The following is a guest post by Casey McCall, Student Ministry Director at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church.
“I just don’t feel like this church has the kind of fellowship we need. We’ve just never felt ‘at home’ here.” I’ve always been dumbfounded by statements such as these the few times they’ve been expressed to me from families or individuals who have decided to leave the church. They are almost always accompanied by comparisons to some other church in the family’s background—the ideal church that forms the standard by which all other churches are to be compared. I usually respond by pointing out all the various testimonies of others in the congregation who communicate what seems to be the exact opposite experience—statements such as, “I’ve never felt so welcomed and loved in my whole life! I’m growing immensely here!” How could two different people reach such radically different conclusions about the same particular community of faith during the same particular period of time?
Crucifying Your Dream
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was martyred by the Nazis during World War II, must have been puzzled by the same issue. In his classic book on Christian community, Life Together, he attacks our human tendency to substitute our dreamed-up ideals with reality: “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial” (27).
According to Bonhoeffer, genuine Christian community will never be experienced as long as one is critically comparing the actual community of which one is a member to the ideal community of one’s imagination. When we are joined into a community that has been redeemed by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, baptized into his name, filled with his Spirit, and committed to following his Word and loving one another—under these conditions—true Christian fellowship should result. If we do not experience true Christian fellowship as members of such a community, the problem is not some defect in the community. The problem is a defect in our own hearts.
Dreams are always abstractions. When we imagine the ideal Christian community in the abstract, we eliminate any possibility of loving and being loved. Follow me here: If I enter into a particular community, expecting that community to fulfill my dream of what a community should be, then people become abstract props in my dream. I am not serving them. I am not committed to them. I do not love them. I am expecting them to play their parts in my dream. If they fail to meet my expectations, I drop them and continue my search for the dream community—one that I will never find. The language being used may sound spiritually mature as the seeker expresses criticisms over lack of “love” and “fellowship,” but the only hindrance to said love and fellowship is the dreamer.
The first step toward finding genuine Christian community is crucifying one’s dream of the community. Such dreams need to die. When the dream dies, the person is freed to turn his or her attention to the particular community, asking the all-important question, “How can I love and serve these particular people?” Bonhoeffer pushes us away from our dream and toward appreciation for the particular people to which we have been joined by God: “If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ” (29).
Belonging is Committing
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 the barbershop (and 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 our church culture, Jayber’s wise statement can 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.”
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 loved one must be open to being loved. 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 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 commit to the people and opting instead to remain on the outside. The type of commitment required for true fellowship to flourish must first be the commitment of the heart to a particular people, which is then manifested in the formal commitment of church membership. 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.”
Once you have crucified your dream of community and embraced the specific community of which you are a member, you are ready to experience fellowship in a completely unique way. No two communities are exactly the same. Therefore, we must not expect our experience of a particular community now to match our experiences of particular communities from the past. If we embrace the new community with all of its unique potentialities, we enable ourselves to experience fellowship as the sovereign God has ordained it for this particular place, these particular people, and this particular time in history. Submission to the lordship of Christ involves allowing the cross to shape all of our living as we embrace all the particularities of the specific context in which he has placed us. We may never recapture memorable experiences of being in community with others from the past, but recapturing experiences should not be our goal as followers of Christ. Our goal in community with one another is love: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). “One another” provides a specific direction for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. “One another” is not an abstract dream. You don’t get to choose who is included in “one another.” These people in this community—that’s who you are to embrace and love. And that’s true gospel fellowship.