Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned Christians in his day against loving their dream of community in place of loving the actual community to which they belonged. In other words, he believed that many of our notions about the way the church should be only get in the way of our ability to love the church as is.
When we put the dream front and center, it becomes the focus and the people around us are expected to simply play their respective parts. We can’t love them in this scenario because we are using them. However, when we put the dream aside and determine to see the people in the church as the people who God has sovereignly placed in our lives for our good and his glory, then love becomes possible and the community thrives.
To help us understand this concept, here are three kinds of dreams that often get in the way of genuine Christian community:
The Consumer Dream
As Americans, we are consumeristic capitalists. Our economy functions by promoting discontentment and then appealing to our imaginations in order to entice us to fill our discontentment with products we purchase. If we all decided our current iPhones were sufficient and stopped buying new things, our economy would collapse.
Whatever your opinion on the economy, this system wreaks havoc on the church. People show up at church, not as worshippers of the Triune God, but as consumers of spiritual experience. We expect the church to fulfill our wishes. We expect to be entertained at our own convenience and to walk away with an emotionally-fulfilling experience at little personal cost. In short, we want the very best product at the lowest possible price, and many churches play along.
As a result, genuine Christian community, usually the fruit of commitment and personal sacrifice, gets lost. We still want it. We still demand it. But when it doesn’t come easy, we blame the peddler of the product. We blame the church. Thankfully, there’s always another church down the street. Maybe they will have what I need.
One of my favorite books on Christian community has a picture on the cover. It’s a group of young and hip Christians on a picturesque backyard patio with string lights and a perfectly manicured lawn. The book is great, but the cover is misleading. When my small group meets, it never looks like the cover of this book. My yard never looks this nice. There’s usually toddlers screaming and drinks being spilt. My patio will inevitably have a blown bulb and sticks which fall from the dying tree beside it.
If you expect community to look like the cover of a book, you will be disillusioned by reality. The consumer dream must die for genuine Christian community to thrive.
The Nostalgic Dream
Most of us have fond memories of deep friendships from a bygone day. Do you remember when friendships were easier? Do you remember when it just came naturally? Maybe you were in college. Maybe you were newly married and just starting out, and God graciously gave you a wonderful season in a church with amazing people that transformed you in powerful ways.
I often hear people compare life now with some golden age from the past. Fond memories are great, but the nostalgic attempt to recapture the past in the present is dangerous. So often our golden age memories come from a period of life when things were less complicated. We didn’t have children or we weren’t yet married or we didn’t yet have a career. Deep friendships came easily because we were surrounded by other people in similar circumstances.
Our nostalgic dreams are never realistic. We have selective memory. We want the best from those former days, but we forget about the troubles. As long as we’re looking back with nostalgia, we eliminate the possibility of God doing something in the present. If we let the nostalgic dream die, we may discover something better in the present. How many of those college friendships had wisdom and accountability?
Just as most of us have fond past memories, we likewise have nightmares. We have memories of betrayal and deep pain. Relationships are messy. People are sinful and selfish. These nightmares can also make present relationships difficult. We find it difficult to trust, to confide, to be ourselves.
Jesus is the great Redeemer. He’s making all things new. Just as he forgives sinners for our betrayal, God empowers his children to forgive others and to give relationships another shot. The nightmare ends in Christ. Will you embrace genuine community?