When I went home for the first time in over 8 months for a couple weeks this summer I had the opportunity to meet with several different close friends and mentors in various coffee shops, restaurants, and even a woodland hike to catch up with all that has been going on with life. Due to the fact that I attend school about 2700 miles from my hometown, communication with those who were a significant part of my life is often sporadic with great gaps of time between each conversation. Because of this distance, I often find myself nervous as I sit on my incoming flight to Seattle for fear that my friends will have moved on from seeing our relationship as important and subsequently not find spending time together important as well. Luckily, this has not been the case no matter how much I may fret over it because almost immediately my friends and I are able to jump back into life like I haven't been gone for upwards of eight months.
Those conversations with old friends always possess a refreshing quality that often reminds me how important those relationships are. The friendships that have stood the test of both time and distance always produce a truly encouraging time of fellowship in catching up, sharing laughs and stories, and ultimately nurturing those relationships to be able to withstand the long stretches of time while I'm away at school. As I have had time to reflect on the conversations I had with friends, it was fascinating how nearly every discussion ended up gravitating towards the same subject,
In recent years, especially in being so far from home, fostering a strong community has become an increasingly important goal in my life. I have made many new friends, joined several bible studies, and gone to church religiously seeking to establish myself in a tight-knit group of people who were "of one heart and soul." Despite my best attempts at cultivating genuine koinonia (fellowship) with my friends from school and church, I always felt like the time I was spending with my friends in fellowship, although edifying and encouraging, was coming up short, like we were missing out on something. This was only more evident when I began to compare the relationships I had with people back home to those relationships I had formed while attending school. It dawned on me that I have rarely felt the same revitalizing encouragement from my friends at school while nearly every conversation I had with my old friends and mentors produced genuine growth and joy.
As I have spent time considering why I feel this way, I have come to the conclusion that most of the blame can be placed on myself. The friends I grew up with, both physically and spiritually, were given an opportunity to see me progress, change, and mature to the person I am today, shortcomings and all. I cannot say I am finished growing in any sense, but it seems like my new friends are only seeing the product of those years of spiritual growth and maturation, they are only seeing what I deem fit to reveal to them. When I look at the interactions I have had with new friends I notice a certain inclination to present a persona that isn't entirely who I am. The temptation to be someone I'm not is all the more easy because the people I'm just now meeting do not really know what to expect from me or of me.
But therein lies the problem. If I do not present myself as I really am to this new community, with all of my flaws, weaknesses, and struggles, how can I expect to have genuine, God-glorifying, and encouraging relationships with the people I am now doing life with? It's simply not logical to think real relationship will follow when half of that relationship is not being wholly real with the other.
In one of my Bible classes this semester we have spent several days discussing what made the early Christian community so successful in antiquity. In looking at a couple different epistles in the New Testament, we were able to identify qualities of the early followers of Christ that spoke greatly to their priorities and focus.
Both Paul and Peter understood the importance of relationships and wrote lengths on the subject of living in harmony with all people, especially those within the Church. The proclivity of the New Testament authors to utilize a terminology reflecting that of familial relationships was no coincidence because the early Christian community was just that: a family.
Living life as a family brings out all of the trash and dirt that is often swept under the rug at the threshold our church buildings. When we enter church we make sure our collars are straight, our hair is well-kempt, and that our smiles detract from what is really going on in our hearts. While we are able to construct a convincing wall with the words, "Everything is great!" etched into it, behind the bricks retreats our deepest struggles with sin, an overwhelming fear of the future, and a prevailing sense of inadequacy. Because we are so afraid to be real with people, those issues, which are some of the biggest detriments to daily-life, are never brought to light. Our sins are never confessed to someone going through the same battle, our fears are never covered with the prayer of a brother or sister, and our worth in Christ is never affirmed by an encouraging word from someone who cares about us. If we desire to be like the early body of believers, a group of people with their eyes focused on Christ and the Kingdom of God, something has to be done with Christian culture, both personally in our hearts and on a corporate level in our communities.
But like most difficult endeavors in life, this is a task easier said than done. Just as my class was unable to come to a conclusion on how to go about implementing this in the western church, I am not entirely sure how to encourage you to live this out in your own circles or communities. While the task may seem great, in looking at the characteristics of the early church throughout the New Testament, I do believe I can offer a starting point.
True Community is:
As a culture we fear vulnerability. When we allow ourselves to be weak we are offering ourselves up as we truly are, with all of our flaws, shortcomings, and weaknesses. In being genuine with another person we effectively strip ourselves of any masks, walls, or defenses and give them the opportunity to either accept or reject us based on what they see. In being vulnerable with one another, we welcome others into a place that is seldom on display. In any real community, honesty and transparency are vital to the formation of any purposeful relationships because it is in those moments of vulnerability that people see us as Christ sees us; broken, hurting, and in need of love. We can continue to cling to our defensive front but should not expect to see growth when we refuse to allow ourselves to be broken in front of others.
Every word and deed of the follower of Christ is meant to bring glory to God. Christians live as mirrors directing all praise and honor rightly to God, who is worthy of all praise and honor. Paul writes in Galatians 6:14, "may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." This theme of giving glory to God must continue in our daily interactions with those in our community, because a group united as one in the purpose of glorifying God in everything it does will inevitably experience life-change and growth. We do nothing for ourselves but seek to be united as a body of believers in Christ for the opportunity to give glory to God.
Characterized by Love
Christian community finds its common bond in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In looking at His sacrifice and love for us, we are able to model our lives after the life He lived during His ministry in our own circles and communities. If Jesus wanted Christians to be known for anything, it is quite evident that He wanted us to be known for our love. This love is not limited to those within the church but extends to all people. In being a community characterized by love, Christians have the unique ability to build relationships with people of all different walks. When we allow love to permeate every aspect of our lives, the great cloud of witnesses will take notice and be drawn to us.
Quite obviously this list is not exhaustive in any way, but I hope it encourages you to take the time to begin to look at your own life and be moved to make changes as the Spirit leads. In looking at my own life, I understand growth is necessary in every aspect listed above and I hope you can join me on this journey of forming true community.