Some months ago, I was leading a small group study, and was discouraged by how few people showed up. That evening after the study, I went home frustrated and disappointed.
The next morning, I picked up Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in which Bonhoeffer seeks to describe true Christian community). I happened to open it to a particularly poignant section. Bonhoeffer was writing about how, all too often, we come to community with our own “wish-dreams”: our personal ideals and picture of what the community should look like. Of course, this ideal doesn’t often include annoying personalities (including our own quirks), and the daily need to forgive and be forgiven, bearing with one another. And when our “wish-dreams” clash with the messier reality of the actual community, hopefully those wish-dreams will be shattered. Otherwise we will be living in a fantasy world—never able to actually love the actual community because we are so wrapped up in it not matching our ideal. In fact, “He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
This was convicting to me. I had come with my ideal of church community, and of course (subtly in my mind) this entailed an exuberant response to this particular small group by many congregants. For various reasons, this ideal was not realized this week. Would I love the actual community (of which I am a part—and which is, including me, much “messier” than my ideal), or would I cling to my ideal and grow distant from the actual community?
Bonhoeffer continued. We all too easily approach the community of which God has allowed us to be a member as takers rather than grateful recipients. We don’t celebrate the “small” workings of God in the everyday community, thinking it’s noble to always be aspiring towards bigger successes. But if God big things only to those who are good stewards of the small things, why should He give us “big” successes if we aren’t truly grateful for the “little” successes He gives every day? Here I was, frustrated about lack of numbers, but neglecting to thank God for the growing hunger for God’s Word that I’ve seen, or the intergenerational relationships at New Hope, or the way members care for one another. And even more, Bonhoeffer wrote that we even ought to be grateful for the privilege of bearing with and forgiving one another! When we are wronged, we have the privilege of extending God’s grace—thus also reminding ourselves of it, of which we stand in need every day.
Through these passages, God shifted my whole perspective. My prayers for New Hope have changed from being primarily requests, to being slightly more saturated with gratitude. In slowly releasing my own (not necessarily God-shaped) “wish-dreams” for the community, I am freed to see and celebrate what God is doing even in the midst of the messiness in our lives.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t long for more. The apostle Paul longed, strove, prayed, and rebuked tirelessly as he sought to foster the growth of the churches around him. But he also loved the churches, and knew that he himself was in need of the “most” grace of all. But we need to realize that we are not the creators of community: God is, and we have the privilege of entering as grateful recipients and participants. So we can trust Him and His work in us and the Christian community, and be grateful for the privilege of participating in His Church.