Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that one of the greatest enemies to Christians experiencing true community in the church is their idealized notions about what a community is supposed to be. In other words, Christians struggle to experience fellowship with the real people in front of them when they constantly compare those people to the ideal they have in their imaginations. It is impossible to love people when we are expecting those people to fulfill assigned roles in our dreams.
Does this mean that we should empty our minds of any notion of what a community should be? Should we, in other words, stop working toward improving our churches and relationships?
It’s helpful here to make a distinction between membership and outsider.
In Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, Jayber settles in the small rural Kentucky farming town of Port William as the town’s barber. As an outsider in a small town, he’s looked upon with a fair amount of suspicion until he proves his intention to commit to owning the barbershop, and thereby committing to the community, for the long haul.
In a revealing quote, Jayber says, “To feel at home in a place, you have to have some prospect of staying there.” To fit the current American church culture where people change churches about as often as they change their SUV’s tires, Jayber’s wise statement needs to be altered a bit: “To experience the love and fellowship of a particular church, you must first commit yourself to the people of that particular church, for the long haul.”
If you enter into a community with qualifications, half-heartedly and hesitatingly, you will never truly belong. Again, the hindrance in this instance is the individual, not the community. To be truly loved one must work towards belonging.
Any hint of suspicion in the heart towards the community will drown out whatever overtures of love and service the community makes toward the individual. Suspicion is detrimental to true community formation. Suspicion is easily perceived by those in the community and will ensure that one remains in the position of an outsider.
If you want to belong, you have to commit. That may sound obvious, but I’m not only talking about formal forms of commitment. I believe something like church membership is a biblical requirement for all of God’s people, but I’ve even seen church members who maintain a safe distance—refusing to fully engage with the people and opting instead to remain as close to the periphery as possible.
The type of commitment required for true fellowship to flourish will begin with formal membership, but it will not end there. You will begin to taste the fruits of genuine Christian fellowship only when you say in your heart and with your life, “I’m committed to these people. I will love them and serve them, no matter what. I plan to plant my life here in this church and to thank God daily for the gift of this community in my life.” The depth of your relationships will only go as far as you are willing to take them.
The most common metaphor for the church in the Bible is that of the family. Immediately upon baptism into the church, the early Christians began referring to one another as “brother” and “sister.” This signified that everyone had entered the community via the same route: through the blood of Christ. There is no distinction between natural children and adopted children here, for we are all adopted by the grace of God.
Think about your family. You didn’t choose these people. There are times when you don’t even like them. Sometimes they may even embarrass you. But the thought of finding a new family is ludicrous. Leaving your family simply isn’t an option. That’s the way we are called to look at one another in the church. It’s hard when you pass three shinier buildings with happier-looking people on your Sunday morning drive to your own church, but long-term commitment is the only way for true community the thrive.
If you want deep communal fellowship, you’re going to have to see these weirdos as your family. Because, according to God, they already are.
Once you truly belong, probably after years of investment, then you are in a position to work toward improving the community as a member rather than an outsider. Your long-term investment gives you credibility to lead others toward healthier habits of communal life. As an accepted member, you’re able to show others that you really love them and aren’t just serving a dream.