Your strong love for each other will prove to the world that you are my disciples.Jn 13:35
A community is based on dedication and honest communication. Both are part of a good definition of love, because love is about respecting the other more than yourself, so much that you share plans and dreams, encourage others, admonish and correct if necessary.
That last phrase could amount into an article about rules and hierarchies, teaching and doctrine, good and bad, right and wrong. I’m afraid, I’ll have to disappoint you. This is not the route I am going down today. But read on yourself.
It is true that devotion, encouragement and admonition have been given a certain coloring in the past few hundred years, which is anything but encouraging. Can you see them point their fingers?
If that doesn’t apply to your experience, consider yourself lucky.
For me, devotion is turning away from the ego and giving oneself to the other out of free will. Not an obligation because it is a requirement for belonging. Just out of love.
For me, honest communication means that there are no taboos, no unwritten laws, no expectations of what can and cannot be said. I do not mean the freedom to swear, nor the spreading of intimate details in public. More like: everything that should be addressed can be addressed.
How does a community form?
A community is formed over 4 phases, as the Christian psychiatrist Scott Peck has described.
Each of these phases has positive and negative sides–negative ones especially if the phase lasts too long.
The duration of those phases varies. Sometimes you feel like you’re in a tornado, sometimes it goes on forever. Or at least feels that way.
Phase 1 – the pseudo-community
In a pseudo-community, everyone agrees that they believe the same thing, have the same values, interests, goals. After all, we are all Christians, and it is clear what values and beliefs we have. The Bible tells us that.
But you’ve never talked about it.
Suddenly it becomes clear that the other person has a different picture when hearing the word freedom, defines love differently, and interprets revelation differently–even Genesis and the cross.
The understanding of verses, the basic content of our beliefs, the image of God and understanding of leadership differ.
There is a risk of group formation, as happened in Corinth: one believes in Paul, the other in Peter, the third in Jesus or Apollos.
Since you never know how the other will react, certain topics are not discussed. Or you might know full well and shy back from it. The pious reason: you don’t want to confuse the other person if he’s not ready yet. After all, that’s what Paul advised us to do.
Trust fades, frustration and anger arise. It is time for the second phase.
Phase 2 – chaos
Chaos–now that’s encouraging. But finally, the differences and doubts are voiced. It’s not much of a dialogue quite yet, more of an argument. People want to win over, correct and heal others.
But important things come to the surface at last.
How complex does someone think?
In their mind, is God an evil old man, a god of revenge, a structured God of the law, a personal and personable God, a demythologized God, or does he show himself in the 3 faces of God?
Is the motivation for belief survival, security, overcoming evil, belonging, being saved, personal development? Or do you want to outgrow yourself?
The image of God and the goal of your faith are only two topics of possible conflict. In this phase, all differences can, may and must be put on the table.
But the phase would not be called chaos if this would look pretty. There is possible hurt from fast recipes uttered in the assumption that I need to heal you and solve your problem and that what worked for me will work for you too.
No wonder people want to get a handle on this phase.
Different strategies are possible here:
- orderly, guided, hierarchical -> the right opinion is determined by the anointed and God-appointed leadership. We flee into organization.
- analytical and sober -> the causers and troublemakers are found and, if necessary, eliminated. We flee into our heads.
- the problems are negated -> the problem-conscious minds leave on their own. We flee back into phase 1.
All three strategies do not lead to the desired goal, but to church divisions, people leaving church, even leaving faith.
There is another way out. Look at it as if this were not about right and wrong, but about the beginning of a process into deeper knowledge and authentic community. A community that allows, appreciates, even upholds paradoxes and conflicting opinions. This then leads to phase 3.
Phase 3 – emptying
No, I don’t mean emptying the church building. The point is that everyone searches for what prevents them from trusting the community. Why can’t I indulge fully, communicate openly and honestly? Where am I the problem, blocked from approaching others, self-righteous, full of prejudice?
What is the risk of being misunderstood? Where do I avoid conflicts? Do I still dare?
So it’s about emptying yourself and at best letting go of all barriers. In preparation for the priesthood of all.
Phase 4 – authentic community
In this phase, differences are peacefully recognized. Not tolerated. Tolerance falls short. Tolerance looks like this: you believe that, and I believe this, but I let you have your faith.
It is not about tolerance, because tolerance is a dead end. Spiritual growth is no longer possible. My faith can no longer grind on yours.
Peter Rollins (Irish theologian and philosopher) approaches this very differently. He visits other groups and has them evangelize him. He listens to others’ opinions and compares them to his own beliefs. He sharpens his own belief through listening to them. Sometimes the others allow him to express his belief and do the same.
In this phase, I can see the possibility that I can grow from what others know and believe. And I learn that for certain things we don’t know an answer that is right or wrong, that paradoxical, apparently contradictory statements can exist at the same time, maybe even merge into an encompassing third.
If in this newly found freedom, in this peace, new undisclosed dualities, contradictions, dogmas or taboos creep in, phase 4 becomes the new phase 1.
Community is a process, not a one-time event.
The driving force is love, the tool is honest communication.