I’ve had so many conversations with different people about authentic community in the church. Several people I know are lonely, struggling with feelings of being rejected and unwanted, and generally reliving high school on another scale in their church communities. I’ve been at several places along this spectrum. There have been times in my life when I had complete and authentic community. I was living life alongside others. We knew what was happening in one another’s lives, and it was completely natural to celebrate, mourn, help, and share with one another on a very regular basis. I have also been lonely in church. I have checked in and out on Sunday morning and felt like no one would ever notice if I stopped coming. I have experienced feelings of being unwanted and not being good enough to be included in community. I’ve also had something in between. I had my church people who I sat with in church or was in small group with. We did some things together, but most were church related. It was positive, but it still left me wanting. I’m in a season of my life where I really want to put effort into the pursuit of real community, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means and why so many struggle with finding it.
Authentic community is living life together. It’s celebrating, sharing, confronting, confessing, asking, following-up, mourning, grieving, and including. These are all verbs. They rely on us acting–all of us. It includes all things, not just the big events. I think too often our personal insecurities stop us from reaching out to others. Hurts from the past or even present dictate how and to what extent we’re willing to put ourselves out there. I do acknowledge that there are people who have been repeatedly burned. But I honestly think some of that is rooted in sinful comparisons. All churches have their “superstars”. The people who have lots of friends and who everyone wants to be friends with. In all honesty, these people don’t have the time or energy to be friends with everyone. It’s literally impossible for them. But they tend to be the people we all want to be in community with. We’ll be “in” if we can make friends with them. These are the winners in church. Those not in the inner circles are the losers, and until we’re in, we’ll be losers too. I’ve certainly been guilty of this thinking, but recently I’ve really been convicted by the fact that it’s just flat out sinful and wrong.
It’s wrong for me to put that kind of pressure on a few families within my church. It’s wrong for me to think that some people are better than others and to chose who I pursue relationships with based on those thoughts. It’s wrong for me to pass up building relationships with people who don’t immediately seem as “cool” to me in favor of trying to get into that coveted inner circle. Reflecting on these thoughts makes it very obvious that they come from energy focused on me and my needs. How being friends with these people or being in this group will make me feel good. How selfish is that? And why do I need that level of inclusion to feel complete in myself? If my focus is on the Gospel and glorifying the Father and if I find my identity and completeness in Him alone, then my focus is on building authentic community with whomever God brings into my path. The focus is to give, not get. I give honor to Him by loving and caring for those who are around me, whether they are easy and natural for me to love or whether it takes some more time of me getting to know them. When I give of myself to others through opening up and inviting them into my life and by pursuing them, I benefit because it is about Him and not me. I am fulfilling my purpose in bringing glory to Him rather than seeking to feel good about myself. My fullness comes from Him, not myself and not other people. When I have a close enough community in which people confront me regarding my sin or I am comfortable confessing my sin and asking for help, God is glorified because the redemption of the Gospel is lived out in His people. None of this will ever happen if we fail to do our parts in pursuing authentic community.
I must confess that I know some people will read this and say all of that is easy for me to say. I haven’t experienced deep hurts within the church. In all honesty, I have truly only felt rejected or hurt by people in the church one or two times in my life. I acknowledge that. Do I think that there are people in the church who purposefully and repeatedly avoid relationships with some because they see them as weird or different? Of course. The church is filled with sinful, broken people. Yes that happens, but we can’t judge God by what people do. We can’t justify disengaging in church community because church members have hurt us in the past. Judging and purposefully excluding others is sinful just like expecting a few choice families to bear the burden of creating community for an entire church is also sinful.
While I haven’t been burned many times, and I don’t identify as a church superstar, I know I am guilty of not doing my part to invest in others. My sin is in putting tasks before people. I am “ok” by myself. I “don’t need” community. I’m “too busy” to include other people in my life. This is just as wrong as idolizing some families as the cool kids and for feeling sorry for myself because people don’t want to be my friend. We each need to be active in seeking out intentional relationships with people. This is the model Christ left for us. We should make an effort to talk to people sitting alone in church or introduce ourselves to people we haven’t met before. We should follow-up on statements of “we should get together” rather than waiting for the other person to be the pursuer. If we ALL did these sorts of things, how much would we alleviate loneliness in our churches? If we all sought our full identities in the Gospel rather than in who our friends are, how much more effective we would be in sharing the Gospel? If all of the people feeling frustrated because they keep getting rejected by “The A Team” simply started building relationships with one another, how many of us would start building our own A-Teams?
I’m not saying it’s easy. It takes a lot of work and effort to build intentional relationships. I don’t have the answers as I’m still figuring it out myself, but I appreciate the place God has brought me in repenting of sin I’ve had in my own heart and looking for the changes I need to make in this area to be more obedient. I’m excited for the community God has for me and the way He wants to use it.