Reflections on Christian Community

By November 5, 2014 May 26th, 2020 No Comments

Written by Peter Fitch in 1999.

The rain may never fall till after sundown,
by eight the morning fog must disappear;
in short, there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happ’ly ever-aftering than here in Camelot . . . .

Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe from the 1960 Broadway Musical

For the past twenty years I’ve been living in an intentional but loosely-formed Christian community that has grown-up in and around a Christian university in a small town in southern New Brunswick.  I am grateful for the privilege of Christian fellowship, and yet I’ve experienced some of the pain of it as well.  As I look back over my experience I see a mixture of rich moments and broken dreams.  

I’ve decided, therefore, to emphasize in this article the dangers of community, and only secondarily to focus upon aspects of community formation and the benefits of a healthy experience.  My hope is that these comments will relate to various kinds of shared living, including the expressions of community that are found in normal church life, and that they will serve as a warning of possible problems that might drain life and joy from those who are making the attempt.  

First of all, the experience of building community seems often to be linked with the desire to build a Camelot or a utopia (which quite literally means “no place”).  This is fraught with dangers on every side.  It is a form of romantic idealism, and it can keep people from appreciating the quality of fellowship that actually exists.  Probably no one has said this more clearly than Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together, a book based upon the common life of students at an illegal seminary that he led in Finkenwalde, Germany from 1935 to 1938:    

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams . . .

He also said,    

One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood.

In other words, one of the greatest potential threats to a strong community experience is the lofty notion that some participants will have of what it is supposed to be like.  Community does not mean that you will always be surrounded by people that are congenial and helpful, and everything will not always be fun.  Real life is not composed of a continuous diet of warm experiences.  The one who hopes for something like this is in need of a change of perspective.  The dream will become an idol, and the dreamer may become a destroyer of community even as he or she so earnestly seeks it.  Instead of appreciating and building what God has established, people who follow a wish dream complain and look for something that God never intended.  A far healthier approach would include gratitude for what is, and faithful work for continual improvement.  

Bonhoeffer also gives excellent insight into a second danger.  He says that Christian community is based upon Jesus Christ and is, therefore, a spiritual reality.  Many communities purport to be Christian, but are in fact psychic, or human, in nature.  They are filled with subtle processes of manipulation.  Bonhoeffer warns,      

Thus there is such a thing as human absorption. It appears in all the forms of conversion wherever the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or a whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul. The weak have been overcome by the strong, the resistance of the weak has broken down under the influence of another person.

Communities like these often seem more devout than others, and members are capable of surprising sacrifices.  The problem is that people are not being drawn into healthy relationship with Jesus Christ; rather, they are drawn into dependent relationships with each other.  In a very real sense their devotion to their community separates them from Jesus as it successfully separates them from the rest of His body in the world.  A sense of elitism is fostered as people are continually presented with the community’s idealized view of itself.  And people are valued or devalued in connection with their acceptance or rejection of this perspective.  

A third danger has been noted by Jean Vanier, Canadian founder of L’Arche, an international organization that cares for handicapped people through the building of  caring communities.  In Community and Growth he writes,  

Too many communities form–or deform–their members to make them all alike, as if this were a good quality, based on self-denial. These communities are founded on laws or rules. But it is the opposite which is important; each person must grow in their gift to build the community and make it more beautiful and more radiant, a clearer sign of the Kingdom.

I think that this relates to both conscious and unconscious forms of structure.  In unhealthy places the structures or expectations actually keep people from becoming what God meant them to be by trying to force people to become what the community wants them to be.  This can be caused by too much structure, but too little can also be a problem.  Without some organization humans often tend toward the lowest common denominator. A healthy situation provides the necessary context for growth and yet sets people free to develop according to their own individual giftings and callings.  

A fourth danger is similar: just as individuals must be allowed to differ, so must communities be allowed to be distinct.  Vanier says,    

One of the signs of life in a community is the creation of links with others. An inward-looking community will die of suffocation. Living communities are linked to others, making up a huge reservoir of love for the world. And as only the one Spirit inspires and gives life, communities being born or reborn will be alike without ever knowing each other; the seeds the Spirit sows across the world, like prophetic signs for tomorrow, have a common source. It is a sign of maturity for a community to bind itself in friendship with others; it knows its own identity, so doesn’t need to make comparisons. It loves even the differences which distinguish it, because each community has its own gift which must flourish. These communities are complementary; they need each other. They are all branches of that unique community which is the Church, the mystical body of Christ. He is the vine of which the communities are branches.  

On reflection, I think that all of these dangers can be traced to a common theme.  Unhealthy communities do not set others free to be what God has intended them to be; rather, they play a destructive role by foisting an oppressive idealism upon them.  

If this is the main problem, it relates well to what some have considered the greatest challenge to true community life and formation: the necessary breakthrough into loving people as they actually are.  M. Scott Peck, in The Different Drum, has this to say about the stages of formation:  

Communities, like individuals, are unique. Still we all share the human condition. So it is that groups assembled deliberately to form themselves into community routinely go through certain stages in the process. These stages, in order, are: Pseudocommunity, Chaos, Emptiness, Community.  

In the Student Handbook for St. Stephen’s University I tried to explain it this way:    

People typically go through a process in the formation of true community. At first there is joy at the excitement of meeting others, and people are polite, rarely expressing all that they have to say. Over time they begin to notice how different others actually are, as acceptance brings greater levels of honesty. This sometimes brings discomfort and a feeling of alienation. Soon, however, these negative feelings are replaced by a diligent attempt to heal the others, by making them think and act more like we do. It is only after the frustration and emptiness of this failed attempt that we actually learn to accept people for who they really are, with all of their differences. This is the beginning of the learning of real love, and it is the beginning of true community. It must be this way. People must be accepted for who they really are, not what we want them to be.  

When it works it’s amazing.  I have a friend who calls it “Life at the Oasis.” In healthy community, as people are set free to be who they are and to grow in the direction that God intends for them, life takes on a joy that is rarely experienced in other settings.  It is like adding harmony to a simple melody: suddenly there is beauty that is more than the sum of the parts.  A context that is deeper than normal life is created, and shared learning results in deeper formation and shared anointings.  God works powerfully in true community.  From the Scriptures we know that community provides a basis for evangelism (Jn. 13:34-35), nurture (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35), and healthy body life (1 Cor. 12-14).  It also provides a prophetic picture to the world of what life in God can be  (Mt. 5:14-16).  

Best of all, though, is the teaching that Jesus gives of the community as the container of God’s presence.  He told His disciples on the evening of the Last Supper that if they would keep His commandments (particularly, in context, to love one another) that the Father would love them, and that both He and the Father would come and live with them (Jn. 14:23).  I think that God is irresistibly drawn to places where people who love Him encourage each other and help each other with practical acts of love.  This is real life and not Camelot.  I for one would rather live in the reality of God’s Kingdom than in the wish dream of a human ideal.