“I just can’t find community here.” “I’m having a hard time connecting with people at this church.” “For some reason, I just don’t feel like I have anything in common with people here.”
I can no longer count the number of times I’ve listened to Jesus-loving people carefully attempt to find adequate words to express the frustration they’ve encountered trying to build and maintain meaningful friendships within the church. Human beings are selfish. Because of that irrefutable fact, meaningful relationships will inevitably be one of the most challenging things you will ever face.
And so, I’m always searching for wisdom to share with people in the church who understand the non-negotiable nature of pursuing such relationships, as challenging as it may be. After all, Jesus died to reconcile sinners to God AND to one another (Eph. 2:11-22).
And that brings me to quite possibly the deepest reflection in writing on why we struggle relationally that I’ve ever come across. The quote below is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. A wise pastor and theologian, then in his mid-30s, Bonhoeffer was attempting to lead the compromised German church of his day to live as a faithful community under the oppressive shadow of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer wrote:
Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.
According to Bonhoeffer, one of the biggest enemies to cultivating genuine community with other people is our own idealized notions (or dreams) that we carry with us of what a community is supposed to be. For Bonhoeffer, our expectations for what a community is supposed to be gets in the way of our ability to actually love the real flesh and blood people in front of us.
Most people have experienced deep and meaningful relationships at some point in their past. Those relationships aren’t the problem. The problem is that we often allow those deep relational experiences from the past to form expectations that we then use to evaluate potential relationships in the present.
It’s the equivalent of approaching a group of people, reaching into a bag, and handing out scripts, saying, “Here, read your part if you want to be my friend.” When we expect people to fulfill our dreams, actually loving those people becomes impossible. In fact, I cannot serve another human being because all of my energy is being used in service of getting my dream fulfilled by those people. People become mere tools. My dream is what’s ultimate.
Could you imagine walking up to your potential spouse and saying, “Hey I’m really excited about our future together. However, I had a couple of girlfriends back in high school, and I’d really like it if you could replicate some of the experiences we shared together.” That’s absurd. But that’s exactly what we so often do when we walk into a church for the first time.
Assuming we want to take Bonhoeffer’s advice, what do we need to do next?
First, put your dream to death. Early on in my marriage, in the middle of an argument, my wife told me, an idealistic 24-year-old, “Sometimes I’m not sure if you love me or the ideal you have for me.” Those words stung, but she was right.
Progress in any relationship is on hold until the moment the dream begins to die.
Second, focus on loving the actual people who God has put in your life. It does not matter if you feel you don’t have much in common with them. It does not matter if you would have chosen them, because God already did. If you are in a Bible-believing, gospel-preaching church, your job is simple: love these specific people. Don’t wish you had cooler people or better people or people you had more in common with. You share Christ. What more do you need?
If we focus on loving one another in Christ, fellowship will result. I think that’s what Bonhoeffer’s getting at. When we come with a dream of what fellowship is supposed to look like, we make people play their roles in our dream. That’s self-centered. We have to approach the community with open minds and open hearts to allow God to form a unique fellowship among us. We do that by simply loving the actual people who are there in Christ.
I’ll close with similar wisdom from an English Baptist who preceded Bonhoeffer by about half a century, Charles Haddon Spurgeon:
If I had never joined a Church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all! And the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect Church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.