“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
– African proverb
Lasting relationships require hard work. Anyone who’s sustained a friendship for more than a year or two knows this. So does anyone who’s been married for any length of time. I will sometimes say to Carrie, only half in jest, that “It’s a minor miracle that any two people can consent to love each other and stick with each other for a lifetime!” This is why I believe it’s a major miracle when an entire community of Christians can consent to love each other and stick with each other for years on end.
If being a healthy Christian community was easy, everyone would be doing it. But as Eugene Peterson has noted, “Church is composed of equal parts mystery and mess.” We sometimes erroneously believe that the “early Church” represented some golden or pristine era of the church. But have you read the New Testament? Go check out Mark 10, or Acts 5, or 1 Corinthians 5, or Galatians 1, or Philippians 4, and you’ll be reminded that the first century followers of Jesus had the same human struggles with sin, pride, immorality, tribalism, and self-centeredness that we do. Living out the Christian faith in an intentional and shared community has never been easy.
But if we want to grow in Christlikeness, so that our lives reflect Jesus’ character and goodness, the way to spiritual maturity is through community. There simply is no other way. Even monastic communities are, well, communities! Why is this? Here are three of many reasons: First, we were created for community. God called Israel to be his treasured possession for the sake of the world. Jesus gathered his disciples to preach the good news of his kingdom reign. The Holy Spirit empowered the earliest churches to go into all the world. Our human communities echo the eternal community of love that is present in God the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Second, without community, our commitment fades. Saint John of the Cross observed that “the virtuous soul that is alone… is like the burning coal that is alone. It will grow colder rather than hotter.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that we need each other “because the Christ in my heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of my brother.”
Third, to thrive in community, we must acquire the virtues that make this possible. By joining oneself to a community, one of necessity must learn better to share, to give way, to consider the needs of others, to practice good manners, and to speak the truth in love. In other words, God’s curriculum for becoming more generous, grace-filled, forgiving, and righteous includes the hard work required to sustain shared community. Without the joys and frustrations of living in community, we cannot hope to practice and hone the virtues of Christlikeness.
We are called to be a robust community of faith. Some aspects of community are easy and fun. Others are challenging and difficult. But I’m convinced that the best way for us to grow in the image of Christ is on the bumpy, exhilarating, up-and-down road that we call “community.”