On Community

Parker Palmer, a spiritual writer of the Quaker tradition, says community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives. So community is not like a place where you love each other sort of freely and warmly and affectionately. Community is in fact the place where you are purified, where your love is tested, where your childhood of God is constantly put through the mill of human relationships. That is what community is. Community is a place where Judas always is and sometimes it is just you.

Henri Nouwen, “Discovering Our Gift through Service to Others.”

[Moses] dies, by all human accounting, a failure, and knowing that he is a failure, knowing that everything that he has worked for in leading, training, and praying for this community will unravel as soon as the people enter Canaan. It is a familiar story for readers of Scripture, even though frequently suppressed. What does this mean? It means that we have to revise our ideas of the holy community to conform to what is revealed in Scripture. It means that we cannot impose our paradisiacal visions of hanging out with lovely, upbeat, and beautiful people when we enter a Christian congregation. It means that God’s way of working with us in community has virtually nothing to do with the world’s idea of getting things done, of what ‘works’ and what doesn’t. It means that God hasn’t changed his modus operandi of choosing the ‘low and despised in the world’ (1 Cor. 1:28) to form his community. It means that we who want to get in on what God does in the way God does it in all matters of community, will have to give up pretensions of shaping an organization that the world will think is wonderful as we parade our accomplishments to the tune of ‘worship’ or ‘evangelism.’

Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places 

“Community” is a buzzword among my generation: we love to build community, foster community, create community. It’s a natural desire: not meant to be on our own, we hunger for belonging and a sense of place, not just in a certain location, but among people who welcome and love us.

Most communities that we belong to are through voluntary association: we choose the groups we join, the people we spend time with. We are able, as a result, to be selective. An obvious exception is our families, but, as the recent phenomenon of “friendsgiving” hints at, we are often more excited about spending holidays with our friends whom we’ve chosen than our families whom we have not.

Another exception is the Church. As Christ’s body, made up of people for whom he died, who love him and are united to him, the Church is made up of an incredibly diverse group of people. I can’t choose any of them.

Of course, we try to thwart this all the time, with our various theological camps and denominations. We try to gather about ourselves people who are like us, in the way we think, dress, talk, work, and play. “Lovely, upbeat, and beautiful people.” When we agree with everyone around us, when we feel affirmed and our views validated and approved of, then we think we have found a good community. Until then, we keep a wide berth around the pew of that troublesome person, whose opinions cause us to roll our eyes and sigh in frustration.

But as both Nouwen and Peterson recognize, this is not what the Christian community in our fallen world looks like. We cannot have paradise on earth, even if paradise were everyone being just like me (thankfully, it isn’t). The Church is, by definition, a diverse group of unlovely people. That we think ourselves the exception is, at its best, humorous, at its worst, arrogant.

To live well in community, we must live with an honesty learned from Scripture, from the stories that define our existence as the Church. This honesty is constantly under threat. On the one hand, we are tempted to despise the imperfect communities we find ourselves in, begrudging the people who don’t think and act as we do, thinking that if only they would leave or change, then we could actually look like Christians. On the other hand, we are tempted to romanticize our imperfections, to celebrate our brokenness as being authentic and real and without hypocrisy, and to condemn any suggestion of transformation as a refusal to truly accept and love each other. But Scripture demonstrates an honesty that shuns both of these tendencies. There, we find stories of Noah and Abraham, Moses and the Israelites, David, Peter, Judas—stories that show us that the community of God’s people is not always a community of lovely, sweet people.

And living well in community requires the difficult act of loving people as they actually are and loving them into who they were made to be. It’s the love that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13: letting go of our own way, jettisoning resentment and irritation, bearing, hoping. This love makes our honesty bearable, providing us with the motivation to stay in “the place where you are purified, where your love is tested, where your childhood of God is constantly put through the mill of human relationships.” Without the steadfast love that Paul exhorts us to, we would not have the strength to stay in such a difficult place.