Community is both one of the most powerful and painful forces in our lives. There are few things as exhilarating as being fully known and still fully loved. Yet there are few things more damaging than being rejected by people we thought we trusted.
The Scriptures are clear that we’re made in the image of a relational God and are designed for community. The local church is anchored in the belief that God uses others to make us more like Jesus. Experience tells us that we can’t be fully human apart from relationships.
At the same time, we also know the hurt, disappointment and disillusionment that often comes with community. Sin is the explanation for most of that. We’re all messy, broken people. Community simply multiplies the mess.
But sin alone doesn’t explain our struggle with community. Unmet expectations also play a big role. In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer says, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.” That’s a shocking truth – our zeal for community can turn us into unintentional destroyers of community. But that’s what happens every time we create a utopian picture of community that simply doesn’t exist this side of heaven and then blast every opportunity for community we have because it inevitably fails to meet those expectations.
The more I think about it, the more I realize a lot of our unmet expectations come from confusion regarding the relationship between the words friendship and community. We commonly use them as synonyms. But they aren’t. They mean very different things.
I recently listened to a sermon that Pastor Leonce Crump preached at Renovation Church in Atlanta, GA. He was preaching about our need for community but also our need to understand that community and friendship are two different things. His point was simple – both community and friendship are essential but they are also distinct.
The whole sermon is worth listening to but here’s his argument in a nutshell: you might become friends with some of the people you are in community with but friendship is not the ultimate expectation of community. Yes, the church is a family. But Crump points out that not all family members are friends and reminds everyone that’s okay. There are some cousins you like to hang out with and some you don’t. It doesn’t mean you aren’t family or that you’re doing something wrong. It just means you aren’t friends.
Here’s what all of that means – you aren’t going to be friends with everyone at church. And that’s okay. You also aren’t going to be friends with everyone in your Community Group. And that’s okay. Yes, we’re a family. Yes, we’re called to love one another as Christ has loved us. We are a community. But we’re not all going to be friends.
If friendship isn’t the ultimate expectation of community, what is? Pastor Crump defines the ultimate purpose of community as “fellowship, partnership and encouragement to walk faithfully with God.” I love that because that’s exactly what our Community Groups at Restoration City are designed to do! We gather together every week to spur one another on, to encourage one another not to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and to encourage one another to run our race well. Will friendships develop out of that? I hope so. But friendship isn’t the ultimate goal of our Community Groups – mission is!
Crump’s distinction is enormously important for us to process. If we think the ultimate goal of Community Groups is to help us make friends, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. If we come knowing the goal is to make us more like Jesus, we’re setting ourselves up for growth.
Just to be clear, I’m not minimizing the importance of friendships. They’re vital. But no church or program can form friendships for us. Friendships are something we form individually, one person at a time.
I want to keep thinking more about this in my life and in our church. Would love any thoughts or feedback you have. Feel free to leave a comment below.