Every minister frustrated with their congregation, every person leaving their church, and every millennial who is deconstructing needs to read the opening chapter on community in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It might save your ministry, your membership, or even your faith.
Our communities feel irreparably broken right now. The last 18 months have been relationally traumatic. Most of us have “had it out”—at least once—with someone we love. Maybe it was on the family text thread, over dinner one night, or in the comments section of social media. Or maybe you didn’t have it out. Maybe their outrageous social media posts caused you to quietly unfollow them, and you’ve been ghosting them ever since. Is it a coworker? Adult child? Parent? Friend? Pastor? The church you used to attend?
The temptation is to cast blame by naming whatever controversial issue they are wrongly advocating. “It’s their fault! Not mine.” There’s probably truth in that. Yet Bonhoeffer lifts a mirror up to our maddeningly broken relationships. Instead of feeding our fury and fueling our self-righteousness, he reminds us that the greatest danger to Christian community might not be the people who are getting it all wrong. He said,
Christian community is most often threatened from the very outset by the greatest danger . . . the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful image of pious community. . . . Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community. . . . They enter the community with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly. They stand adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the community. They act as if they have to create the Christian community. . . . Whatever does not go their way, they call a failure. When their idealized image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces. So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves.
THE DATA DOESN’T LIE
My church has experienced a great amount of relational loss this year. Data tells me we aren’t unique; it’s happening in churches everywhere. The Pew Research Center released a study that measures negative polarization. I’ve included one of their tables.
A few things worth noting:
• The number of Republicans who view Democrats coldly jumped from 58 percent to 83 percent in less than three years. That’s fast.
• Republicans who reported “very cold” feelings accounted for virtually all the increase. That’s fierce.
• Democrats were similar. They saw 23 percent growth over the same period, mostly in “very cold” feelings toward Republicans.
It gets worse. A 2019 research paper called “Lethal Mass Partisanship” by political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason reported these statistics:
• 60 percent of Americans think members of the other party constitute a threat to America.
• 40 percent would call them evil.
• Nearly 20 percent agree they “lack the traits to be considered fully human.”
• When asked, “Do you think we would be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party just died?” approximately 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans answered affirmatively.
• The researchers also asked, “If the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election, do you feel violence would be justified?” 18.3 percent of Democrats and 13.8 percent of Republicans believed it would.
These stats matter. They show the direction of our country, and that direction is toward tribalism. What’s terrifying is things aren’t likely to get better. It’s all being fueled by powerful people, platforms, and organizations that profit from our fear and division.
I STILL HAVE HOPE
As bleak as the statistics seem, I still believe unity is possible. That which unites us is far greater than anything that divides us. I believe unity is essential. Jesus died not only to save us from sin but to reconcile us to God and one another. I believe unity is beautiful. When we bring together a multiclass, multiethnic, multicultural, transpolitical, intergenerational collective of sinners united by God’s grace and bound eternally to one another as spiritual siblings in Christ, we give the world a vision of a kingdom it longs for.
But could it be that you and I, as right as we know we are on all the issues, are as much a part of the problem as those who are wrong? This is what Bonhoeffer argued. He made three key points.
1. Christian community is a gift, not a guarantee. Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is easily forgotten that the community of Christians is a gift of grace from the kingdom of God, a gift that can be taken from us any day—that the time still separating us from the most profound loneliness may be brief indeed.”
When I read that quote, I circled it and penciled “February 2020” next to it. That month, we had no idea how much we were taking community for granted.
2. The greatest threat to Christian community are those who expect not to find sinners and heartache. “Christian community is most often threatened from the very outset by the greatest danger . . . the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful image of pious community,” said Bonhoeffer. “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. . . . Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”
Bonhoeffer then described a common experience we all have. We go to a new church, small group, study, or denomination. Maybe we’re young and choosing our own church for the first time, so we come in with high expectations. We know this church will be electric, everyone will love one another, and no one will be weird. Just look at the church Instagram account! The room is full, people are young, smiling, and hip!
But then we walk into the community and realize the person running their Instagram deserves a raise! The room isn’t full—those pictures were from the Easter service a year before COVID-19. There are some young people, but there are also old people, strange people, even mean people. And tick-tick-boom! The wishful image of a pious community implodes. This is why so many people today church hop/shop with the same unrealistic expectations only to find the grass is rarely greener.
So, what’s the solution, Dietrich? Keep reading.
3. Community works corporately to the extent we understand individually the grace we’ve received in Christ. “Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the common life, is not the one who sins still a person with whom I too stand under the word of Christ?” asked Bonhoeffer. “Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Therefore, will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”
Let’s give up the vision of a church where everyone is perfect. You wouldn’t belong there anyway. Let’s give up the vision of a church where everyone thinks like me, lives like me, votes like me, parents like me, sins like me, and looks like me. Let’s give up the vision of a church where my heart will never be broken, my leaders will never be wrong, my friends will never be hurtful, and my sensibilities will never be offended.
Let’s give up a vision of church that doesn’t exist and gain a vision of the truest thing that does: the cross of Jesus, at whose feet the ground is level. And let us be bound together as we kneel there in desperation and thanksgiving for grace. This is where unity can be found. This is where community can be resurrected.