Friday, January 06, 2006

The Challenge of Christian Community

It is little secret to anyone paying attention to the American religious scene that the new hip theme dominating all our conversations revolves around the word “community.” Whatever that word stands for, we want it.

We want authentic community. We want intergenerational community. We want grace-centered community. We want service-oriented community.

We want these things, we say. We are tired, we say, of the days of Christians living their individual lives, as separated atoms bouncing off one another, creating friction some times, creating fusion at other times.

We want to live our lives together. We say this. We think that we mean this. Or do we?

It strikes me that often we say we want Christian community, but what we really want is an idealized daydream of community. We want people who will look like us, think like us, do as we do. We want others in our community who raise their children the same way, listen to the same music, watch the same movies. Our idealized image includes only those who vote the way we do, are passionate about our passions, and see the world in the same way.

Part of the problem, though, is that we don’t see the world the same way. By the very nature of the case, we are as different as snow flakes—our life stories shape us in vastly different ways.

As a result, when someone else thinks differently or acts differently, we become disillusioned with community and we isolate ourselves from life together.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic little book Life Together, observed that
A community that cannot bear and cannot survive such disillusionment, clinging instead to its idealized image, when that should be done away with, loses at the same time the promise of a durable Christianity community. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse. 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 (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, DBW, 5:35-6).
The answer is not to posit a daydream, idealized community; the answer is to center our community on the basic realities of Christian faith and the basic demands of Christian practice.

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