Over the last several years, I’ve been learning to surrender my vision of community to the Lord, to just be part of community, and to let it express itself in all its wonderful diversity – in His timing, as He wants.
That process was reinforced as a close friend and I talked over breakfast about a biography he’s reading on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian leader who was martyred by the Nazi’s just before his prison camp was liberated at the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer wrote two classics of the faith: The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.
It’s been decades since I first read those books, which had a profound impact on me in my twenties.
In fact, much of my thinking on Christian community went back to Life Together, which Bonhoeffer penned while part of a clandestine seminary in 1930’s Germany during the rise of Hitler.
At that seminary, he increasingly bore witness against the growing evils of Nazism and how the “church” was being preempted by the declining culture of his day.
During that time in his life, a group of teachers and students in the seminary broke from the national church to live out the Gospel in close, intimate fellowship.
When I returned home from breakfast with my friend, I pulled Life Together off my library shelf and started re-reading it.
While re-reading it, I realized that the dynamics and characteristics of Bonhoeffer’s own community were very much rooted in their own culture, circumstances and imperatives – as it should be. I also doubt that the very intense community they formed would have endured over time, especially once the need for a somewhat self-contained enclave to stand apart from and survive the Nazis ended.
Instead, their community was discovered and destroyed by the Nazis, and thus short lived.
Regardless, no one’s particular example of community – no matter how grand it was for them – should ever become a blueprint for community elsewhere. Doing so creates artificial community, which prevents Jesus from becoming fully incarnate within wonderfully diverse cultures and sub-cultures – each with very unique ways of perceiving, acting and relating.
Nonetheless, Bonhoeffer says much that we would be wise to heed today.
Here’s a passage that stabbed at my soul:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it…. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world…. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.
Bonhoeffer then goes on to state:
He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
Just to make sure I didn’t miss his point, Bonhoeffer drives it home:
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.
I am ever the visionary builder. That’s part of my spiritual DNA. Nonetheless, God continually has to keep me from putting my vision of community over Him and over the people He’s placed in my life as actual community.
By the same token, He’s also challenging me with the need for our fellowships, as local communities rooted in many different cultures and circumstances, to break through into greater intimacy with Him. Otherwise, there can be no true community in Him.
Again, as Bonhoeffer writes:
Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.
Later, he explains:
The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.
Some twist this concept – that community must be in and through Jesus – by creating Jesus in their own image to reflect their own bias, perceptions, motivations and sensibilities. They then try to create artificial community around their pseudo-Jesus, or expect existing community to conform to their pseudo-Jesus, as a projection of themselves.
We all tend to do this. It is the biggest community killer I’ve seen.
Nonetheless, I’ve been learning over the years – little by little – to surrender to Him my own understanding of Him and my own concepts of community, even when valid. Only then can He can shine forth fully, uniquely and authentically as He wants – and not according to my own impulses.
The further I get in this journey, the more I simply seek to celebrate and enjoy what Jesus has given me of Himself, both personally and through others, as we find His life together in community – the imperfect, conflicted, confused but wonderful Body of Christ, free of our own agendas (spiritual or otherwise!).