Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

WisBits Archive

July 2006

What Community Is Not

If you’re new to receiving WisBits, you’re jumping into Part 3 about the spiritual practice of community. (See May wisbit: “Two People Looking Forward and June wisbit: “Holy Space”) This one is about what community is not.

This wisbit violates the comments in Hallmark greeting cards. You may need to forgive me ahead of time!

Community is not sentimentality. You may not have warm, fuzzy feelings about people you have community with. They may not make you feel good about yourself. Those are, however, American ideas of friendship. Warm feelings might occur in Christian community, but they’re not what community is about. While we do encourage and help each other, our goal is not to create warm feelings. In fact, we “stay here and keep watch” even when we feel rotten, when we’re sleepy and when we’re not sure the other person is making sense. (Jesus requested that his disciples “stay here and keep watch” with him in the garden of Gethsemane. Mark 14:34)

I have community with church members with whom I have little in common, with family members who are going through odd phases of being distant, and neighbors who love loud music. In spite of the lack of warm, easy feelings, they still provide community for me. They give me tips on reviving a dying plant, soothing my aching back and just the right thing to say to my doctor. I need these people and need to love these people. In fact, loving them at this difficult time stretches me ways nothing else can.

Community is often not about choice. Adam had no choice for community; Eve was the only option. Paul traveled with many people—walking side by side with them but always focused forward on the kingdom of God (May wisbit, C. S. Lewis quote). Did Paul have an ideal American friendship with all these people? I doubt it. God often “gives” us people for community we never would have chosen.

Community does not always involve pursuing intimacy, another American ideal. To pursue intimacy (especially in small groups) is to make intimacy my goal rather than simply loving others. We must not be attached to outcomes we can’t control. I can’t control whether intimacy develops between you and me.

This has been my greatest error. In one of my retreat talks I used to urge people to have 3-5 people in their lives to whom they could say anything—now I see that as an outcome over which we have limited control. We do our part by being: authentic and transparent with others; intentional at reaching out to others; accepting of others; and confidential in what we’re told. But I confess I was doing these things with the goal of creating intimacy. What if the person does not (perhaps cannot) return the favor? I see now I was “giving to get back.” Community was about me and my goals.

When I pursue intimacy, I keep evaluating how the relationship is progressing. How come this person isn’t authentic or communicative? Community doesn’t ask those questions. It isn’t about me getting my needs met. Instead, I get to walk alongside others, embrace them, and love them. I cannot control whether anyone becomes a “friend” by the normal definition in America—someone you hang out with or someone you share your deepest thoughts with.

The way forward in community then is simply to pursue love (1 Cor. 14:1). So I continue to ask myself, “What would it look like to love the person in front of me for the next ten minutes?” Reading the gospels tells me this is the way of Jesus.

{Spiritual Disciplines Bible Study: Community & Submission}

Grace and peace,
Jan Johnson




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