Is Christian Community a Fairy Tale?
It’s no secret that people have been hurt by the church. After all, the church is made entirely of faulty, broken people. There’s no way that it can’t be doing some damage.
But there are areas where the offense runs contrary to everything we say Christianity is about and seems entirely inexcusable .
When talking to people about their nightmare church stories, I keep running into versions of the same story. The common denominator running through these stories is, “when I needed them, they weren’t there for me.”
The tale always revolves around different issues:
Loss of a loved one
But the outcome’s always the same, “I was walking through hell, and no one cared.”
Shiny happy people
I wrote a post on worship a while back where I talked about how the church needs to value honesty a little more. After you’ve been around a while, you begin to hear the same verses and ideas over and over.
“This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.”—Psalm 118:24
“Be anxious for nothing . . .”—Phil 4:6
These are important verses to be sure, but they’re offset throughout Scripture with stories and verses of lament and trial. When we elevate one scriptural perspective at the expense of another, it’s easy to get off balance.
We inadvertently communicate that maintaining a trouble-free, happy demeanor in any situation is the ideal. So people going through struggles don’t necessarily communicate them, and no one else knows what to do when they do.
There’s no question that most people aren’t vocal enough when they’re struggling. Many clergy will tell you that they tend to find out too late about the difficulties that people are going through.
But we have to admit that this is the culture we’re creating—or at least perpetuating.
The snake oil of Christian community
Like an old-timey profiteer, it seems like the church is selling a tonic that will cure all your ailments, but is merely a placebo. And we keep buying into the idea of community because we’re so hungry for it.
But the truth is, we don’t want to be troubled with the expectations that community places on us. We want to belong. We want to be accepted. We want to be loved . . . but we don’t want to be bothered. We want to be able to make withdrawals from community without making deposits.
Many of us go to church on the weekend and, beyond maybe a mid-week Bible study, don’t see anyone else until the next service. It’s such a different picture than the one the New Testament gives us (Acts 2:44–47).
I have been part of many congregations who organize meals or take special offerings for those in need, and although that’s extremely important, community is truly about presence.
The greatest offense
Few things are so difficult to bear than fair-weather relationships. When you build a relationship that means a lot to you and watch it dematerialize when you need its support, it’s painful—lemon juice in a flesh wound.
It’s easy to forgive many insults and injuries, but suffering through the silence and inattentiveness of those close to you (especially if they’re constantly going on about the virtues of community) can be hard to endure—and forgive.
How to be there for someone who is hurting
1. Show up.
I can’t stress this more strongly, 90% of community is about showing up. You don’t have to have any great skills. You don’t have to possess any great biblical knowledge. You just need to make yourself available.
And you’ll probably have to “show up” often. Many of us live in cultures of distrust and alienation. We’re expected to do for ourselves and not show weakness, and we don’t know how to show vulnerability to others. So making an offer to get together with someone isn’t enough.
One of the problems contributing to a growing sense of isolation in the church is that we all say, “Hey, we should get together some time” without any real desire to. You need to be forceful and intentional about being present.
Don’t assume that someone else has it covered. Take responsibility for making sure that they have people around them and caring for them—the more the merrier.
And keep showing up. Don’t give someone a timetable to get their act together. Don’t assume a “one and done” mindset about presence. The two main components of community are presence and investment, so stay present and invested. It matters.
2. Shut up.
I don’t know why this is so hard, but it is. You don’t have to fix anything—just be there.
Listen to their laments. Let them release all the hurt and crap. You don’t need to give them platitudes, you don’t to give them magic verses, and you certainly don’t need to correct them. When someone’s hurting, they often just need a safe place to get the poison out of their system.
You don’t need to contribute to it, but that doesn’t mean you need to fix it or shut it down.
Presence is magic
I can not stress this enough: there is something medicinal about your presence.
Just having others around, having them check-up on you, knowing they value you enough to lavish their time (the world’s most valuable commodity) on you, can make all the difference in the world.
Lord, I believe in community; help my unbelief.
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