by Johnny Kerr
In the Western world, America in particular, the notion of self-sufficiency has been idealized to a potentially unhealthy degree. We have countless examples of “self-made men” who overcame adversity and fought their way to wealth and influence. Professionals who work 50+ hour weeks—often sacrificing physical and mental health, personal leisure, social life and family—are lauded as hard workers committed to their careers. People who silently endure immense suffering are revered for their strength and perseverance in made-for-TV movies. The market for self-help books has been booming since the 1970’s.
None of these things are inherently bad. But their emphasis has made our culture sick. Loneliness, depression and suicide rates are reporting at an all-time high. Although we live in relative abundance and security compared to much of the world, our model of individualism has significantly reduced our quality of life. Despite the vast potential for virtual connection via the world wide web and social media, many are experiencing real life in isolation. We have traded the benefits of community thriving for a romanticized caricature from a dime-store cowboy novel. We’ve become convinced that all we need is ourselves and some good old-fashioned grit.
The postmodern church has not been immune to these ills, even with a rich history of community going back to ancient Israel. We’ve become pretty good at using buzz words, pretending to be in community without really going all-in. Our church buildings have names like “fellowship hall” and our volunteer committees have names like “hospitality team.” Unfortunately, many times these efforts amount to little more than providing donuts and coffee for people to grab as they rush in before service starts, or a quick handshake during a worship invitation. When the service is over, many of us go home and live our separate lives until next Sunday.
Again, it’s not that fellowship halls, hospitality teams, donuts, and handshakes are bad things. But they are incomplete. They are lacking the wholeness we see exemplified in God’s desire for the nation of Israel, or the early church as recorded in the book of Acts (ex: Acts 2:42-47). Just as predators in the animal kingdom try to isolate potential prey from the heard to increase the chances of a kill, the Enemy knows that isolation weakens both the individual and the body. Our modern myths of self-reliance are hindering us from experiencing Heaven on Earth. We are missing out on the richness of life in God’s Kingdom which He has called us to usher in, here and now, together as His body of co-laborers.
Orthodoxy recognizes God as a triune being, a community of Father, Son and Spirit. From the very beginning of our creation account God reveals Himself as inherently relational. Genesis depicts God in the act of creating saying, “Let Usmake man in Our image…” (Genesis 1:26, emphasis added). Humanity’s need for relationship is immediately recognized (“It is not good for man to be alone.”) and fulfilled through Eve, a suitable co-laborer for Adam (Genesis 2:18-25).
In Exodus we see, laid out in excruciating detail, a list of guidelines given to help Israel navigate the conflicts that arise in community life (Exodus 20-23). Later, Jesus sums up that entire code of law with two simple, relational commands: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). When Jesus began His ministry of reclaiming and establishing God’s Kingdom on Earth, one of His first actions was to build a community. He called the disciples together and began teaching and living life with them. Scripture is replete with themes of relationship, community and covenant.
God’s Kingdom is based on community relationship. Community is not possible without humility, vulnerability, a degree of transparency and accountability. It may feel like we are dying many small deaths as we rip ourselves out of conformity to the patterns of our modern world. It will be uncomfortable as we lean into vulnerability, allowing others to see who we are beneath the surface. It will get messy as we navigate the challenges and uncertainty of life together in community as God’s family.
Lest we swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, it is worth noting that, when implemented appropriately, boundaries are also a healthy part of communal living. Although vulnerability and transparency are necessary in a thriving community, they come with their own limitations. Researcher and author Brené Brown makes this important distinction:
“Oversharing is not vulnerability. In fact, it often results in disconnection, distrust, and disengagement.”
— Brené Brown
Vulnerability without boundaries is unhealthy. There are personal matters that are appropriate to share with a spouse or an accountability partner but should not be casually mentioned to a stranger as you shake hands over donuts in the foyer or fellowship hall. Some personal struggles might be appropriate to share with a small, closely knit home group but not with the whole church body (or on social media, for that matter!).
As the images accompanying this article playfully portray, there are things we can (and probably should) do on our own. A degree of independence is certainly healthy. However, there comes a point for all of us where we meet the limits of our physical ability, skill set, cultural perspective, spiritual maturity, etc. As I looked at the next number painted on the asphalt, spot number 5, I knew I had run out of limbs to continue this picture series on my own. Similarly, there are times in life when we need to rely on others in the larger church body to come alongside us and lend a hand. There should be no shame tied to needing and asking for help. We were not created to be alone. We need to do life in community.
Finally, as we begin to shed the Western notion of going it alone, don’t make the mistake of thinking about community only in terms of receiving. Receiving can be a great act of humility, and a great blessing. But giving, sacrificial giving, is also at the heart of Jesus. Live a life rooted in deep love for God and your neighbor. Take care of each other and be proactive instead of just reactive, always looking for opportunities to be ministers of reconciliation.
When we look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the Beloved Community, or Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities we can see that God’s Kingdom is indeed established, and being established, on Earth. These are not merely lofty ideals or Utopian fantasies, but pictures of what it really looks like when Jesus is at the center of all that we do. Cultivating community with Christ at the center doesn’t guarantee perfection. It will still involve navigating conflict and pain, just as in family life. But it will also lead to flourishing, a richness and fullness that can only be experienced when we fulfill our roles as image bearers and ministers of reconciliation in God’s family.