The old joke says ‘Church would be awesome if it weren’t for the people’ and amidst a hearty chuckle, we sense a twinge of truth. Community is made of up human beings just like you and me - doing the best we can with what we have. They are places where imperfect people, those of us who walk with a limp, commit to share life together, to cheer one another on, support one another, and practice following Jesus together. But because community is made up of all kinds of people with a variety of personalities and issues, these are bound to rub up against one another. Disputes, conflicts, and brouhahas’ will arise in any community. Even the healthiest communities.
A healthy community is the forge where we learn how to be in community. Where we can experience healing from our shame and liberated from our frenzied estrangement, and learn how to be loved by God and others. When we feel most unlovable along with the shame and desire to run away and hide - that's when we need faithful, forgiving friends the most.
Shame and its isolation drive us in the opposite direction of the source of healing we so deeply desire. This healing is found in relationship with the God-who-loves and with some faithful, forgiving friends.
Healthy Community vs Unhealthy Community
The demarcation of healthy or unhealthy and spiritual or unspiritual church communities is not the absence or manifestation of conflict. Through the Love Paradigm, health is determined by how we deal with conflict when it arises – and it will. How we deal with conflict will directly impact the depth to which communities can actually form and become safe places to be.
It is during times of conflict and misunderstanding that a community is called to double down with extravagant, self-giving love. The deliberate choice to pull those who hurt us closer and tenaciously resist the urge to push them away.
This can be very, very hard. This is love.
Remember, this radical embrace of love and forgiveness is not condoning the unhealthy and hurtful things in a person's life. A healthy community that practices self-giving love and forgiveness helps create a safe space that fosters healing, reconciliation, and genuine support for the process.
Healthy faith communities are a gift of grace as well as a tenacious choice to love the other - even when they bite.They are characterized by self-giving love that includes 70 x 7 choices to forgive.To forgive even before they repent. [In many ways the benefit for the offended is experienced by their act of forgiveness.]
But WOW!! - this is hard to walk out. When it's you being attacked and slandered it is hard to genuinely embrace those who hurt you. It is a whole new level of vulnerability. Choosing to love in the shadow of the fear of being hurt again is terrorizing. It requires a lot of grace, especially when it is for the umpteenth time. It is here community serves the victim as well. Creating space of love and safety for them to choose to forgive, and to love again. It is here that what we really believe about love is really tested.
We know that love is never coercive, and this means letting those who choose to do so, to walk away, and to hide. For some, the light of genuine love is too much to bear in the darkness of their self-loathing and pain. It can be very difficult to deal with one's pain in any context, regardless of how safe it is. Sometimes people choose to live with the pain of what they know, which for many, has become their identity. A lonely way to live. A healthy community leaves the door open for their return.
Finally, we must surrender our utopian ideas and schemes of the perfect community as they simply do not exist. I am reminded of Bonhoeffer’s wise insight:
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.
This path takes persistence and rhythm of forgiving and being forgiven. Loving and allowing ourselves to be loved. This can’t be bought on Amazon. It’s not a one-size-fits-all program we purchase from the church growth gurus. Rather, it is the slow work of the Spirit in collaboration with people who have been captivated by the Divine affection.
[Of course, we need common sense. This doesn’t apply in relationships where there is chronic, physical, or emotional abuse - where a person is unable or unwilling to own and deal with their stuff. However, these folks can still be lovingly embraced by the community with appropriate boundaries in place.]