with what I learned about how missionaries feel.

“Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” -Charles Spurgeon

As we think about this together, ask yourself where your own mission field is or could be, and who the target people group in your life is or could be to which you want to devote yourself as a missionary.

Paul said to the people in one of his mission fields,

My little children, I am in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! Galatians 4:19

Dedication to a people group or mission field–such as the streets we live on–always starts with prayer: prayer in the Spirit, in the will of God, for those people, like the prayers of the apostles for their churches and Jesus for his disciples.

…we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… Colossians 1:9

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your heart enlightened… Ephesians 1:16-17

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment. Philippians 1:9

What begins to happen as missionaries pray for the spiritual enlightenment and redemption of their people groups is miraculous. The deepest longing of their hearts becomes to see those people see the beauty and desirability of Jesus Christ, and to be transformed by the vision. Like Paul in the “anguish of childbirth,” missionary devotion becomes deep and dedicated. Their devotion becomes so sharply powerful that they can begin to lose themselves in an endless search for the perfect program, strategy, curriculum, or ministry model that will finally open the “eyes of their heart” and bring true change to their people group.

One of two things follows: emotional “burn-out,” or a re-centering of each missionary’s life and ministry around Christ’s gospel. The truth is that the beautiful paradox of Christ on the cross is the only persuasion strong enough to melt a stony heart, and the only argument cogent enough to convince a skeptical one. Wise missionaries realize eventually that their only task, ultimately, is to display and explain Jesus Christ, and to affirm and sharpen the vague but universal sense we all have that everything is wrong and that we need a Savior. In other words, it is to tell people to “repent and believe,” making sure they know what that means.

In Honduras, I learned a lot about “street kids” and children (and grown-up children) from abusive homes. If they get rescued from their environments and are put in loving and healthy settings, they tend to follow a pattern. They get the “itch” to run away from home, usually back to Mom, as if to check if anything has changed with the people supposed to love them. Usually, nothing has. Then, they run back to the streets, too ashamed to face their caretakers or adoptive parents, until street life becomes so unbearable that they sheepishly come back home and repeat the cycle.

Every missionary is persuading spiritual street kids and prostitutes to come home, be loved, sleep in real beds (as it were), and not run back to their natural father, the Father of lies, only to discover again that he only binds and steals from them. We are persuading them, and our own selves, that our adoptive Father really will meet us, running to us, with open arms, again. The lies in street kids’ minds about love and God go very deep–as they do in every human heart.

Praise God, because transformation really happens. It is not a myth, though it is usually undramatic. People slowly begin to think about what God wants when they make decisions. They start learning to appreciate the beauty of Scripture. They are moved to prayer by the story about Jesus dying. They feel hope from the story about him resurrecting. They run away from home less often. They start praying for other runaways. They talk about grace and are startled to find, after a while, that they too have become devoted. They are missionaries.