Every now and then, someone says something that is so true and so obvious, yet so shocking, that I can’t get it out of my head. Like a rock in my shoe, such a thought continues to irritate, trouble, and stimulate my thinking. One such truth that has haunted me for years is something the late Dallas Willard shared. He observed that “What passes for Christian community in some churches is actually just carefully calibrated distance.”
Ouch! When I first heard this, I was tempted to rationalize it away as an overblown exaggeration or a rhetorical zinger aimed at producing guilt and manipulating emotions. But Dallas Willard was not known for being manipulative or sensationalistic. His approach was more carefully reasoned, thought through, and measured. So I would invite us to reflect on the truth Willard has put his finger on, even if we can think of happy exceptions to it.
Of course all human beings yearn for some level of community. We are wired to be in relationships, even if some of us don’t need very many relationships to be content. A basic human drive is to know and be known.
But we learn from experience that relationships can also be difficult. Community requires hard work. Like some Facebook relationships, knowing and being known is complicated. In the normal course of all relationships, there is hurt, disappointment, and frustration. Sometimes we decide such relational heartburn is not really worth the risk.
There is more. Our yearning to be in relationship is also complicated by our yearning to be unencumbered, to be free, to be able to do whatever we want to do. Every relationship cuts into our personal autonomy. Every friendship exacts a price on our time and emotional energy. Every community we involve ourselves in comes with some sacrificing of our personal preferences.
And because of these two factors, the risks inherent in relationships and the loss of personal freedoms, we maintain a “carefully calibrated distance” at Church, at work, even in our families. If you get burned on a ministry committee, or have your feelings hurt by a church leader, or feel underappreciated by fellow Christians, you will think twice about really opening yourself up in the church community. Understandably so.
However, the darker side of our carefully calibrated distance is our uncritical acceptance of the cultural values of consumerism and narcissism. If a relationship or community doesn’t meet “my” needs, doesn’t feed my ego, doesn’t excite me, doesn’t appreciate me as I think it should, then I’ll just withdraw. The unwillingness to stretch toward someone different from ourselves often betrays our own ugly biases.
I understand our honest struggle with the difficulties of being a healthy community, but I think we ought to also be aware of our darker reasons for keeping community at arm’s length. With all that acknowledged, I want to reaffirm my ardent belief that New Testament Christianity is every bit as communal as it is individual. Following Jesus intrinsically means following him in community. Christian faith is decidedly a team sport. Settling for carefully calibrated distance is to fall far short of who we are called to be God’s people. Being in community is not easy, but it’s a vital part of what it means to follow Jesus in the world.