by Jeremiah Vaught
I have two friends: Brandon, I grew up with; Joel, I have known about four years. Brandon lives in the small town in North Carolina where we grew up. Joel has lived in Chicagoland for over 20 years, often living in the city. Brandon prefers rural life and Joel is an urban man.
When I visit Brandon, I know we are going to do something adventurous outdoors. It seems like Brandon is always finding something new to do. Hanging with Brandon you might go down a natural water slide, spelunk, or jump off a rock into a pool 30 feet below. Brandon is just a lot of fun.
When I hang out with Joel, I know that I might enjoy a new experience or be introduced to something excellent. Whenever I want to go out on a date with my wife or do something fun in the city, I get Joel’s opinion. Joel has incredible taste in music, arts, and food. And whenever Joel wants to introduce me to a place, restaurant, movie, or musician, I know it is going to be good. Joel is just a lot of fun.
But the relationship I have with these men is very different. I grew up with Brandon, while Joel knows me as an adult. Brandon was there when I was “mooning” other kids in the church parking lot. Joel calls me pastor.
Brandon and I have seen each other mature from boys to men. Joel is partnering with me to start a church hundreds of miles from where I was raised.
Why introduce you to these two men? Because I want you to see how friendship, and thus community, works. Brandon, as well as a few others, shaped my view of friendship. But if I made Brandon (or anyone else) the standard for friendship, my preferences would be skewed. No one else is Brandon. And that is good. That recognition allows me to make and be blessed by new friends, like Joel.
These basic truths about growing older and making new friends seem obvious, but sadly, our understanding of this fact doesn’t always shape how we view our local church. We often want to compare a new church to a past experience, and wish it were the same. Our past church life becomes the standard, and we get nostalgic, only remembering the good and hoping that our new church can come somehow match the old.
These sorts of thoughts must die if we are to have a healthy church life! Consider this profound comment by Boehnhoefer:
There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting experience of genuine Christian community at least once in his life. But in this world such experiences can be no more than a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim upon such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of acquiring them. It is not the experience of Christian brotherhood, but solid and certain faith in brotherhood that holds us together. That God has acted and wants to act upon us all, this we see in faith as God’s greatest gift, this makes us glad and happy, but it also makes us ready to forego all such experiences when God at times does not grant them. We are bound together by faith, not by experience.
These words ought shake us up. The primary desire that God has for Christian communities is that it’s members would grow in and be steadfast in love for one another. God calls us to this, and not the pursuit of “authentic community.”
In other words, Christians are called to love their sisters and brothers in their church community, period. If God is gracious, we might just experience “authentic community,” although even that is not the ultimate goal of Christian life.
Still, I know the best way to avoid ever having “authentic community”: Avoid loving others, and you will never have it. Keep your dream for Christian community as the standard by which you judge others, and it will keep you from loving them.
Expecting a friend to be like another friend is unfair and foolish. No two people are alike and some, like Brandon and Joel, are in fact very different. Praise God!
In the same way, it is unfair for us to make our dreams and experiences the standard for our current Christian fellowship. Not only are such expectations unfair, they keep us from loving others. That is why your dream for Christian community must die, and reality embraced—along with those sitting in the row beside you.