In his classic work Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
I’ll admit it. I love my dream of community.
We all want it. Our calendars buzz with community groups and community meals, and some of us even daydream about plans to live intentionally together in community houses.
That’s the thing: Our schedules and strategies, pragmatic as they may be, can keep us from actually living presently in community. We’re so thirsty for authenticity and understanding, but our own ideals and agendas quench the life out of what community really is: the people already around us and the places we’re already in.
We spend so much time talking about it that we have no vigor left to build it. Here are the four things that prevent us from having true community—and how to avoid them.
1. Expecting to Find the Perfect Community
Approaching community like it’s a far-off dream to achieve is dangerous, because it creates space for us to be critical, causing us to fold in on ourselves until we only see our needs. We become counterproductive and miss crucial opportunities to build genuine, lasting community by loving the people sitting right in front of us.
I noticed it first in myself. I am a critic by nature: I sit around and analyze, refusing to give my whole self to those around me until I feel like my needs are met. I blame my selfishness on “theological differences” and check out spiritually and emotionally, coveting the “healthier and more vibrant” communities I see pictured on Instagram and eventually plotting a move across the country to join one.
To put it simply, I want the destination without the journey.
My husband and I recently sat down with another couple to hash out some issues I had with our church. We joined a church plant almost two years ago, and I had grown impatient. I was tired of awkward theological discussions and worship songs that didn’t “move me.” I didn’t want to deal with the time it took to build trust with new friends. I wanted people to love and understand and serve me right now, but with no foundation. My own expectations had paralyzed me.
Tears clouding my eyes, I looked up at the gracious couple across the table: friends who could have dismissed me but instead chose to listen to me in my absurdity. There it was, in my own dining room. Community had been there all along, eclipsed by my agenda. My friends patiently reminded me that I am seen and known by God, that Jesus has already met my every need, freeing me to love and serve others without expectation, or worse, manipulation.
2. Running Away When It Gets Difficult
Instead of pressing through the discomfort of these conversations and breaking the glass ceiling of our expectations, we tend to bail by default—many times because others happen to be experiencing a different part of God than we are, one that doesn’t immediately benefit or affirm us.
I have found that no matter where I go, no one mirrors how I view or experience Jesus. But maybe that’s the crux of community—the exact thing we instinctively run from is what we have been after all along. We’ve just never hung around long enough to see it through. And maybe community is actually stirred by our unique perspectives on and experiences with God.
Maybe community means sticking around to learn from one another with Jesus as our firm foundation.
3. Putting Other Things Before Jesus
The early church is the richest earthly example we have of what God’s dream is for community. In scripture, Jesus’ disciples almost never had the answers they wanted, and half the time, they didn’t even agree on what Jesus was doing or saying. Their backgrounds were wildly different, so they approached Jesus with unique struggles and assumptions. What united their hearts wasn’t the way they viewed Jesus, but their resolve to follow Him no matter what it looked like.
Sustainable community is always fueled by the personal transformation of a vibrant faith relationship with Jesus. Really, the best way to invest in the community we hope for is to first invest in our own hearts. When we are submitted to Jesus, we can quiet our opinions and ideals in favor of His.
4. Not Acknowledging Our Deeper Longing
The truth? I think what we are all aching for is the perfect unity of Heaven. Until then, we are messy people longing to be seen and known, living under the banner of grace, laboring together for God’s dreams until He makes all things new.
With Jesus as the cornerstone, we will build something beautiful.