Originally published Tuesday, 12 August 2014.
When my husband and I got married, we had just graduated from college. We moved away from our college community to a little town on the east coast of Florida. Far from friends and family, we felt isolated and lonely.
The Christian college experience we came from provided us a close community. We lived, learned, dined, and fellowshipped with other believers all day every day. It was a place where we were nurtured, spurred on, encouraged, guided, and discipled. Coming from such a place, it was a struggle for us to find a new community, a place to belong where we could be encouraged in our faith. Oh, we found a good church. We made friends both at work and in church. But overall, the kind of community we were searching for always seemed just out of reach.
As believers, we need community. We need relationships. We need gospel encouragement. We need brothers and sisters in Christ who know our struggles and who are walking with us in the journey of faith. We need people who see us wandering from the path of grace and point us back to the gospel. We need what Paul and other New Testament writers exorted the early church to do for one another:
"Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing." 1 Thessalonians 5:11
"But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." Hebrews 3:13
"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." Hebrews 10:24-25
"Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters." Hebrews 13:1
"Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." Romans 12:15
"Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted." Galatians 6:1
"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." Ephesians 4:2
"Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing." 1 Peter 3:8-9
"that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine." Romans 1:12
"I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. Give recognition to such people." 1 Corinthians 16:17-18
Over the years, we've learned a few things about community. For one, community doesn't exist naturally and has to be created. And not necessarily by programs and events. Though programs can gather people together into one place, they can't create close relationships. Community has to be desired and sought after by individual people. It has to be created, labored over, nurtured, and fought for.
I've also learned that real community takes risk. It's takes a willingness to stop pretending, to give other's an authentic glimpse of who we really are, scars, wounds, and all. I say risk because there is always the chance that the other person will ignore, reject, or mock our efforts. Yet while there is risk, there really isn't anything to lose. Because we have Christ, we have everything. We can risk loving others without getting anything in return. We can seek out real community, trust others with our pain and struggles, even if we are rejected. Our identity is secure in Christ. God's love for us is secure, there is nothing we or anyone can do to change that. Because we are confident in his love, we can boldly invite others into our lives without fear.
Another lesson I've learned is that there are those who don't understand or don't appreciate the intimacy that comes with community. No matter how hard we try, there are people we'll never go beyond the surface level with. I've learned that is okay. When we trust God and reach out to others with the goal of honoring and glorifying him and building up the Body, he will provide the community we need. It won't be easy and may take hard work, but it will happen.
Lastly, I've also learned along the way that the members of the Body aren't perfect. Like a family, there is strife, misunderstanding, hurt, and grief. We let each other down. But despite that, community is worth pursuing. Jesus thought so. He pursued us, his Bride, unto death. He bought her and redeemed her and claimed her as his own. If he believes she is worth it, we should too.
Since our early marriage, my husband and I have fought and worked hard to find community. Here are a few ways we have done so:
1. Be vulnerable first: Often, we have to be vulnerable first. We have to take the first step to share with others about ourselves. We have to be intentional and move beyond talking about what we did at work the past week or the latest cute thing one of our kids said. It takes trust to make that first step. Trust not in the other person, but trust in God and who we are in him. It's a hard first step and sometimes it is not reciprocated. But if we remember Christ, and the steps he took on our behalf, how he pursued the lost, even though he was despised and rejected, how he loved the disciples even though he knew they would all run when he needed them most, we can step out in faith and do likewise.
2. Welcome new people: When new visitor's have come to our church, we have welcomed them with open arms and invited them to a meal. Over these meals we have gotten know people and shared our life with them. Sometimes this happened at a restaurant, other times in our home. We continue to invite them, even if it's not reciprocated. Over the course of time, we have developed close friendships with families because we were willing to reach out and welcome them into our lives.
3. Read books together: A long time ago, a friend invited me to read a C.S. Lewis book with her. It was a great way to share a common experience, learn together, and talk about deeper issues together. Since then, I've invited women to read books with me. Sometimes it's one person, other times it's a few. We share what we are learning and grow in faith together. A book opens the door to deeper discussion about what is truly going on in our lives and in our hearts. It becomes the means by which we share our true selves. We voice our struggles and share what God is doing in us. We learn from each other, encourage one another, and rejoice at what God is doing in each other.
4. Travel together: One way to develop a deeper connection with someone is to travel together. Whether it's to a conference or on a vacation, spending extended time with someone else provides many opportunities to talk at a deeper level. For the past five years, our family has traveled with a few other families to Tennessee and rented a house together. This has created a deep bond and connection, forging memories through shared experiences. It's given me a glimpse of eternity where we will be gathered around the table with brothers and sisters in Christ, feasting and celebrating the wonders of our Savior.
5. Serve others: Whether it's lending a car to someone who needs it, babysitting a friend's child, or bringing someone a meal, showing your love to someone through service goes a long way in building community. Sacrificing your time to help someone else has a great impact and facilitates friendship and community. Jesus modeled this in his life and calls us to do the same.
Friends, we need community. God created us not to live in isolation but to need one another. He uses us to encourage and help one another. We can't wait for community to happen, we have to seek it out. It takes hard work. It takes intentionality. It's even messy at times. But it's worth it.
Don't you agree?