Christian Community

I have spent this morning leafing through Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a small book, but I have yet to decide whether I am planning on reading it again, or just mining it for ideas to meditate on.

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There are a few ideas that I have already been wrestling with this morning, and was wondering if I might get some company in sorting them out.

1. Christian community is not an ideal to live up to, but a factual reality we encounter when we are in the presence of another who lives under the salvation bought for us by Jesus Christ.

If this is true, and I believe that it is, does that make the presence of our denominations all the more ridiculous? Is arbitrarily cutting ourselves off from our brothers due to one theological distinctive or another placing ourselves into a voluntary exile that rejects this gift that we have been given in each other? 

2. We are provided Christian community purely by the grace of God. There was no guarantee that we would be given brothers and sisters in Christ to come together with, and there is no guarantee that we will continue to be blessed with the same.

Am I ungrateful for the ability to come together with my brothers and sisters because I have spurned the shape that Christian community so often takes in this day and culture? Is it good enough that I am otherwise immensely grateful for the few that I am able to live my life with outside of that greater assembly?

3. Given that Christian community is not an ideal to be met, we should not try to impose an ideal or a vision on the community that it is bound to fail and frustrate.

What happens when our only visible choices seem to be gatherings that have an ideal or a vision superimposed over top of them? If I am not called to try bend community into a certain shape that is pleasing to me, what am I to do when I see others doing this wherever I look for Christian fellowship?

4. Our main role in Christian community comes from the nature of our brotherhood since we are bound together only through the salvation that he has provided, our relationship toward one another is chiefly to remind ourselves of that salvation, to encourage one another by calling each other back to the message of the gospel.

If the only requirement for Christian community is the presence of another brother through the blood of Christ then what happens when our life together doesn’t reflect that reality? If my relation to my brother is based on the gift of salvation that we have received, what does it say about our community if it is largely based on shame and condemnation rather than encouragement and grace?

There is a lot to chew on up there. Hopefully not too much. Take small bites, and let me know what you are tasting in the comments.

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25 thoughts on “Christian Community

  1. Wow…. lotta meat in the soup here…
    I struggle with the idea of being in a Christian community, as far as “feeling” it. There are times when I’m in church when I don’t feel like we are a group, and we have a small church. I have to remember that feeling it isn’t the thing. Not to mention that my not feeling it doesn’t mean nobody else does either.

    I often wonder at the reasons for denominations. I’ve seen two different graphics (neither of which I can find right now – google is defying me).
    1. A large cross, split vertically into many large splinters, each with a denomination name. (Denoms are a bad thing.)
    2. A large church with many doors, each door labeled with a different denomination, leading into to same large church. (Denoms are a good thing.)

    I would have a hard time believing that Jesus, Paul, or any of the apostles ever imagined denominations. Yet, here we are. I don’t know if they are ridiculous, I think they may be indicative of human nature.

    I do think that cutting ourselves off from our brothers due to these distinctions does equate to voluntary exile – my thought is that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Just my opinion. But I will quickly add that my experience within denominational churches has been, for the most part, positive. Therefore I can understand having a different viewpoint.

    There is so much more to digest in your post, very thought provoking.

    Question – could you expound on your thought, “Given that Christian community is not an ideal to be met….”, ? Not quite catching your meaning there….

    • To answer the direct question, Bonhoeffer is posing the idea that there is not so much a right way of Christian community that we need to live up to, but that our Christian community is factual just by being in the presence of one another. In the same way that a child is factually related to their biological parents, there is no right way to be their child, we are brothers and sisters through our salvation by Jesus Christ. We are in Christian community when we are together.

  2. Ah, okay, I see that now.

    I’ll tackle #2 now. ”
    Am I ungrateful for the ability to come together with my brothers and sisters because I have spurned the shape that Christian community so often takes in this day and culture? Is it good enough that I am otherwise immensely grateful for the few that I am able to live my life with outside of that greater assembly?”

    Short answers : No, and Yes.
    And if you spurn the shape the community takes these days, I can’t blame you. I’ve not had the personal experience of any terrible ones (although one Lutheran one was questionable), but I have certainly heard of many from which I know I would run away screaming.

    • I can’t claim to have had the terrible experience that some have had, that would do dishonor to those who have suffered some pretty heinous abuses. I will say that I had experienced enough to get my foot out of the door and what I have experienced since (both negative and positive) has left me with little desire to enter into that kind of assembly.

      I don’t necessarily want to push my ideal on anyone else, but I feel like the ideals and visions that we are asked to buy into when it comes to these systems serve to hinder that primary connection that we have with other believers.

      Your previous comment mentioned sometimes “not feeling it”, it is sometimes like wearing a heavy pair of gloves in the winter, you are so heavily insulated from the outside world that you can’t feel it. Much of the way that we choose to gather tends to insulate us from each other so that we can feel alone in a room full of people.

  3. “.. but I feel like the ideals and visions that we are asked to buy into when it comes to these systems serve to hinder that primary connection that we have with other believers.”

    So, are you referring to some of the structures of a denomination (ideals and visions), or even in a church setting to begin with? How have you seen/felt it hindering the connection?

    Not meaning to debate you, just wanna see what you see / have seen.

    I have, indeed, felt alone in that room full of people. But not always. I think it just depends on where I am at.

    • I am tempted to say church in general… I can say that I have seen some variance in degree to which it is the case, but in so many cases the structures of our gatherings keep people at arms length, relationships shallow and disposable. This is chiefly the concern of the Sunday gatherings I have seen where the character of the meeting isn’t much different than a bunch of people going to see the same movie.

      Even a number of the midweek studies that I have been involved with have been largely single personality driven which discourages the ability to form relationships with fellow believers… and that is about the best that you generally get.

      As far as I’m concerned I should perhaps take my shoes off when I hit the parking lot because I have formed more profitable holy relationships there than I ever have in a church setting.

      I’m probably getting a little riled up, so I’ll stop there… haha

  4. Wow….I can’t say I have felt it quite that much, and that is really sad to hear, I hafta tell you…
    I have been able to build a couple good relationships at our present church, and several good casual ones. The kind that, when I meet them outside of church, we actually stop and chat. I have had a hard time doing any of the small groups, though – too much social anxiety.
    One thing our church does really well – every Sunday, there is a coffee hour afterwards with good coffee, tea, and snacks (occasionally a light lunch), and any visitors are invited at the end of service to please come and chat if desired. Lots of tables and chairs to sit at, etc… The Pastor comes around and tries to talk with everyone, especially new people. We are a pretty welcoming group. Our membership is only about 250, and we average about 80-ish per Sunday.

    Would you describe how the structure of the gatherings keep people at arms length? Feel free to get riled up some more, if it helps the description. 😉

    • I like that your gathering does acknowledge a need and the value of providing a space to allow relationships to develope. I have seen very little of that.

      My mind is wandering toward the book Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith where he discusses what our liturgical forms in our gatherings say about what we value and what we believe. In some traditions you have at the center of the service the table and the elements saying that the body and the blood of Christ are at the center of the gathering, in others you will have a pulpit at the center and they will say that the Word of God is the center of the gathering. To the uninitiated both of these end up looking the same, you have a large group of people lined up and focused on a man on a raised platform. The liturgical reality of nearly every church that I have ever walked into is a divided body, there is the one very important person at the head that we are to pay attention to, while the larger body is asked to quietly consume. The outside observer will see a large group of people that are being asked to generally ignore each other (except for perhaps an awkward greeting) while everyone is to focus on the one important man.

      I imagine the shock of the outsider who eventually hears that they believe that nearly all of the people that are gathered there are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who is actually God Himself. Why are all of these people who are being taught day by day by God ignoring each other and receiving their encouragement and teaching from a single man?

      By and large, the modern church service is not much different that a lecture, a concert, a movie… any kind of even where you are showing up to consume a product… the other people who show up to consume the same product are largely incidental.

      I have developed some relationships with those that I have attended church with, but those relationships rarely had anything to do with the organized gathering of believers. They happened around the fringes of the church like I said, in the parking lot afterward or realizing that there were a couple other people that I gathered with that worked for the same company that I did.

      The church rarely seems to be concerned about creating space for relationships to form (you mention an exception) instead opting for performances, lectures, and programs. The most encouraging times and those that have provided the most growth in my walk have come outside of these church sanctioned meetings.They have come in those times when I have had the opportunity to come together with brothers (mostly) and sisters to live out “Life Together”.

  5. I take back some of what I said on Bonhoeffer. I still think he was a really good writer and deep thinker, but still question his motives for trying to kill Hitler. When I die, I’m positive there will be many things Jesus will have to correct me about, but I’ll still be His. I think that of Bonhoeffer too. He was a great theologian for the most part.

    As for the post, this is great, really. I’ve been thinking about this more and more–and it troubles me the more I interact with church folks. I just wrote a post about that. http://www.socialanemia.com/christianity/why-are-church-peeps-such-creeps/ (Now I spammed you..LOL)

    I see a big difference between church people and people like you and I. It sounds prideful and i hate that, because i don’t mean to suggest we are better than church people. But I find this flaw among church people: they think they know everything. They think everyone else needs to be fixed and changed but they don’t think they do. They never question the idea of church. Should they? I think they should. It’s complete madness this system we’ve forced ourselves into. I don’t think it’s freeing to be apart of a church at all. It’s stifling and demeaning.

    Point 3 really struck me: “Given that Christian community is not an ideal to be met, we should not try to impose an ideal or a vision on the community that it is bound to fail and frustrate.”

    How many times have I tried to force myself into church, other people’s lives, ect and left feeling worse off than before? So, so many. It’s so hard. It’s something I’m struggling with this–this idea of community that is natural. That God will bring people I need when I need it and sometimes, there will be no one, and that’s ok too. It’s odd how often I wake up on Sunday and I think to myself “I should be at church” or “I wonder if I should find a church–I’m supposed to be there”. It is an odd feeling that I can’t quite shake. Maybe it’s because that has been my life up until almost a year ago. I’m still working out what it means to be “the church” without being in a church building. These are such good thoughts. Thank you for sharing them.

    • I can agree to a degree that “church people” are mean, but I would have to have a pretty tight definition of what I mean by church people. I have honestly run into that reality more online than I have in real life (thank God). I look forward to reading your post.

      I’m in the middle of some food prep for our Christmas in Tishri get together today, so I’m I little pressed for time. Monax put together some pretty convincing research that this evening is Jesus’s birthday.

  6. Elle,

    ” But I find this flaw among church people: they think they know everything. They think everyone else needs to be fixed and changed but they don’t think they do. They never question the idea of church.”

    I do hope I didn’t come across as one of those you speak of, I really didn’t mean to.

    I honestly don’t think you or dswaoger or anyone else who chooses not to “church” needs fixing. I also struggle with with the idea of community as natural – my struggle has more to do with social anxiety though.

    I’ve not had much experience with “mean people” churches, I suppose – or the example given by dwsoager, where everyone is expected to basically ignore each other, although I can certainly believe they are out there.

    All I can say is, I have been blessed with a fairly decent church, and for the most part they feel like family. Not perfect, by any means.

    I agree – the church is not a physical building. It’s wherever you get together with brothers and sisters in Christ, one on one, small groups, whatever.

  7. dswoager,

    Very interesting points you stated from K.A. Smith’s book. The descriptions of how the uninitiated might see the service, etc… are something I’ve never thought of – and perhaps we should. Very good points.

    “By and large, the modern church service is not much different that a lecture, a concert, a movie… any kind of even where you are showing up to consume a product…”

    I can see his point. Whenever I have seen video clips of larger church services, I get the same idea. And I wonder how one can feel “in community” there.

    “I have developed some relationships with those that I have attended church with, but those relationships rarely had anything to do with the organized gathering of believers.”

    The friendships I’ve made in church don’t really have anything to do with being believers, exactly – other than coming at life from that angle. So I’m with you there. We don’t get together and continue celebrating or worshipping – we just go through life together. Even during the coffee hour afterwards, the conversations don’t have much to do with church.

    I might hunt down that book…….

    • It could be somewhat different within the mainline denominations, but I haven’t seen that big of a difference in the layout of a Sunday morning within smaller and larger churches. A lot of smaller churches take their stylistic cues from the mega churches… they are mini megas. It might be easier to recognize the same faces from week to week in the smaller church, or notice if someone is not there (which isn’t nothing) but the layout of the gathering is just as impersonal.

      I personally do think that we need that space to interact with each other as believers. Let others know what we have been struggling with over the past week, share what scripture has revealed to us recently, generally encourage each other. It often seems to be minimized in over structured meetings.

      Some will point to 1 Corinthians 14 and show it as proof that we need order, I think that you can just add easily look there and see that they had such an open fellowship when they gathered that it needed to be reigned in a little bit so that it remained profitable. I feel like we have gone way in the other direction, so structured that the Pneumos can’t blow.

      Jamie Smith’s book is worth reading, but I enjoyed it more for the concepts that it introduced and the questions that it raised than for the overall book itself… It is part of a yet to be completed trilogy, and it definitely feels like an incomplete work, it’s also not the most accessible book in the world either. Like I said, it’s worth reading, but I give it a less that full hearted recommendation. That being said, I have the second book and plan on reading it.

  8. Good thoughts. I’m wondering where the Pastor model came from, I don’t find it in 1Cor 14,just an open fellowship as you mentioned. Something I will start looking into, as I can see how that could easily go sideways (as we’ve heard about on PP, i.e. Moses model ), and often has.

    I am with a mainline Lutheran denomination. I agree, the layout is somewhat similar to a larger church, in that the Pastor stands up front and speaks. Our guy doesn’t stand on a platform or behind a pulpit, he prefers to be down on our level and often asks questions and listens to answers. His sermons sometimes take more of the format of a Bible study group.
    We have had a few people over the years lobbying for a “Worship Team”, with more instruments, amplifiers, etc… but the church council has simply asked the congregation as a whole, a vote was taken, and the motion has not even come close to passing. I for one am glad of that.

    “I personally do think that we need that space to interact with each other as believers. Let others know what we have been struggling with over the past week, share what scripture has revealed to us recently, generally encourage each other.”

    –admittedly, this part is somewhat lacking, at least for myself. I end up doing most of it with my family, or online.

    • Sounds like you may really have something that is more healthy than most. A dialogical approach to the scriptures has been the most helpful for me, and I think overall helps in growth for more people.

      I am of the opinion that simple is almost always better when it comes to our gatherings. The gates of heel may never prevail against the ekklesia of Christ, but there are all kinds of things that manage the topple the churches of men.

  9. I hear you with the simple. And that there are many things that undermine the churches of men. Just using the phrase “churches of men” should give one pause – it’s not man’s church to begin with. Unless the Lord builds the house, the workers labour in vain.

    Thanks for this discussion, very thought-provoking and research-inspiring.

    • Can’t remember where I said it, but playing off of the 3 little pigs imagery, the churches of men are built by wolves with straw and sticks but one day God will burn that all away to show that it was a house that he had built with stone all along.

      I look forward to that day when we see the spotless bride that we have been participating in, and even more our glorious bridegroom who gave himself for us.

  10. So, I confess I’ve been reading through some of the old posts here, and conversations between you and monax. While I don’t agree with all of it necessarily, I think it boils down to this one quote of yours from a couple weeks or so back….

    “All that being said, God intended for us to grow and mature within a loving community and environment, if the church refuses to supply that, I don’t even any problem with us finding that environment elsewhere”

    I completely agree with that statement. I find it terribly sad that so many churches are not providing that. And I can see where evil has, indeed crept in.

    I’ve sent an email off to a few of my pastor friends, including a quote from this thread (the description you provided from Smith’s book), and I’ve asked them for their thoughts as to how the church ended up where it is now, compared to the examples in the NT church. I am very curious to hear their answers, and discuss this with them.

    • I would be curious to hear what they have to say about it as well. Thanks for the conversation, as is so often the case, I have found that I am best able to order my thoughts on such things through dialogue, being questioned to potentially challenge where I might be weak, or at the very least clarify where I might be vague.

  11. I’m working on learning that skill more and more myself.
    Just got an email from my Pastor, we’re setting up a coffee meeting next week to discuss my thoughts.

  12. I appreciate Bonhoeffer’s thoughtfulness on this and other subjects – and I like how you summarize the issues. Others who speak to this are Larry Crabb (The Safest Place on Earth), and Philip Yancey (Church: Why Bother?). Both have timely and seasoned things to say to us about “church”. Though I don’t find it helpful to always be so critical of “the church” (in all the different ways we mean it), I do find it helpful to listen to others of the body, past and present, who have thought, prayed, and practiced deeply in body life. May we have grace to accept our family as we are accepted in Christ.

    • I think that I struggle with exactly how to frame these things, I do think that there is truth to needing to be thankful for just being able to gather with other believers at all, but there is no small amount of the new testament that deals with destructive influences entering into the body… even to the degree that some of the few post ascension words of Jesus (letters to the 7 churches) deal with that issue.

      I’m attempting to be more balanced in my thinking in general and writing here because it is easy to get bogged down in the flaws of the church.

      Thanks for the recommendations, might have to check them out when I get some more free time. I’m actually struggling to find time to get through the relative pamphlet that is Life Together, but life might eventually slow down :).

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