[The following is a special free preview of my new book, The Community of God: A Theology of the Church From a Reluctant Pastor. Please read, enjoy and share. I believe these words will encourage anyone who believes Christian community is important but is tired of being hurt by people.]
She screamed, “I don’t have to take this!” slammed the door and left the room. Her husband soon followed her into the foyer. I sat alone in my office, behind the large wooden desk that once divided us. At that moment, I realized I had entered the pastorate believing a lie. I began to cry mournful tears, knowing my best efforts would not bring about the utopian Christian community I desired. No matter how hard I tried to be a good minister, I would fail others and they would fail me.
Chapter 1: Christian Community: The Over-Promised Land
The allure of utopia
I started the church I serve believing a myth about Christian community. I had the genuine conviction that if I just pastored the right way, I would be able to facilitate a nurturing, loving environment that would be mostly free from frustration, pain, hurt and conflict. I was terribly wrong, completely wrong, profoundly wrong. I sought utopia, but found something far more complicated: the body of Christ on Earth.
The etymology of utopia makes it one of my favorite words and favorite places. In our vernacular, we use utopia to describe a perfect place or a perfect community. In a utopian society, everything runs the way it should run and every person finds meaning, value and purpose working for the common good. Utopian communities find the perfect balance between communal solidarity and individual needs. In a utopian world, every individual benefits the group and the group benefits from every individual. Unencumbered by the conflict of divisive individuality, utopian societies can achieve marvelous advancements in human wisdom, knowledge and understanding. At least this is the allure of a utopia. However, the reality of utopia is found in the word’s etymology.
If you look at the Greek root words for utopia, you find a less promising place. The u of utopia means “no or not” and topia means “place.” Put them together and utopia literally means “not a place” or “no such place.” In other words, a utopian society is a nonexistent society, a place no one can find because it does not exist. Utopia is an idea, but never a reality. Utopia is what we desire, but never achieve. It is a place we can imagine, but never implement. Or at least we used to be able to imagine it. In recent years, it seems our focus has shifted to more dystopian possibilities.
In a dystopian future, everything is terribly wrong. The individual and the dominant community live in perpetual conflict. There may be order, but it is based on control, power and inequality. In dystopian societies, the few benefit from the suffering of the masses. Individuality is crushed or discounted for the common good. However, the common good is most often defined as that which benefits the powerful. As our culture has grown increasingly cynical, the publishing and entertainment industry has increased its production of dystopian books and movies. Within these dystopian stories, there are usually at least two attractive, chosen teenagers, ready to rescue the world from its dystopian bondage.
Dystopian shares the etymology of utopia, literally meaning a “bad nowhere” or a “bad not a place.” Just like utopia, dystopia is not on the map. It is an idea we fear, but a reality we never actually fully live. Our dystopian and utopian societies only abide within our imaginations, fictional and artistic creations. Even though these places or ideas do not actually exist within the real world, they still greatly influence how we communicate and envision individuality and community.
In our desire for a better world and better relationships, we often have unrealistic expectations concerning the outcomes and benefits of community. When dealing with the bonds of friendship, marriage, family or church, we tend to present and pursue an idealized fiction of what those communities should look like when healthy. Consequently, we seek lifelong friends who will never fail us, marriages that will complete us, families that will unconditionally love us and churches that will provide nurturing environments for us to grow vibrantly in our relationships with God and each other. Although these goals seem healthy and biblical, the reality of living in community often contrasts with these goals. Friends fail us, marriages grow cold, families fall apart and churches hurt us. When relationships fall apart, our utopian dream of togetherness often stands as an accusation against the reality of our broken world.
In 1998 I started my first pastorate. I was 26 years old, fresh out of seminary, with a Master of Divinity degree in hand and a genuine desire to honor God. With much zeal but little experience, I accepted the call to restart a new church work that had failed to gain much traction. My denominational supervisors informed me that there were more than 20 people who regularly attended the church I was about to lead. Those estimates failed to materialize. Instead, I found myself pastoring a church of about 12 people who met in a small room in a small strip mall. When the room was full, it could possibly seat 50 very uncomfortable people. When I arrived, overcrowding was not a problem. Since I had never officially been on a church staff, I felt this inauspicious beginning was more than adequate for my skill set. I thought everyone has a beginning and this would be mine. So, with lots of passion for Jesus, I set out to build my utopian Christian community. Things did not go quite as I planned…or at all as I planned.
Before you get the wrong idea, this is not one of those stories about an arrogant, know-it-all pastor who brazenly tried to change the world at the cost of the people he was supposed to love. Yes, I was immature as a new pastor, and I certainly did not do everything right. However, I really did want to honor God and to facilitate a loving, healthy, relational church. I had a lot of goals that most Christians would call admirable and appropriate for my calling. Even so, I was still incredibly ignorant about what I was trying to accomplish.
To put it simply, I believed the lie of utopia. I thought that if I just said and did the right things, I would be able to facilitate a Christian community free from the conflict and strife that seems to permeate so many churches. I also felt that if I was genuinely kind and loving, people would commit to nurturing and growing our church with the same love and kindness. I had heard and experienced enough horror stories of controlling, angry pastors that I honestly believed people would rally around our church, providing an alternative to those toxic examples.
I had no illusions of growing a grand mega church, but I did believe we would grow rapidly into a strong congregation of 200 to 300 very loving, connected and committed Christians who would continue developing in the wisdom and character of Christ. This was my utopian church dream, and I felt it was in reach if I just said the right words and lived the right gospel. If everyone in the church did their part, we would be a utopian oasis in a world hungry for what we had to offer. There was only one fundamental problem with my utopian plan: there is no such place.
There are three times in the life cycle of a church when people usually get excited about the future: when a church starts, restarts or changes leadership. A new church work is, almost by definition, full of hope and promise. When a church restarts or changes leadership people find new or renewed anticipation for a better tomorrow. Hope and promise are excellent motivators. Yet, regardless of the sincerity and passion of a leader or congregation, sometimes we run into the problem of putting our hope in a promised land that will never materialize.
I have had the privilege of assessing, coaching and assisting pastors who are in the process of starting new churches. It is always an honor to hear the passion and conviction that motivates anyone willing to start a new church work. Invariably, when I sit down to talk with new church pastors, I will hear them say something such as “I’m not your typical pastor” or “We are not going to have your typical church.” In fact, it is typical to hear most of these pastors define their church and leadership style as “not typical.” It seems the belief that “I am different” is the unanimous conviction of every person entering the ministry.
Certainly, every minister is unique, and his or her calling will express that uniqueness. However, it appears that sometimes this belief in uniqueness does not prepare ministers for the sameness of the ministry they will all experience. Regardless of the many different innovative ministry expressions, despite how well pastors implement their plans, every church will face similar conflicts. In fact, conflict is a universal reality in every community that has ever existed. You can map out your path to utopia all you want, but this side of heaven, you will not arrive at that destination.
As the new pastor of a fledgling church, I soon found that conflict was simply unavoidable. No matter how I tried to minimize or to eliminate relational trauma, I was still confronted with the messy realities of facilitating and abiding in healthy community. Even though I tried to structure our church to reduce the misunderstandings I perceived in other churches, I repeatedly found myself feeling hurt. I also repeatedly faced the accusation that I had wounded others. No one accused me of being an angry, verbally abusive pastor, but I was frequently reminded by others that I was not doing enough to demonstrate God’s love to them. I did not call when I should have called, I did not visit when I should have visited, I did not appreciate when I should have appreciated and I did not know when I surely should have known. At times, it felt as if my very being was the cause of our church’s seemingly unavoidable conflict. One particularly traumatic experience forced me to confront the complex and sobering realities of my pastoral calling.
This issue might be about your children
In the early days of my pastorate, I would occasionally meet with people in my office. Now I seldom meet in any office anywhere…ever. That decision came just a few seconds after a very angry woman yelled at me, got up from her chair, stormed out of my office and slammed the door. Her husband left shortly after her with a more subdued exit. I sat there alone, behind my desk, shaken and undone. The purpose of the meeting was to solve a supposedly minor conflict. The outcome of my meeting clearly demonstrated I had failed beyond my expectations. The basic reason for our appointment was to discuss their complaint concerning the unfair treatment of their two teenage children by a worker in our church. Beyond hearing their grievances, I also desired to try to figure out why this family, and particularly their kids, experienced more conflict than others in the church.
This was not some sort of disciplinary meeting, as our church does not operate in a legalistic manner. In all my ministry experience, I have only twice had to ask someone to leave our church. Both times the individuals were first-time visitors who engaged in behavior that was harming people in the church. One was disobeying a restraining order, and the other stood up in church and began to prophesy against our worship leader being a woman. In both cases, I politely said, “You are going to need to worship somewhere else.” My interaction with this couple was not that kind of meeting. Rather, I was gathering with a family I loved, trying to work on improving our relationship within the church. At least that is what I thought I was doing.
So when we met in my office, I sat behind the desk I now no longer have, and they sat in two church chairs in front of the desk. They gave their complaint with a strong emphasis on the problem being about everyone else but their teenagers. As I listened, I heard a familiar story. In the past, I had listened to this family express other tales about other people inside or outside of the church who had also interacted negatively with their children. In almost every instance, the parents had presented their offspring as the victims.
After hearing their side and thanking them for sharing, I decided to deal with what seemed to be the bigger issues. As I recall, this was our conversation.
“I appreciate you talking with me and telling me about your frustration. I would like to talk with you about something, but before I do, I was wondering if I could ask you a couple questions.” They both nodded yes. “Do you consider me your pastor?” Each answered yes. “Would you like my opinion?” Again, both nodded affirmingly. “In my opinion…this issue might not be about others and more about your children.”
The rest of the interaction is a somewhat nightmarish blur. What I remember is that my words and my opinions were not well received. Almost instantaneously, the woman rebuked me with a loud “I don’t have to take this!” and a slamming door. The man left shortly after her exit. He was more delicate with the door, but just as disappointed with me. As I sat there, shaken, alone in my office, behind a needlessly big wooden desk, I immediately realized I had entered the pastorate believing a lie. When I started pastoring, I thought if I just did ministry better than others I would never experience this kind of door slamming moment. I had believed if I was just really kind and really gracious, people would want me to help them. For some reason, I thought I could find utopia. However, sitting at that desk, with tears in my eyes, I realized that even my best efforts could not and would not bring about the utopian Christian community I desired. No matter how hard I tried to be a good minister, I would fail others and they would fail me.
When I finally got up from my chair and headed out of the office, I resolved that I needed to apologize to all those pastors and churches I had unfairly judged. I also resolved that I was never going to meet with anyone from behind that desk again. Most importantly, I determined in my heart to stop working for my idealized church future that I would never see. Instead, I decided I would try to learn how to view Christian community the way God actually sees it.
A community centered theology of the church
My purpose in writing this book is to present a theology of the church rooted in a biblical understanding of the community of God. The Bible repeatedly demonstrates that community plays an essential role in the advancement of God’s redemptive plan for humanity. A healthy church is ultimately a healthy expression of redeemed community. Therefore, we will take a deep and honest look at what authentic Christian community looks like within a broken and individualistic society. We will examine the role of community in God’s redemptive plan for humanity to gain a better understanding of the church’s essential reasons for existence. In doing so, we will see the need for Christians to abide in meaningful, intentional, consistent gatherings with other believers. Along with examining the necessity for existing purposefully in Christian community, we will also focus on the limits and true struggles endemic in environments where humans intentionally exist together.
In the following chapters, we will survey the Scripture to see the vital role community plays in our understanding of God and the advancement of the gospel. From salvation, to discipleship, to every area of the Christian life, community has a foundational role in healthy spiritual development. Through a careful study of the Bible, we will illustrate that God always deals with individuals with the larger purpose of humanity in mind. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God consistently used a gathered body of believers to reveal himself to his church and to the world. In examining the central role of the gathered body in God’s redemptive plan, we will challenge the myths of individuality in our culture and advocate for ways we can facilitate healthy community, while ministering with and to broken people.
Along with looking at the theological foundations of community and how this should influence our church gatherings, I will also share the personal struggles I have experienced in the community of God. One of the main reasons I am writing a theology of the church is I genuinely struggle with how best to abide with the people I have been called to pastor. Regardless of my strong theological convictions, I am still incredibly wary of being hurt by others or of putting myself in a place where I will fail or disappoint the people God has called me to love. Even though I can make a strong biblical argument for why community is essential for spiritual growth, I still have a desire within me to isolate from just about everyone but my closest friends and family members.
My goal in sharing my own struggles is to advocate for healthy, realistic community from the vantage point of a fellow struggling pilgrim. I do not want this book to become a legalistic, condemning accusation against anyone’s desire to isolate from church or any other body of believers. I also do not want to present a simplistic, or unachievable idea of abiding with others. Instead, my desire is to challenge each of us to move forward by faith into a more healthy, complex and deep understanding of real togetherness. My purpose is to advocate for finding a community promised land where we can actually live. It is my sincere hope that this book will encourage the wary and the weary to persist in trying to promote and live in healthy community. I also want my words to challenge those who are embracing a theology of increased isolation and individuality. In many ways, I understand the painful reasons we isolate. Within gathered groups we often see the worst of humanity. Even so, within authentic Christian community, we truly discover ourselves and our Creator.
- Do you tend to be positive or negative about the possibilities of community? Why?
- Do you have a more utopian or dystopian view of the church?
- How have past experiences influenced your view of Christian community?
- What do you hope to learn through reading this book?
- Write down any other important thoughts that come to mind.