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I read today that the United States set a single-day record of 63,247 new COVID-19 cases yesterday. Of course, there is a lot of testing going on. But it is a reminder that this pandemic is not over yet. Businesses that reopened have reclosed. Churches are working and reworking through the steps to reopen.

As Christians, we miss the fellowship. Yes, we can do our small groups through Zoom, but it is not the same. Yesterday I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his classic book, Life Together. He wrote:

“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”

Further down on the page, he wrote:

“The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians.” 

As this pandemic drags out, our yearning to be together will increase!

We were created by God for community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say we were created for life together. During this COVID-19 pandemic, we have used words like “isolation” and “quarantine”. And we do need to be safe.

But we all have this longing to be together. In Bonheoffer’s classic book, Life Togetherhe wrote: “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”

Many Christians are not ready to gather together. It appears that it will be a while before we will all feel safe.

Until then, let us stay connected to one another through other means.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, we need “Life Together” more than ever. Churches are opening up slowly only to take a step or two back. We want to be together. Since we are all created in the image of God, we were also created for life together in community. The Trinity (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit) is a community. This pandemic has hindered our community–our “Life Together”. Zoom is fine, but it is not “Life Together” as followers of Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s classic work, Life Together, can prepare us for the day when we truly get the green light to gather together with no restrictions.

Chatting with buddies at the bar or coffee shop helps us think more clearly, and that’s sorely missing right now

By gathering in community spaces and chatting with friends and strangers, we really are solving the world’s problems.

Humans don’t just desire complex forms of human contact, from the intimate contact of love to the more distant contact of political order. We cannot do without it.

When Southern Methodist University announced in March that it would close campus after spring break because of the global pandemic, I was teaching a course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s who was eventually put to death in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. As we continued to abide by the shelter-in-place orders, my students and I, forced to meet exclusively online, commented several times about how poignant it was to read Bonhoeffer together during this time. By the last quarter of the term we were reading Bonhoeffer’s prison writings, many of which are weighty meditations on the challenges of forced loneliness. Bonhoeffer’s writings, from his early works to these later ones from prison, emphasize how important sociality is for human beings.

It’s stunning that, surrounded by the terror and murder of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer spent so much of his time writing not about murder and war, but about these basic forms of social life. As Bonhoeffer saw it, even before the mass murder began, the Nazis posed an existential threat to human flourishing because of their attempt to flatten out human relationships. From the beginning of the regime, Hitler insisted that everything must be Nazified — church, family life and even bowling leagues. There were no distinct places with their own integrity, goals and practices. There was only Nazi space.

Bonhoeffer was concerned about the loss of these spaces because he thought they do more than simply connect us with others. Rather, these spaces actually help us think. It’s easy to conceive of thinking as a human activity best accomplished in isolation. But on Bonhoeffer’s telling, it is by inhabiting these social spheres that we learn to think well.

For instance, if I ask myself whether my responsibility as a father means that I should pick my son up early from school in order to spend more time with him, I also have to ask if in so doing I would be failing to fulfill my responsibilities at work. This sort of very ordinary moral question, and the ordinary form of moral reflection that accompanies it, depends on the difference in space between work and home. Without that kind of difference, our ability to think is diminished.

Bonhoeffer combined a long tradition of Christian theology with the more recent insights of sociology when he argued that humans need multiple different kinds of social relationships — or spaces — in order to flourish. Humans want good home lives and work lives, and we depend on good political order to make those possible, but we also need other places where we gather and converse with friends and strangers alike. These are what sociologists sometimes call “third places.”

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When I ask newcomers what brings them to our church, the most common reply is, “I’m looking for community.”

I often wince hearing that phrase, fearing they won’t stay for long. It’s not that desiring community is a bad thing. The problem is the assumption that community is found, like stumbling upon a hidden treasure.

One cannot “find” community, because it isn’t something to be discovered. Community is never found, only built.

Why Do We Look?

Facebook, Instagram, and similar technologies are marketed as tools to help us connect with others—yet in the process these technologies are reshaping our notions of connection and community. It’s a sad irony that, in the social-media age, more and more people report feeling lonely even as we’re more “connected” than ever before. What gives?

The internet has redefined community in terms of choice. For most of history, community has been a given—something bound to your physical location and comprising your neighbors and classmates and church down the street. You were literally stuck in a community, which forced you to forge relationships with the people you had.

Those days are gone. You can now form a community with anyone, anywhere. You can find a Facebook group for virtually any hobby or interest; you can interact with faraway people’s daily lives via Instagram stories from the comfort of your bed; you can now even attend “church” in the palm of your hand.

We now treat community like a stop at Chipotle. You can curate your community, just like your burrito, down to your exact preference. In turn, our nation and churches have become more polarized and tribal than ever before.

Age of Bailing

Turning community into a consumer commodity has also led to what The New York Times columnist David Brooks has dubbed “The Golden Age of Bailing.” If community is “found,” it is just as easily left. “Technology makes it all so easy,” Brooks observes. “You just pull out your phone, and bailing on a rendezvous is as easy as canceling an Uber driver.”

This trend is also present in our churches. “Church hopping” is a common term within American church vernacular. I know of a pastor who was guest speaking at another church’s retreat and was surprised to see in the audience someone who had just gone through the membership class at his own church. I’ve seen in my pastoral ministry how quickly people bail—at the first disappointment or disagreement. And when I follow up with the pastor of the next church they tried, it’s no surprise to learn they also bailed there.

Build, Don’t Shop

When we try to “find” a church community, we only treat the church as a consumer. We look for the perfect fit and bail at the first sign of discomfort. We avoid the depth needed to truly transform and sustain our souls. We need to stop thinking like shoppers and more like builders.

How do we go about building, rather than looking for, a community?

1. Don’t be an architect.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”

Many of us choose to be architects rather than builders of our communities, dreaming up an ideal church rather than committing to a real church. Yet the more we clutch our own blueprints rather than embrace the people God has placed in front of us, the more grief we will bring to ourselves and to them. Brett McCracken puts it this way: “However challenging it may be to embrace, God’s idea of church is far more glorious than any dream church we could conjure.”

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“Scripture makes it clear through commands, promises, and examples that the Christian life was never intended to be lived alone. Those who have received are now wired through their new spiritual DNA to live in community. We must have a band of believers to walk alongside us, all pointed in the same direction—toward the Father. Only collectively are we the body of Christ. We need each to help us become like Jesus and consistently model his life.”

~ Randy Frazee, Think, Act, Be Like Jesus128.

Think, Act, Be Like Jesus: Becoming a New Person in Christ   -     By: Randy Frazee

I purchased this copy at the Bethel College Bookstore around 1978.

Why the Christian Life Is a Call to Community

And Earl Roland. He was a hunched old man who loved to pray. In the absence of an acceptable singing voice, he’d mastered the art of whistling, and he whistled loud and strong through the hymns we sang in church. So to honor him we whistled “A Mighty Fortress” at his memorial service.

I remember little old women in polyester who fawned over me, and the wrinkled man in a wheelchair who had a big black Bible and said, “But God!” (Because he knew stuff the rest of us didn’t yet understand.)

But it wasn’t just the old and the weak that made a strong impression on me.Roland and Naomi were seminary students in their late 20s when I was a teen. They never missed an opportunity to encourage me. When I graduated from high school and no one else my age was left at church, they invited me to join their young married small group. Roland and Naomi wanted children, but their arms remained empty. I watched them navigate barrenness with quiet trust, and it changed me.

There were other friendships forged over food. My parents set the stage for rich and relaxed community by hosting myriad meals, even on a shoestring budget. Neighbors, newcomers to church, and out-of-town friends all gathered around our table and lit up our home. Missionaries on furlough ate pot roast and told stories from the field. Giddy newlyweds talked of love over casserole. Sharing meals with people seemed as natural as, well, eating, and left me with an incurable taste for joy.

And what I couldn’t have put into words then, but I understand to the marrow of my bones now, is that community gives life. It grows you up and anchors you down; humbles and heals; brings laughter and tears. It brings sturdy ground to our existence.

Fighting the tug away from community

Now I’m the one with a family, and we’re living in the fastest-paced generation in the history of mankind. Despite some physical limitations that naturally slow us down, our family can still find ourselves dashing here and there, squinting sideways at our calendar to see how we’ll squeeze in another birthday party or baby shower, and communicating instantaneously with dozens of people in the course of one day.

My husband and I have to regularly fight against the tug of too much. We keep asking, “How do we pursue authentic, consistent, unhurried relationships? How do we do this in a way that builds up our family and doesn’t splinter us in a dozen different directions? How can we make sure our son doesn’t miss rubbing shoulders with the Miss Mosses and Earl Rolands of this world?”

We haven’t stumbled upon any easy answers. Community looks so different for each one of us, in every new season of our lives. And as soon as we think we’ve found our groove and figured it all out, life changes. The mom with three small children, the overseas missionary, the 50-year-old caring for aging parents, the one who’s chronically sick—they’ll tell you there’s no cookie-cutter shape for community.

But one thing’s for certain: we need each other. We can’t work through our yuck, see our blindspots, grow in grace, and experience joy on an island (no matter how exotic it might be). And while God alone is more than enough for us—and he should be our first and greatest relationship—he knows we will love and understand him more when we’re living in authentic relationships with others.

So we should prioritize it: Be with others. Set food on the table, and open the front door. Tell each other our stories. Confess sin to a friend. Meet a tangible need. Laugh together. Pray together. Sit quietly with a grieving one. Seek the wisdom of older friends. Forgive each other. Say “yes” to an offer of help.

by  

I was a pastor, and yet I felt cynical about church.

I preached every week. I kept serving and loving the best that I could. But I had become an expert at spotting all that’s wrong with the church. I grew concerned over church politics, the way we spent money, how little we prayed, how little we seemed to rely on God’s power.

I had rightly identified some areas of legitimate concern, and yet my response was completely wrong. I had stopped loving God’s people and had started judging them instead.

The Danger of Cynicism

“Cynicism comes from a good place: high standards,” writes Peter Adam. “But cynicism is a dangerous way to express those standards. It gives us the luxury of being right without the responsibility of working for change … Cynicism is the worst response to high standards.”

Looking back, I’d been feeding on a diet of books critiquing the church. Cynicism is contagious. Hang around cynical people and read cynical books, and you will soon become a cynic yourself.

I’d also been hurt as a pastor. The right way to respond to hurt is to go to God for help, and to get help from others, confronting when necessary, and working toward forgiveness. Instead, I nursed those hurts. I became a cynic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns what can happen when we respond wrongly to hurt. “The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community as if his dream binds men together.”

“When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

But such disappointment is also an opportunity, according to Bonhoeffer. “The very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together — the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.”

Disappointment with the church is an opportunity. We can choose to become cynics, or we can remind ourselves of God’s grace and enter into deeper community.

I’ve lived out both options. The latter is much better.

What’s Changed

Slowly I started to repent of my cynicism. I found help in two places.

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By Andrew Camp

6 Reflections on Community Inspired by Bonhoeffer

“I don’t know about you, but I am constantly tempted to get so caught up in my vision, planning and execution of community.”

My church has recently launched a series on community called Better Together. In conjunction with the sermon series, I, in collaboration with my senior pastor, wrote a small group curriculum to complement the series. I love community, which is why I love small groups. Like many of you, I work hard on our small group system at my church to equip leaders and to help many in my church experience the fullness of community—the good, the bad and the ugly.

However, as I continue to reflect on community and work toward helping others experience community, I constantly find myself drawn back to and challenged by the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his classic work, Life Together. In it, he writes:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly…. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness and His promise. (pp. 27-28).

I don’t know about you, but I am constantly tempted to get so caught up in my vision, planning and execution of community, that I rarely stop to seek God’s heart for the community which He has called me to shepherd.

Please do not misunderstand me: I do not believe God wants you or me to be laissez faire when it comes to community either. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 14:33, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” Structure and guidelines are good as it relates to community; they can help foster an environment where people feel safe to be vulnerable.

So how do we draw the balance. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

1. Pray for your specific community. Thank God for placing you in that specific community. Don’t repress your frustrations about your community, but in the midst of frustrations, be thankful as much as you are able.

2. Listen to God. Don’t spend so much time in prayer for your community that you miss God’s voice to you regarding your community. Remember that God has already laid the foundation.

3. Spend time listening to your people—not just your leaders, but others as well. Know where they are at and what they need to continue to grow spiritually.

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July 2020
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